Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Functional intelligence

From everything that I can find a phrase that I use often, "functional intelligence", does not appear to exist with any definition. So, am I about to make history by trying to make clear at least what I mean by "functional intelligence"? As far as thinking goes, dictionaries are clear about what intelligence means. Webster's describes it as "the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations "; "the skilled use of reason"; "the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)". It goes on to define "functional" as related to function, which is about performance, and for me the important "contribute to the development or maintenance of a larger whole". You can see in the mind of Heath Robinson, that his cartoons are about thinking of how to do things. Nothing wrong with his depiction of a way of preparing tea--somewhat elaborate, it's true, but it could work and may be appropriate in its time and place.

When I think of functional intelligence I try to envisage how people should be able to work out what to do. It's not to be confused with the fashionable "emotional intelligence", which is about being able to "perceive, assess, and manage... one's own emotions". It's not just about being practical or pragmatic, like the Saturday gardener who devices contraptions to do his jobs and leave himself time and energy to do what he really enjoys, reading the sports pages.

Functional intelligence deals with, for example, figuring out how to make things work without having to read a manual because you have had experience with one device of the general type and can realise that most other devices work in basically the same way. So, mobile phones, have a limited range of ways in which they can make calls, store information, etc., and you really can move from one model to another without needing to be retaught many things. It also works with the limits of probabilities. Example. When my father taught me how to drive he told me to work out when to enter traffic by rmembering how many seconds it takes to make a turn (say 2 at most) and counting that time space between oncoming vehicles. That way when your gap arrives (with nothing else changing) you can enter without having to do too much judgement. A bit simplified, but you get the idea. In Barbados, people tend to think you need about a minute to make a turn and then want to be sure by waiting for a 90 second gap, and then checking again, so on average drivers need about two minutes between vehicles before they enter traffic. Exaggerating a little? Not so much, it seems, when you're behind someone nervously looking right and left, and their car staying immobile for minutes with no traffic passing the junction.

I try to explain to my children that most mechanical things work in only two dimensions: they have parts that move horizontally or they move vertically. You vary on that theme by trying to see if something will go in a circle (or if it is ball-like, roll). One of these movements will help you solve most problems when a mechanism or one of its parts does not work. So, pull-push, right-left, round and round. So, "Daddy! I can't open the door." gets a "Have you tried turning the handle?" kind of reply. Still, people stand in front of something like a closed door and look like deer staring into headlights wondering what they should do next.

Nowaday, many things that are essentially mechanical have been complicated by electronics, that make the mechanical parts work. So, a car now has a computer chip to operate a lever to open the door and when the door is stuck you still need to move the lever but it's controlled by the electronic part. In the world of Wallace and Gromit, every activity needs to have a gadget invented for it (see the perfectly practical trousers to help you clean the ceiling and those hard to reach places). Most of us in the Caribbean would have no idea what to do with a lobster fork. We just crack the claws enough to be able to eat what's inside and suck hard for the trickier places. So, we are not going to head to Crate and Barrel to stock up on a set of these for our next BBQ.

Some aspects of functional intelligence are related to environment. For instance, if you live in a country that has had little association with some things we now take for granted because of "development" you will be lost when presented with some forms of contemporary packaging. You were used to just biting the corner of a plactic bag to open it, and using Scotch tape to reseal, and have no idea that you should do anything different with a resealable plastic bag. Consequence? Food that gets put away for later still dries out because of the gaping hole created by the bite and the absence of Scotch tape. Or you have not kept up with developments. You had an early CD player but the multi-changer was not something you knew. So, you have a stack of CDs that you load one after the other finishes, rather than loading the machine up with 6 or more at a time. So much for bright ideas.

Some aspects are related to upbringing. We are taught to wait in line for "our turn" so can move away from that at a buffet, when all we want is the dessert at the end but we stand "dutifully" waiting for those people who pick each salad item one by one, then add peas and rice grain by grain and pea by pea, and so on. Smart or functionally intelligent people, side step and head straight for the bread pudding and rum sauce, and could even be back for seconds before the "rice police" have filled their plates.

Anyway, try to observe what goes on around you and see how much functional intelligence you witness.


Brian said...

Sounds like common sense to me.

GregMarko said...

Dennis, the world of thinkers is a busy place. On Feb 14 after coming out of Quintuple Bt Pass surgery, I had thoughts about Functional Literacy and having been working on the concept since then. I also have functional rubrics and thoughts on fMRI research, my background is in Success Coaching and Cognitive Development and therefore see this a little differently then you. But as you and I know economists truly understand the "world". Write to me through personal e-mail for more discussion. By the way I found your blog through google of Functional Intelliggence. Take care, Greg