Germans are intelligent now?

Screenshot anime Minami-ke.

“You can just go to America!” The USA has the highest proportion of people with a long education, but Japanese schoolkids do as much homework in a day as American kids do in a week, and a German high school diploma is roughly the equivalent of a Bachelor’s Degree in America.

More fun with Quora! Humans can ask the most amazing things. “Why does Germany tend to have a large amount of intelligent people?” This question is correctly marked with the label “Questions that contain assumptions” but is answered with great seriousness. There is even a short answer-wiki that sums up the consensus of the answers.

My first reaction was pretty much today’s subject heading. Germans are considered intelligent now? That was certainly news to me. But then I am Norwegian, while Quora is still somewhat America-centric. And in Norway, Americans are considered stupid (and fat and lazy). Of course, these are simply the stereotypes, we are well aware that there are many who are not. Even that stereotype may be wrong, since it is largely based on tourists. For a long time, America was the only country rich enough that even stupid people could afford to go abroad for fun. Therefore, the observation of stupid Americans.

As for Germans, the observation here in Norway is that they seem to be suicidal. German tourists rent a small boat and go out to sea when a storm is coming, then drown. They decide to hike in the mountains when a blizzard is coming, and freeze to death. They fall into raging rivers, or into cracks in glaciers, or drive with summer tires on icy narrow roads. Not what we consider intelligent, but I suppose they do well enough in their homeland, where nature is largely reduced to decorative parks rather than a main player in everyday life.


The generally agreed answer is that Germans are not more intelligent, exactly, they just have better education and live in a society where intellect is regarded more highly and money less, compared to the USA. German schools teach children many seemingly useless things, because a cultured German is supposed to have broad interests, including things that rarely earn money, like literature and arts. And because of that culture, they keep up with this knowledge later in life as well.

If I may here, I will point to my previous entry,  where I mention that children who learn many different things will have a head start on learning later, because as an adult you can associate things with what you already know, which is much more effective than learning something in a void, isolated from the rest of our life. I am surprised if American children don’t also learn many “useless” things, but perhaps these things are chosen differently, and the role of school in America may be more similar to daycare for a longer time than in Europe and specifically Germany.

One point that is mentioned repeatedly is that higher education is free in Germany. Actually I was of the impression that this is the normal in the civilized world, except if you want to attend an elite university and you don’t have any particular qualifications to commend you other than money. Well, it is that way here in Scandinavia, and evidently also in Germany. Of course, it is still not a life in luxury – you usually need to take a part-time job or borrow some money for your living expenses, even if tuition is free. Unless you are lucky enough to live with your parent(s) or working spouse within a short distance from the university, it may not be exactly literally free, but close enough that it won’t hold back those eager to learn.

But perhaps more important than the formal education is a culture where coming across as “cultured” is looked up to and respected, in much the same way as being rich is in America. You want to have a number of fully stocked bookshelves in your living room when guests come over, including classics you may not actually have read. You want to be seen at the opera or theater, and you want to be able to discuss arts and sciences instead of just the weather.

This is not just Germany. The Japanese are very much into this cultural refinement, and being intellectual is a badge of honor even if in many cases it earns you substantially less money than those who are less academic. There is some of it in much of Europe as well, and it used to be some of it here in Norway too when I grew up. We have always been a bit Americanized for a European country though, and we still are, although we may hesitate to admit it.

One thing however where Norwegians and Germans are on the same side, is the feeling that being exceptional is a bit suspicious (unless it is in sports, then it is great). If you are resourceful, you should be a little better at everything, not committed to one thing where you are the best of the best. People who specialize are referred to in Norwegian as vocational idiots (loosely translated, the original Norwegian word would probably be stopped by most English profanity filters.) This is a typical European attitude. An American may ask: “If you are so smart, why aren’t you rich?” but in Europe, we might ask: “If you are so smart, why do you only speak two languages?”

One thing is the same on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: The day still only have 24 hours, and you cannot do everything in a lifetime. You have to choose. Germans often choose differently from Americans, and this is probably why many of them come across as more intelligent. They have used their time differently.

Improve the ability to learn?

Screenshot anime Minami-ke

“You try to get good marks by studying just to deal with the tests ahead.” That’s a bad idea. The brain is not that easily fooled.

Let’s play Quora again! Here’s a question in the category Neuroscience: How can one improve their ability to learn?

There are a couple good answers there, most notably living healthy and be physically active. A little caffeine would probably not hurt either, for most people. But this is not really a question that should be confined to neuroscience. Learning is a process influenced by many factors. Let us look at a couple of them.


To stick with neuroscience at first, how do we learn? We learn in three phases, four if you count the fleeting phase of sensory input. Next is the bottleneck of short-term memory. On average, an adult human has the ability to keep 7 items in short-term memory, but this ranges from 5 to 9 without a huge impact on daily life. You may be able to increase this number by 1 with systematic training, and it may give you an edge in a few situations. Like remembering Norwegian phone numbers, which are 8 digits. ^_^ (Seriously, for some years most of the calls I received were people dialing wrong number. The surge of smartphones has nearly put an end to that though.)

In practice, short-term memory does not have the huge impact one would expect. Most things we notice are either deemed unimportant and quickly forgotten, or passed straight on to working memory. While we hold things in short-term memory just for a few seconds, working memory may keep things floating around for several minutes at least. Memory loss after concussions and electroshock imply that memories may not be transferred to long-term memory until after half an hour or two, but some of this processing is surely subconscious.

If we had short-term memory but not working memory, we would not be able to make sense of things like novels, scientific texts or poems, where we have to remember much more than a handful of words, but don’t commit every detail (or even most of the details) to lasting memory. We automatically select the parts we think are important, and keep these around and put them together into meaningful structures, such as mental images or stories. It is unclear to what degree our furry friends have the same ability, since they can’t talk, but our use of working memory seems pretty special.

If the working memory runs full, which it easily does during focused study, you can not add more without losing some of what you already have. There is another bottleneck in the transfer of knowledge from working memory to long-term memory, which is encoded as actual physical changes in the neurons (nerve cells). At a minimum, the sensitivity of certain synapses (contact points between neurons) is changed. Over time the physical size of synapses may change, new synapses may grow, and the tendrils of the neurons may change in shape or size a little. In a few parts of the adult brain, new neurons are born. This applies mostly to the hippocampus, a small part that seems to serve as the brains “index” where links to memories are laid down. A lot of memories exist in the adult brain that cannot be recalled. Electric stimulation can cause such memories to appear, but there seems to be no system in them, except a rough categorization into smell, sight, sound etc. Without the hippocampus, memory as we know it cannot exist, although primitive conditioned reactions can bypass it.

Transfer from working memory to long-term memory is greatly aided by sleep, notably deep (delta) sleep which helps brain cells grow, and dream (REM) sleep which helps integrate memories. Also, during sleep we don’t cram more data into the working memory, so it gets a chance to unload.

Recent studies show that moderate physical activity also helps the brain encode information from working memory to long-term memory. This could be because our species did not originate in chairs, but our ancestors spent much of their non-sleep time on their feet. Or it might be as simple as the increased blood flow caused by a more vigorous heartbeat.

This explains why strategic use of sleep and exercise can improve learning, all other things being equal. It also explains why cramming for long hours is wasted time, and it is better to study in intervals.


But neuroscience is not the only aspect of learning, and not the one that makes the most difference in practice, except for the few where it does not work as it should. There is much that can be done to improve learning through the “software”, the data structures, rather than the “hardware” of the brain. I want to say a bit about this.

Adults learn mainly by association. Babies have nothing but basic instincts to associate with, but have a higher ability to just pack random data into their brains and retain them. Then again they spend more than half their time in REM or delta brainwave states, with delta even appearing while awake for a while. As the infants become children, this ability begins to fade, and in teenagers it goes downhill fast. For the rest of our lives, we depend heavily on association.

If you were introduced to many different experiences as a child, you will have the hooks to associate similar things. For instance, if you spent a year of your childhood in a foreign country, you probably have a rudimentary knowledge of the language. This makes it a lot easier to pick up that language later and learn to speak it fluently.

What if we simply don’t have the relevant experiences? Well, we can still learn through repetition. I have occasionally mentioned Spaced Repetition, a system where you recall a fact repeatedly but with exponentially increasing intervals, so as to recall it as close to possible before it is forgotten. It is possible to learn utterly alien things this way, but it takes some time. You cannot do this just before an exam, to put it that way, or just before you go on a vacation to a foreign country and need to understand a bit of the language.

Another strategy is “bridge building”, where you learn something unnecessary but related to what you already know, and then use this knowledge again to learn what you really need. Arguably much of school is spent doing this, learning useless stuff so that we can bridge the gap from counting on our fingers to making a Mars rover. Of course, different things are useful for different people. But learning by association is so powerful that it can be used as a conscious strategy to learn otherwise meaningless information.

The impressive memory feats of memory artists are usually done this way: By associating new data with existing structures in a form that is not necessarily entirely sane if you were to describe it to an outsider. For instance, English is my third language and I may want to remember the word “gaffe”, a social blunder or embarrassing mistake. Being already familiar with the giraffe, which has a similar name in my native language, I may imagine a giraffe tripping over its own legs. There is no actual connection between gaffe and giraffe (I looked it up), but it causes my brain to build a “bridge” from a word I already know to one I don’t. Your giraffes may vary.

The more associations we build to a new fact, and the more vivid they are, the better we learn. Part of the “more” is location. You may have seen people who walk into a room, can’t remember why they came, and have to go back to the room they came from. Then they remember. So that shows that even a small change in location can influence memory. We can turn the tables on this by learning something, then going to another room and recall it. This can be enough for the brain to not archive it as location-specific, but general knowledge. (Of course, if we only need to remember it in one specific place, it is best to learn it there if possible. Or at least somewhere similar.)

Neuroscientifically, it may not be strictly necessary to go through all these tricks to learn things. There are a few scattered persons who seem able to remember pretty much everything in reasonable detail – whether they want to or not. This is a mixed blessing at best, as an endless torrent of memories runs through their head all the time. Remembering just the things that fit into our world and that we meet repeatedly makes life rather easier. So that’s why, if we expect to need something we learn, we should focus on just these two things: Integrate it in our world by linking it to things we know, and repeat recalling it, preferably in different places. Good luck!

Do this for 5 years

Screenshot Sims 3: Sim meditating outside

Meditation is good for body and mind. (But playing The Sims 3 is more fun.)

Another question from Quora: What can I start doing now that will help me a lot in about five years?

The asker identifies as a 23-year old student, but the answer I will give here in some detail applies to pretty much everyone who is not a child and who expects to live for another five years or more.

Get started with meditation and/or brainwave entrainment.

Get started today, because the benefits accumulate over time. They actually compound, as in compound interest. Meaning: Not only is your brain slightly improved each time you meditate, but after you have meditated for five years, each 20-minute session is more effective than it was when you started. After ten year years, it is even more effective, and so on. After decades of reasonably regular meditation practice, meditation is amazingly powerful. You can enter into a deep state of meditation literally in a heartbeat, faster than a single breath. I am not making this up, I just tested this standing on my cold kitchen floor before I started writing this entry. There are others who are far more attuned to meditation than I am. But the point is, the sooner you get started, the more difference it will make every day for the rest of your life.

A habit of meditation will actually change your brain in ways that are visible on a tomography, but this takes many years. The changes first happen on a microscopic level. As more and more connections form in higher levels of your brain, the way it functions is slowly improved. This is how meditation becomes more powerful over time. It is not pure magic, although it was indistinguishable from magic until a few years ago. (And thus was often ridiculed by the would-be scientific classes of non-scientists.)

Get started today also because it does not take any time, so you won’t lose out on anything else you do. Meditation and brainwave entrainment both reduce the time you need to sleep to retain the same wakefulness, concentration and body repair. Most of you probably sleep too little as is, so I don’t recommend you sleep less. But you can, if you don’t want to be more clear-headed, energetic and healthy than you are today. A rule of thumb is that half an hour of meditation replaces an hour of sleep, but an hour of meditation does not replace two hours of sleep. In other words, you cannot simply replace sleep with meditation. But a moderate amount of meditation – up to an hour at least – will actually be free or more than free, leaving you as much time as before to do all the other things you want to do in life. More time, actually, especially as you get more attuned and your meditation becomes more powerful.

Secular meditation is now widely taught. If you already have a religion, you may want to learn the form of spiritual practice that is practiced in it, whether it be meditation, contemplation, chanting, holy dance, ritual prayers, holy reading or something else. But I will assume that the reader does not already practice wordless prayer or something equal to it, and recommend that you take up scientific meditation.

Rather than instruct you in meditation, as I did when the Internet was young, I think I should just refer you to the mostly harmless website Project Meditation. I am not really affiliated with them, I just hang out at their forum occasionally and also use their brainwave entrainment product, LifeFlow. You don’t need to be a customer to use their other services, including a thorough introduction to meditation, and a very good section called Principles of Meditation & Entrainment. It is written by one of the forum members, not the site staff. This particular person was the reason why I decided to go for Project Meditation rather than their more advertising competitor. His writing resonates so much with my heart that I would recommend him over myself if you want advice.

The text also refers to brainwave entrainment. There are various technologies for doing this, and the LifeFlow sound track used three of them. There are also visual systems. I recommend first practicing meditation without entrainment for a couple weeks, then use entrainment if you want, and eventually you will no longer need it for ordinary meditation. You may use them for special purposes perhaps. I use delta entrainment as a prelude to sleep, since I have Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome and cannot naturally produce deep sleep early in the night. But I would not recommend a newbie to use delta entrainment. I have recommended it before, but it seems to cause various nasty side effects in untrained people, or at least some untrained people, such as headache or seeing double. I guess it is a bit like asking a couch potato to run a competition sprint. Start with something easier.

Project Meditation has a free 10Hz sample you can download. Looping this MP3 file, you can use it for as long as you want, so you don’t need to buy anything unless you want to proceed to the more fancy stuff. There are also various other free brainwave entrainment opportunities on the Web, including some YouTube videos. Video can help you concentrate in some cases if your mind tends to wander a lot.

Again, let me say: You don’t spend time on meditation. You gain time from meditation. The exception is the first day, when you learn what it is about and decide on which technique to use. After that, it is free and more than free. It improves your brain, it improves your immune system, and it makes you feel better throughout the days and years remaining of your life.

One small warning: I only recommend a modest amount of meditation for ordinary people who want to stay ordinary people. Excessive meditation can cause dramatic changes in personality, seemingly supernatural experiences, and in some cases actual psychosis (insanity), at least if there is a family disposition toward it. 20-40 minutes a day should be fine, but meditation for hours a day should only be undertaken under the guidance of an expert and after conferring with health professionals. Of course, the same goes for eating several pounds of oranges a day, so I am mostly disclaiming here.

Marcus Geduld, superhero of the mind

Screenshot anime Minami-ke

It is natural for young people to feel constrained and uncomfortable when people think extremely highly of them (at least people of their own gender…) but hopefully at our age we have outgrown this.

I ran into this fellow on the Quora website, in itself one of the most promising initiatives of the new century. A site for intelligent answers to intelligent questions, it attracts ever more people who either are highly intelligent, think they are highly intelligent, or both of the above. It is not a place where you ask about the height of Mont Blanc, but a place where you ask why Hinduism doesn’t send missionaries the way Christianity does, or what old people wish they knew when they were young. Stuff like that.

Ah, but I have praised Quora here before. Now to praise this Marcus Geduld fellow. First, I thought his name was a pen name, because Geduld means “patience” in German. For someone writing a disproportionate number of the thoughtful answers on Quora, that would be an ideal pen name. Let us just say, a fool really can ask more than the wise can answer. And even if the wise eventually manage to answer the question, the fool will either disbelieve them or already have wandered off. Patience is not just a virtue, in such a place it is a necessity! ^_^

I first noticed this person a while ago when someone asked the perennial question about how to deal with the tragic fact that most people aren’t as smart as $Asker-of-Question. There are various instances of this question, with slightly different wording, on Quora.  I cannot remember which particular version this was, but I remember the gist of the answer. It was, basically: Challenge yourself! You may think you are smart, and that may be true as long as you stick to the things you know and the things that come easy to you. But what if, instead of coasting along, you spent some time each day doing something just barely possible for someone with your talents? Learn a completely unfamiliar skill, or several of them. Read books that are above your level, that you need to reread to “get it”. In short, make yourself struggle. Then you will personally know how it feels to be the stupid person. Because we are all stupid people when we get outside our comfort zone.

This attitude seems to run through much of what Geduld writes. Don’t coast along, stretch yourself. It is the only way to grow. And he brings out numerous examples from his own experience, so evidently he actually does this habitually. He also kept a log of his mistakes for a long stretch of time – perhaps he still does somewhere. I have elsewhere referred to this as “automisanthropology”: The study of why I, of all people, am up to no good. Mistakes, dubious motives, fallacies, pulling the wool over one’s own I etc. It is a very useful study, and Mr Geduld has advanced much farther and faster toward the truth than I have. If you are anything less than a demigod, you should go and admire him already.

It would seem that Quora requires you to register before you get to see all the good stuff. I am not sure, I already had both Facebook and Twitter. But taking the time to get a Twitter account is well worth it to see this amazing person in action.

It is not just the disarming honesty and the daily mental calisthenics, but the guy is basically a Voice of Reason. Despite his claims to atheism, the voice in my heart agrees with him on numerous important issues. Also, it is a joy to read his posts. He does not let them go until they are shining brightly with luminous prose.

Maybe he’ll find out that I am stalking him, at some point. But I trust that he has progressed beyond the self-consciousness where being praised or criticizes by humans makes a difference to one’s sleep or appetite, or indeed makes the compass needle of the heart swing wildly back and forth. So it should be safe for my few readers to go off and stalk him as well – on Quora, at least. Not in the flesh, please. He is happily married already, to his best friend of course. Well, one needs to be two for the two to be one, so that at least is not something he can take credit for!

Books or money?

Screenshot anime Minami-ke (Kana and Fujioka)

I read books once in a while too. It is nothing to be ashamed of!

I came across an interesting question on Quora: A wizard offers you a choice: $40,000,000, or the ability to absorb one book’s knowledge instantly, once every week. What do you choose, and why?

There were some interesting answers. Some thought that with all that knowledge, you could earn more than 40 million dollars. (Where did that number come from anyway?) Some thought that if you had the money, you could read as many books as you wanted, and the process of reading them is much more enjoyable than just downloading them into your brain. Some pointed out that large amounts of money have negative effects on humans, even though they don’t expect it beforehand.

My favorite answer was that there are already a number of people who have 40 million dollars. But being able to absorb all that knowledge would basically make you a superhero, something that did not currently exist and had never existed before.

I am aware that my view is colored by my living in Norway. Money is not a big deal here. There is next to no difference in living standard between me and my upstairs neighbors, two single unemployables from a foreign country. If you don’t have money, the state will provide. If you have money, the state will take it, although gradually. If the Norwegian welfare state dissolves, whatever causes it is probably powerful enough to wipe out my fortune as well. We are talking about the end of the information age or some such. But whatever that would be, if I survive I presumably still have my knowledge.


In my actual life, I both work and read books. I certainly spend more time at work than I do reading books, but the truth is that I increased my employment from 90% to 100% last year not because I wanted more money, but because I wanted to help people more. I am not sure I have succeeded, but that was my intention. To me, work is an expression of love. So is my journal, and I’m not as good as I wanted at that either. Perhaps reading more books would help.

For in the current reality, I cannot simply put my hand on a book and absorb its knowledge completely into my brain. Even if I read it all the way through, I will rarely have understood it completely. This may be because I have a tendency to pick books that are a bit above me. If it is something I can easily understand, wouldn’t it be enough to read an abstract, summary or review? Unfortunately, I think I tend to reach a bit too high when I buy books, and so I end up finishing only a fraction of the books I start on. Perhaps I should try something easier next time…

Quora is quite interesting, by the way. Perhaps I should make a habit of fishing questions from there if I don’t have anything pressing to say. Or perhaps I should shut up if I don’t have anything pressing to say. Nah, you could probably not make me do that. Not even for $40,000,000. ^_^