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Dr. Grauer's Column - The Nature Of Intelligence

The Nature Of Intelligence: What Every Teacher Needs to Know
A Book Review of The Heartbeat of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben

Can our quickest witted students understand intelligence that expresses itself over 1000 years?

1. When was the last time you noticed or felt bliss? Wonderment! This are the learnings and positive sensations you can feel beyond measure, the real reason for that learning and striving, the learning the explorers and wise ones talked of, the talk that Joseph Campbell documented that put stars in our eyes. Where do we go for wonder? School? Peter Wohlleben, author of The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature, goes to trees.

So many people I meet feel like school and even science education puts up barriers between them and other life forms, rather than connections. If school and our teachers do not do an extraordinary job, our place in some kind of web of life becomes a sort of theoretical concept—what an irony! Are we learning what we can from this great web of life?

We humans appear to have huge brains relative to other life forms—at least, if you ask us! And yet, when it comes to many other creatures that move on earth, our senses are relatively weak—compared to a dog’s or elephant’s sense of smell, the seal or spider’s sense of touch, the bat’s echolocation, etc. How intelligent are humans, really? Are we even developing our highest intelligence and sensitivity? Is it even okay to do that in school, versus what we are doing now with our “curricular requirements”?

Writing this column, early morning at Yosemite - July 2021

Long ago, humans relied upon each of our amazing senses for survival. In nature, these senses gave us health. The color green calmed our minds and promoted healing. Humans developed a beautiful mind through far-sighted vision that was a source of imagination. Our sense of threat and attraction purred beneath the surface in nature. The sound of the ocean and thunder helped humans develop enormous sensitivity to the outer environment.

Today, we are drawn to spending phenomenal amounts of time looking into books and computers that require little natural sensitivity. That natural sensitivity wanes. We see less: In Taiwan, for instance, 80-90% of all high school grads need glasses. We sense less: German research recently showed that 3 to 4 percent of the population has lost their sense of smell. We care less: forests disappear, out of sight. Nothing in nature prepared us for the loss of distance vision, outdoor activities and touch. Why?

2. How’s your sense of touch?

Here is a game from Peter Wohlleben:

Blindfold a partner and lead them through the trees or brush, stopping at a tree of your choice. The blindfolded person now has to run their fingers all over it: the mossy bottom leading to the roots, the texture of the bark and tiny twigs, the diameter of the trunk. The smell. Next, walk the person back to your starting place and spin them around. Now comes the challenge: Will the person, blindfold removed, be able to find their way back to the exact tree? (Needless to say, this would be a “no brainer” for any squirrel.)

What is lost when our education engages the brain and not the body or whole “mind"?

Intelligent hands translate what we feel into pictures in our mind. Our touch (haptic) receptors actually help us with mental concentration. People who are out of touch with their touch don’t get the full intelligence out of any situation. So: what happens when we get most of our info out of smartphones (terrible name) and flatscreen TVs? Discuss!

Half Dome at Yosemite National Park - photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer - July 2021

3. Proprioception is sometimes called the “sixth sense,” after the well-known five basic senses: vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste. This is our ability to sense exactly where our body is. Outside, whether in nature in the crowded city, proprioception deepens our sense of connection with the outside world. But what if we are spending our days in chairs, indoors? People spend hours every week running indoors, on a treadmill, with no ambient sounds, sights and shifts such as nature throws at us? Nothing to respond to. No sudden change in the terrain. No danger or attraction. Not much need for balance. Is that even running, or is it just pounding a board with our feet? Discuss!

The human brain gathers subtle cues from the environment and, subconsciously, without even thinking, we develop awareness of our environment, and we even develop emotional responses. (That happens in the the anterior cingulate cortex, for you neuroscience fans.) In nature, we are taking unconscious readings of temperature, sound, and smell all around.

4. Our bodies change when we are disconnected from nature. For instance, pollen allergies are very new in humans, and nut allergies have spiked. Indoors 93% of the time, our bodies don’t have as much to defend themselves against. In my lifetime, allergies in humans have increased from 3% of the population to 7%. And as our bodies lose their ability to defend themselves against more substances, what’s happening in our heads?

Out of nature, are we underusing our senses? Out of touch with nature, how can we develop a sense of ecology? If we lose those senses, can we even know what we have lost?

5. According to Peter Wohlleben, trees must know something we don’t: humans have existed only 0.1% of the time trees have! Question: If we really believe in “survival of the fittest,” well then, what could this mean? (Answer: it means trees are fitter than humans.)

Of course, length of time alive does not correlate with most fit. To apply our 0.1% perspective is the part that is hubris that humans can move beyond if we are going to expand our own perspective and intelligence.

For thousands of years, humans practiced tree worship. What did those humans sense that we did not? (Tree worship was outlawed in Europe circa 725 CE, but has been integrated into most religions.) What did those worshippers see that we have forgotten?

In many cultures, theology became dominated by the idea of the supremacy of the human race. Civilized humans, sort of axiomatically, took it on faith that we were more important than other species. We were the most like God (who by the way, resembled a man). This is called anthropocentrism: we created categories of life that put humans at the top, plants on the bottom.

What would happen in the world if every teacher in the world flipped these categories?

Photo 1: The skin of a tree tells stories; Photo 2: Dead wood - photos by Dr. Stuart Grauer - July 2021

6. Research shows we feel better around trees: what’s going on? They release compounds into the air called phytoncides, a kind of antibiotic (not to mention, they release oxygen!).

The air around trees can be almost germ-free. Our immune system strengthens. Our allergies abate. Lung capacity improves. Inflammation is reduced. Our blood pressure drops.

Experiments show none of this happening in research on city groups. The good news is that the addition of trees in city neighborhoods raises life expectancy, among other benefits.

In Japan today, a doctor can write a prescription for a walk in the woods. If teachers care about the development of their students, why don’t we assign this as homework? Is learning from the natural environment a real part of school?

But, then, if we assigned walks in the woods, we might only find that our students, and ourselves, have either forgotten how or never learned to engage with a forest or natural ecosystem. We might walk through the woods, our brains all cottony with theories and regrets and to-dos. Outside the window of time it takes to inhale, we cannot even experience where we are right now. Think about that! Don’t think about that. Just sit in the woods.

How could we teach forest sensitivity? Are you willing to sacrifice spelling or algebra lessons to study it?

There are universities that offer degree programs in forest health training, forest therapy and, of course, forest ecology. The study of medicines and nutrients existing in natural, old growth forests, rapidly being replaced with sterile tree farms, is almost endless. Given the advanced state of education and research today, it seems terribly ironic that we have actually lost knowledge in forest medicine and with the ancient bond humans had with nature. (Though the reviews were not great, I really did like that 1992 movie with Sean Connery, “Medicine Man,” which shows how this plays out.)

7. Trees have brains—called roots! They are intelligent: Trees communicate with one another with great sensitively, through these underground root systems. In ancient or “old growth forests,” roots share sugar solutions that warn of danger. So, trees live in communities. These root systems respond when they hear footsteps. Many researchers have learned that plants experience sensations and respond to them. They have shown, for instance, how trees can sense footfalls better than humans can, and it causes them to transpire chemical compounds. Does this mean that trees are conscious, or sentient?

Trees feel pain, too: because every life form must, in order to react to harmful situations. What if all students could learn to understand that pain, what would happen in the world? What if we treated trees like students, as organisms to protect and develop, not to exploit 100% to our own benefit and 100% to their detriment? If you treat a tree like a sentient being, you are normally considered a fool (or, as in medieval Europe, a Satanist). Who decided that? Could there ever be some balance?

Woodlands are relentlessly and rapidly being turned over to agriculture and tree farms. Tree farms are basically plantations, or monocultures, and they function nothing like natural forests. Tree farms have few of the benefits to humans as old growth forests. They have different benefits, benefits that work well with roads and development. But they do not generate all those healthy compounds, or develop nutrient-rich understories.

Obviously, there was a time when trees and nature played much larger roles in our lives. As noted in the introduction, and as is also obvious, we’ve become more separated from natural ecosystems. Question: Does this have an impact on our intelligence? How? What would happen if schools were held outdoors in nature much more?

These old growth, big Redwoods lived a few hundred years before meeting the saw blade - photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer - July 2021

8. Right now, at this moment, California is on track for the worst drought, fire season, heat spell in 1,200 years. This does not happen in moist, old growth forests. An old growth forest stays cool, it is hard to burn down (even when natural fires clean up the understory), and it supports many thousands of species our students are taught very little about.

Not much is harming our world more than taking wood from clear-cut ancient forests. When trees die in a forest fire, they pass on nutrients through their roots to a neighboring tree before they die. If we could cover our barren, clear-cut zones with native, deciduous trees, we could end the extreme summers and droughts we’ve been seeing. As Wohlleben says, “Primeval forests are our most powerful allies in the fight against climate change.”

Is this one of those things that gets taught in kindergarten, pretty knowledge you sing about? How can we teach ethnobotany to our biology students? Do our law students know these old trees have no rights and are being steadily, illegally logged and sold? Have they ever witnessed a 2000-year-old tree being cut down and felt nothing?

Do our art students study forests? Have they heard forest healing music? 


In concluding, what I want reconsider is, what is intelligence?

Simply: Intelligence is sensitivity to the environment. We mostly live in urban environments and so that means intelligence is very different IN AN AGE OF CLEARCUTTING. For instance, treating our trees like biomass or like data versus treating them like sensitive life forms are two very different expressions of intelligence for teachers to grapple with. Today, a great many educators effectively define intelligence as: compliance or results of standardized fill-in tests. A great many zoologists define animal intelligence in terms of which animals do what we say. A border collie would gladly run into a buffalo herd for us on command, so we are sure it is the smartest dog in the world. And botanists define intelligence in plants as non-existent. I hope our understanding of trees and their special intelligence, an intelligence that manifests not in quick wit, but over centuries and even millennia, helps us rediscover the our own conception of human intelligence. I think that conception is lost right now. We are obviously destroying our own life support systems.

Maybe trees are more intelligent than we are. Maybe if we can re-learn how to have empathy for trees, we can reclaim some lost, human intelligence and sensitivity. My theory is that we can have more empathy for humans if we have it for trees—that we cannot intelligently deny our connection to this life form that has created our wilds and our homes, both. If we can immerse in the sights and sounds and feels of nature, maybe we can reclaim parts of our intelligence and some of our ability to love and to be human. Maybe I can experiment on my own self.

We are in a web of life and all parts of that web suffer when one is weakened. So how can any intelligence be on “top?” If intelligence is sensitivity to the environment, and one species is intentionally creating networks to destroy that environment for their own comfort, what could that mean? And what are the implications for teachers?

We talk of blurring the separation between ourselves and nature—but are our schools and teachers up to the task of mentoring or teaching this connection?

Stick around if you want to try the quiz, written for our school core value discussion cohorts. Thanks for reading this.

Click on this image to view a video of Vernal Falls at Yosemite National Park - July 2021

The Grauer School IQ Test!

If you are willing, go outside. Maybe you owe yourself or your students that time.

  • Can you try find a tree you’re drawn to, or thick greenery? Or, can you find any natural system at all?
  • Can you feel any breeze on your skin?
  • Can you smell any earthy aromas?
  • What can you hear?—any rustle of leaves, or birds, or something non-human produced?
  • Can you notice something so small you would normally miss it? A spider picking its way across a tree trunk.
  • What about the weather?
  • What’s in your peripheral vision? Do you use that much, anyway?
  • Shut your eyes. How do you feel in the space of a breath? Do you belong here?
  • Sit down. Do you feel closer to this ecosystem now?
  • What do you know about any of these trees or plants, or anything that grows green?
  • How sensitive are you to the environment? How connected? How intelligent are you?
  • How sensitive could you be?

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Writing this column, early morning at Yosemite - July 2021

Half Dome at Yosemite National Park - photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer - July 2021

The skin of a tree tells stories - photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer - July 2021

Dead wood - photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer - July 2021

Click on this image to view a video of Vernal Falls at Yosemite National Park - July 2021

These old growth, big Redwoods lived a few hundred years before meeting the saw blade - photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer - July 2021

Yosemite National Park - photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer - July 2021

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