I'm interested in intelligence and outcomes associated with it – such as health, ageing and lifespan.I investigate why people vary in intelligence and the consequences of being more, or less bright.
For example I have tested the relationship between intelligence and health, and between intelligence and lifespan.
I have also explored intelligence in children. Drawing is one of the few ancestral, cognitive behaviours of which we have direct evidence from the paleolithic. I find this intriguing. Some ancient bone pipes have been discovered, but we don't know what the music sounded like. With ancient art, the product of hands and minds from the deep past are right there for us to see. Awesome. Although we enjoy the process and the products of art without subjecting them to quantification, it is also intriguing to see whether there are aspects of art that are amenable to scientific methods.
We published the first paper showing that children, who are more genetically similar, draw the human figure more similarly, even when compared with other children who are also siblings. We also showed that drawing more accurately in early childhood is linked with being brighter, even a decade later.
I also explore intelligence in other animals, including dogs.
Our recent study with dogs found a measurable tendency of dogs that catch-on in one task being more likely to catch-on more quickly at other tasks that tap different domains.
Working with other animals makes it possible to exclude confounding differences in task performance that arise from sources such as wealth and life-style choices. However, you cannot merely say "now children, pick up your pencils". So we aim to develop new tests with good psychometric (measurement) properties.
I selected dogs for several reasons: dogs are more tractable than some species; they seem to enjoy our company, and tolerate the cognitive "games".
Our work on dog intelligence is rudimentary, so far, but it shows that the general approach is feasible. After all, it took a while for to develop good psychometric tools to assess intelligence in people.
In the future I'd like to find out whether the tendency of intelligence to generalise across tasks is mammal-typical, rather than particular to a few species. I'd also like to find out whether brighter individuals (within a species) tend to age more successfully and live longer.
In people, there is a small link between being brighter and experiencing better health outcomes.Testing this link in other species would be informative about whether being brighter confers a small but detectable biological boost for healthy ageing. It may be that the well-tempered brain functions like a sentinel, indicating something of the health of the organism as a whole.
Before all this… I used to make science documentaries.
Towards the end of my art history BA, I read a book of interviews with physicists called "Superstrings: A Theory of Everything?" edited by Paul Davies and Julian Brown; it was gripping. I wrote up a proposal for a film on Superstrings for Channel 4's science series Equinox (Unravelling the Universe). I made science films until our family moved to New Mexico.
This move provoked a career change since the dear Old Beeb and Channel 4 don't have outposts in the high desert. I'd made a film about health inequalities, and a film about intelligence. I decided to explore whether there were links between the two, and began a PhD investigating cognitive abilities in people. I tried to link learning about individual differences with questions informed by evolutionary theory.
A Border Collie pup, Jenny, joined our family. She stimulated lots of new questions. And caused me to learn that I am no good at "agility", somewhat better at herding. Jenny would pick up acoustic signals and attach them appropriately to referents (figure out what a word means). For example, she would look up at the sky if I said "bird" without any explicit teaching. This tendency inspired me to explore dog cognition more formally.