Luis Machado will tell you right away that there are "thousands of scientists making speeches and writing journals" about how intelligence can be modified, about the human brain's enormous capacity to take in and digest information, about how tickling a baby's feet will fire neurons in the brain and stimulate learning.
But it's the gap between what science knows and what the educational system uses that stirred the 54-year-old Venezuelan politician to design what B.F. Skinner calls "one of the great social experiments in the world" -- a full-scale, government-backed program to raise intelligence.
Now, the professor of sociology at Andre's Bello Catholic University in Caracas, and the author of six books, including The Right to be Intelligent, travels worldwide with his message that "genius is rare because the means of becoming one have not been made commonly available" -- a situation he believes is the responsibility of government to rectify. "I'm mainly a politician. I have dedicated all my life to politics," says the former secretary of the presidency and former minister of agriculture.
"One of the chief duties of a statesman is to be aware of the latest developments in scientific progress . . . the ignorance of politicians about the advances of science dulls progress more than anything else.
"I was looking at something to help me to think in a more creative way. When I read about these things (how the brain can be taught), I said that as a politician, if that is true -- if it is possible to raise intelligence in a systematic way -- then we would start the biggest political revolution ever. If intelligence can be developed, then every man has the right to be intelligent."
Appointed Venezuela's first Minister of State for the Development of Human Intelligence in 1979, Machado began a teaching experiment on a grand scale. He spent five years seeking out the world's best developed systems for learning and teaching thinking. With more than 500 seminars throughout his country, five one-minute national TV spots a night and a cadre of 40,000 volunteers, Machado began an unprecedented "intelligence revolution" based on the latest in how the brain works:
The Family Project. Volunteers use video in the hospital to show new parents the importance of stimulating the immature and highly malleable newborn brain through sensorimotor experiencessuch as touching or tickling.
The Lateral Thinking Course. Based on psychologist Edward de Bono's methods of problem-solving, this course teaches people how to look at other solutions, to go beyond the rational process of vertical thinking.
Harvard's Project Intelligence. A critical thinking course for seventh graders, including how to design a critical test of a hypothesis, how to abstract the key thought from a paragraph and how to analyze a problem into a set of subproblems.
Visual Alphabet. Designed by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam, this shows 3- to 7-year-old children a new way of processing visual information through an alphabet of circles, squares, circles in squares, etc.
The Chess Project. Teaches second-grade children how to play chess based on their making up a fairy-tale to understand the moves.
The initial project met with what Machado calls "a very big resistance. The unanimous reaction from everybody was that to raise intelligence was foolish, it's just an absurdity. I remember one university professor told me that this is 'a miserable odyssey.'
"There are some people who are not happy that other people can become more intelligent," says Machado. "That makes things more difficult for them. The moment you democratize intelligence it becomes a common good, and not something that belongs to a few."
But when independent evaluations -- including some by Harvard University -- showed that cognitive thinking skills significantly increased with every group exposed to the classes, Machado's experiment received worldwide attention. Colombia, Sweden and Bulgaria, among others, are exploring more programs.
"It is sort of the way Dr. Salk said people viewed his vaccine," says Machado. "About any new idea, at the first moment, they say, 'This is stupid.' At the second, they say, 'This is true but this is not important.' And the third time they say, 'This is nothing new; this is the same thing we have been saying all along.'"
"These innovations in science take 50 years to get into the educational system," says psychologist Cecil Clark, chairman of the National Learning Laboratory in Bethesda. In their clinic, he and partner Faith Clark have successfully raised intelligence in children with learning problems by applying learning and thinking techniques similar to Machado's, including de Bono's lateral thinking, whole-brain computer experiences, and neurolinguistic programming. "We're talking about a new brain technology," says Cecil Clark, "with antique methods of dissemination."
Clark attributes the increased interest in intelligence to the whole "reconceptionalization of the brain. We used to think the brain had a finite amount of energy. Now the holographic idea is more accurate -- that every neuron of the brain contains the information of the entire brain."
In addition, research into how the brain takes in information suggests that our concept of intelligence has been very narrow and has focused almost entirely on verbal skills.
"Education used to be transferring data from one generation to the next. But now that we're starting to understand how the brain works, we desperately need a much higher form of intellect, that can operate in all modalities of the brain."