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Cleverness is two marshmallows

Trevor Turner examines what is meant by emotional intelligence.


The cult of IQ has had a much greater impact on American lifestyles and values than it has in traditionalist Europe, and one of the few mystifying remarks of Marilyn Monroe was her insistence that she was "intelligent", because she had a "high" IQ. It has also been a long established truism, in British neuropsychology, that IQ was valid as a measurement of the ability to do IQ tests, and that this did reflect one's suitability to cope with a degree course or a specific level of technical training. But equally it has been accepted that personality, temperament, character, drive, call it what you will, have as much if not more impact on success in life.

Of course, measuring "success" in life is in itself an emotional issue. The critics of post-war materialist society, so prominent in the Sixties and Seventies but now sidelined by Nineties realism, regularly employed the term "value-judgment". And now we have Daniel Goleman's populist, but sensibly documented, American bestseller, suggesting (in Appendix B) that the Hallmarks of the Emotional Mind include its quick response time, its sense of certainty, but its sometimes fallible judgments.

Nevertheless, taken as a text for our times (and it is designer contemporary in its format - a short personalised anecdote leading into more technical explanations; brief sections within chapters; regular reference to modern cultural icons) the contents of Emotional Intelligence are considerable and important.

They are perhaps best summarised in that Fosterian phrase "only connect". For by delineating modern brain research, into the limbic lobe and amygdala particularly, Goleman has achieved an admirable synthesis of neural circuitry, psychological theory and popular common sense.

He develops a model of the emotional aspects of human mentality that links an emotional nucleus with outer ripples that are moods, temperaments and (if damaged) disorders such as depressive illness. He nicely connects the language of how we feel with the language of neuroscience. Thus feelings themselves are "limbic-driven surges"; anger becomes "cognitive incapacitation", anxiety turns into "full blown neural hijackings"; chronic worries are seen to be "low-grade amygdala episodes". Yet this is not a reductionist's text, having many references to Freudian insights and a concern for the "systematic emotional relieving" that is the core of psychotherapy.

Perhaps most useful, and optimistic, in this exposition is the considered review of useful studies at the pre-school and school-age levels of concern. Concluding with chapters on the costs of emotional illiteracy and the schooling of emotions, Goleman creates a powerful case for re-structuring what goes on in the classroom.

Quoting from research studies in privileged schools and from more pragmatic approaches in the inner-city nightmare of the paradoxically named New Haven, he shows the effects of Social Competence classes (three times a week) and reminds us of the plasticity of the brain in children. In other words, it is possible to re-tune the wiring in even the most damaged child, not by abandoning the three Rs and traditional teaching styles, but by infusing them with an alert and continuous emotional training programme that strokes the child with constant minor messages about dealing with anger, social phobias or impulse control.

In a sense, just as the brain is a mass of wiring soaked with neurochemicals and hormones that attach emotional significance to thoughts,memories or calculations, so the school needs to take on board these new approaches to understanding ourselves, this concept of the emotional soup in which children swim.

Critics will suggest that much of this is simplistic, too American in its cultural outlook, too reliant on research that remains itself in constant flux. Goleman has chosen his texts selectively; he has relegated to the notes (which are usefully informative and easy to read) the admission that IQ is related to Emotional Intelligence; he has adumbrated well-known sayings into a more technical language.

Nevertheless, given the usual run of popular science-as-therapy books, this is an honourable exception. The sheer simplicity of, for example, the Marshmallow Test in predicting children's impulsivity indicates how obvious are the connections between grown-ups and children.

And therein lies the nub of the question. How can we teach children to wait until teacher returns (and so get two marshmallows) rather than grab the one now? By somehow assuring them, I suppose, that teacher will come back, and by ensuring also that their teachers themselves do have emotional intelligence.

Trevor Turner is a consultant psychiatrist at St Bartholomews Hospital, London

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