Intelligence and environmental factors

How The Environment Affects Our Intelligence

The universe, we are told, is vast and indifferent to us. We are but particles in a massive vista that is simply too large for our brains to understand. That may well be the truth. But our brains are designed to create sense of what we see which means we have evolved to put all the bits and pieces we observe, together.

Take serendipity, for example. Even when it is viewed in a context as bounded as that of Semantic Search it is clear that it can be engineered to provide the feeling of an amazing experience.


This means that everything we do has an impact on our self and those around us. Every impact leads to further actions and has consequences. This is the core of Intentional. It is also the science behind stigmergy which is one of the concepts behind swarm intelligence.

Unpacking all this could easily take a book so I am going to simplify some of the concepts so you can see how we are all affected by things we don’t see and may barely understand. Let’s start with the counter-intuitive fact that we don’t think with our brains. We think with the world. This is known as the extended mind hypothesis and to better understand it consider that, in my case at least, if you take my cell phone away and I am in a strange place, I will be unable to easily navigate my way back home, I won’t know where to get food or fuel for my car and I will be unable to call any of my friends or email any of my business contacts.

These are all activities that require some considerable cognition from me. You taking my cell phone away did not in any way affect the cellular structure of my brain or the integrity of my neurone - the neural networks inside my brain that I have developed over time. Yet, my capacity to function in the world has suddenly diminished considerably just because I have no access to an external device to which I have outsourced a chunk of my transactive memory, much as we do with other technologies like Google search.

The same principle can now be extended to other external sources of information like ideas, knowledge and facts. Take away the tools through which we access all this and we soon begin to look like stumbling idiots.

Going further, lock me up in a room and take away my ability to communicate with the external world and my already diminished cognitive capability (because you took away my cell phone) becomes even smaller. This is known as the Actor-Network Theory. Basically, the theory says that everything we are and much of what we do is the result of our connection with people around us. Cut us off from that network which we build over time and yep, we become even bigger stumbling idiots.

We Are What Our Environment Makes Us

With these, admittedly brief, explanations in place we can now say that we are what our environment makes us. The environment is the totality of the local natural and man-made world we reside in. If you grow up in Norway at the feet of the Barents Sea, for example, the likelihood of your becoming a fisherman is as high as your becoming a world-class, long-distance runner if you happen to be born amongst the Kalenjin people in Kenya.

We all know how moody we get when the weather gets suddenly too hot, or too cold, or too rainy. The environment has a direct physical impact upon us which absorbs internal mental and physical resources to deal with. Although we think with the world the actual processing of those thoughts takes place inside our head. That process is physical and susceptible to environmental pressures, whether they be packed crowds in shopping malls the day before Christmas Day or a freezing wind hitting our face as we try to catch the train to get to work.

That is the basis of Stigmergy. Basically, the theory says that everything we do leaves a trace. That trace has an impact. That impact affects us and others. Did the freezing wind hitting my face made me feel physically bad? Exercising poor self-regulation I then externalized this feeling by snarling at the person standing in front of me for not moving fast enough in the train ticket queue.

My snarls elevated my cortisol levels as my stress response climbed (and did the same for them). I now ruined my day and that of the other person who may go ahead and ruin the day of someone else because I made them feel bad for no discernible reason. Take this chain of events, amplify it by a factor of five (because I refuse to believe I am the only person on the planet incapable of exercising self-control), take it to its natural conclusion and you may well end up with a first responder arriving at the scene of an accident with a life-or-death situation in their hand and already feeling fed-up, stressed-out and unfocused.

My hypothetical chain of events may appear somewhat improbable but as high-functioning beings who rely on a truly delicate instrument locked away behind our eyes to operate in the world, the neurotransmitters that govern it can play a pivotal role at key moments in our life.

In the micro-world of swarm intelligence flocking behavior that enables a massive number of birds to take flight without bumping into each other is a visual example of stigmergy. The flock doesn’t need a guiding central intelligence as long as each bird within its number can communicate sufficiently with the ones around it to navigate safely in flight.

Stigmergy also guides the decentralized self-organizing behavior of social media network members, ant colonies, bacteria, drones and, increasingly, robots and AI agents.

We Are Responsible For What We Do

Amazing as all this may be, there is a deeper subtext to it that impacts us directly. The Broken Windows Syndrome is in effect all around us. Our actions are part of the experienced environment of each moment for others as well as our self. This leads to effects beyond our visible horizon.

Just because we cannot see something we have caused or experience it immediately doesn’t absolve us from being responsible for it. Stigmergy says that we respond to our environment in a reflexive manner, but that reflexive manner, amplified by all of those around us, becomes a guiding principle that appears to be a higher-order intelligence. We've all seen massive flocks of birds undulate through the sky with no bird bumping into others and the flock avoiding any obstacles even though the birds in the center of it cannot possibly have any idea of what lies at the edge of it and their flight path is in direct response to the actions of those birds at the edge of the flock who do know that there is an obstacle in the way.

Stigmergy and Flocking Behavior

Similarly, we are now responsible for all of our behavior and its potential impact on others. This renders us responsible for the behavior of others because of the impact we have on the world they live in and experience. Do you really want to live in a ‘better world?’- then make it so through your actions, every single day.

## Go Deeper: Intentional - How to Live, Love Work and Play Meaningfully is designed to help you take charge of your life and its direction. 


  1. Cimino, Mario Giovanni C.A. & Lazzeri, Alessandro & Vaglini, Gigliola. (2015). Combining stigmergic and flocking behaviors to coordinate swarms of drones performing target search. 10.1109/IISA.2015.7387990.
  2. Olsen, Megan. (2011). Variations on Stigmergic Communication to Improve Artificial Intelligence and Biological Modeling.
  3. Correia, Luís & Sebastião, Ana & Santana, Pedro. (2017). On the role of stigmergy in cognition. Progress in Artificial Intelligence. 6. 79-86. 10.1007/s13748-016-0107-z.
  4. Theraulaz, Guy & Bonabeau, Eric. (1999). A Brief History of Stigmergy. Artificial life. 5. 97-116. 10.1162/106454699568700.