Understanding intelligence: You’re not as smart as you think you are (and neither am I)…

A lot of the things you learnt about the brain whilst growing up were probably wrong. In fact, over the last decade or so, most of the things neuroscientists knew (or thought they did) about the brain have been shown to be either incomplete or plain wrong. One of the things you might think you understand is intelligence – but you’re probably wrong!

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We place a lot of emphasis on intelligence in our society. We often admire or envy smart people, but at the same time denigrate them (as nerds or stereotypes with thick glasses). At the same time, we criticise obvious stupidity, and then go and act in ways that are insanely stupid (like driving drunk). We also have a lot of false ideas about intelligence. For instance, we assume that more attractive people are also smarter (there’s no correlation between looks and smarts), we believe that intelligence is fixed at birth (and that we lose intelligence as we get older – it probably isn’t and we don’t) and, when pressed to describe it, we usually fall back on IQ as the gold-standard measure (it’s not a complete measure, and most people have no idea what it actually is).

Let’s start then, with a basic definition of intelligence. A lot of people smarter than me have done this already, so I’ll give you the Wikipedia version (taken from a treatise on intelligence):

“A very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—”catching on,” “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do.”

In other words, intelligence is the ability to deal effectively with your environment in real-time, and to learn quickly from experience. It also allows for the ability to think in a complex manner, taking in and correctly processing a large number of variables.

If intelligence involves so many different abilities, why are we so fixated on IQ as a measure of intelligence? The notion of IQ, standing for intelligence quotient, has been around since the late 19th century and been measured by a variety of standardised tests. These days, it’s usually measured using a test called the WAIS (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Test). If you don’t know what this is, you probably haven’t done one. In fact, very few people actually get their IQ tested, and even if they do, the results are usually withheld. Tests like the WAIS measure around four dimensions of intelligence, usually verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, working memory, and processing speed. Although all of these dimensions are undoubtedly components to a person’s intelligence, there are many more, making IQ an imperfect measure.

Nevertheless, IQ is a reasonably reliable indicator of basic intellectual functioning. Now for a quick lesson in statistics. The average (or mean) IQ score (across the board) is 100, with a standard deviation (SD) of 15 (standard deviation is best described as the average distance of all the numbers in a sample from the average). IQ is normally distributed in a human population. This means that the same number of people score above and below 100 and that the spread of scores is the same around the mean. A normal curve lets us see that one standard deviation from the mean in both directions (in this case IQ scores ranging from 85 to 115) encompasses about 68% of the population. By the time we go two standard deviations (70-130) we have 98% of the population. This means that only 16% of the population have IQ scores above 115 (mildly intelligent) and only 1% above 130 (moderately intelligent). By the time we get to high intelligence level (>145) we have less than 0.1% of the population or 1 in 1000 people. This also means that 50% of the population have IQs of 100 or lower, with another 16% with IQs below 85 (very low intelligence). In other words, at least by the standard of IQ, most of us are average, many of us are below average, and only a very few could be considered smart.

Of course, all of us think we’re smarter than everyone else (a statistical impossibility), just like we believe that we’re better looking, a snappier dresser, a better driver, a better conversationalist, funnier, and more generally competent than everyone else. Of course we’re not, we just fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect – a sad defect in humans that makes us likely to overestimate our ability. Worse, the less we know about something (or the lower our expertise), the more we’re likely to overestimate our ability to succeed in that area. Which basically means that the dumber we are, the less likely we are to know that we’re dumb, and the more likely we are to assume we’re smarter than we are.

Who cares though? Surely IQ is just a fancy way of being a snob? It’s not without its controversies. For example, in the early 20th century, it was widely believed (by the scientific community) that black people were less intelligent than whites. Why? Because they scored lower on a culturally specific IQ test. In other words, the test was designed for affluent, well-educated white Americans, so when those with poorer educations, an impoverished background, and a different culture took the test, amazingly they scored lower. Thankfully these biases are no longer in effect, but IQ is still a reasonable predictor of ability (about 70% in fact). Although it can’t predict how nice a person, how good with people, how sporty, how good at conversation, how charitable, or how compassionate you’ll be, your IQ predicts your ability to succeed in academic testing and in disciplines that demand a high level of mental acumen (like medicine or theoretical physics).

But of course, there’s more to a human than his or her ability to solve maths problems. The one in 1000 of us who are capable of highly complex reasoning are certainly important; they’ve given us technology, modern medicine, and an understanding of ourselves and the universe. But there’s more to humanity than discovery. For most of us, day to day living involves the use of someone else’s smarts but, from our perspective, the important things in life come from our relationships with others, and our ability to do something meaningful. This brings us to the notion of multidimensional, variable intelligence – and it’s important for the rest of us.

It’s likely that some aspects of your intelligence are set by your genetics (although certainly not fixed in stone). The aspects measured by IQ can be trained, but only to a limited degree. This means that, with enough training you might increase your IQ score by up to 15 points, but you’ll reach a ceiling relatively quickly. It’s hard to up basic processing speed. And, let’s face it, some brains are probably better ‘wired’ than others, with better ‘processing power’. But pretty much everything else is dynamic and fluid. A huge amount of your IQ is determined by your upbringing and education. For example, in general, babies who are exposed to more words in the first two years grow up to be smarter (at least from a linguistic perspective). Sadly, this is one of those problems that are perpetuated by socio-economic status. If you’re highly educated, you’ll bring your kids up (probably) in a household where there is more complex conversation, so your kids will get to pass this on. Kids brought up in lower socio-economic environments don’t often get the advantage (among others) of exposure to complex conversation when their language centres are forming, so they don’t excel at reading at school, and then don’t often go on to further study, which limits earning potential, which perpetuates the cycle. In fact, the things you’re exposed to from the age of 3 months to 10 years have a huge influence on your intelligence. This works both ways – an enriched environment enhances intelligence, and an impoverished one decreases it.

By the way, don’t get conned by the so-called ‘Baby Einstein’ programs. Turns out that they’re a bunch of crap, and that leaving your kids in front of the TV with a video, or using an iPad app (no matter what it purports), is a great way to stunt their intelligence. Developing humans need complex, supported, loving interaction with other humans.

So environment plays a big role in your intelligence. And it’s likely that intelligence is a lot more complex than IQ. In fact, it’s been suggested that there are many dimensions to intelligence (beyond those measured by IQ), including linguistic intelligence, spatial intelligence, musical intelligence, kinesthetic intelligence (imagine dancers and athletes), interpersonal intelligence (sometimes called emotional intelligence), and intrapersonal intelligence (an effective model of self that improves our ability to interact with and learn from our environment). Most of these dimensions are dynamic, which means that, although some people are naturally gifted, most of us can improve them with work.

The concept of intelligence gets even fuzzier when we start trying to estimate it in other species. Brain size isn’t always an accurate indicator (although brain complexity probably correlates) and, as humans, we tend to anthropomorphise, meaning we place human characteristics onto other species and then gauge them by their humanness. Intriguingly, researchers are now conceding that, not only are many species substantially more intelligent than we thought (in ways that are quite different to humans), but that consciousness might be the result of any complex networking (although self-consciousness or self-awareness is another thing altogether). This suggests that many animals possess consciousness, and that artificial consciousness might arise long before artificial intelligence).

So now I’m (finally) going to get around to saying what I’ve been building up to for 1500 words. IQ aside, effective intelligence is not a fixed quotient. Instead, it is the product of your conscious actions, rather than your unconscious processes. Sure, your raw processing power is probably beyond your control, but an intelligent human is one who has taken the time and effort to build his or her capabilities across a wide range of attributes. Having a high IQ doesn’t make you immune from being a dick, rather, it’s the things that you pay conscious attention to, and the areas in which you work to improve yourself, that make you a better person. With enough attention and effort, pretty much all of this stuff is modifiable – we can build better versions of ourselves (we have the technology)…

So, to my mind at least, intelligence means working on building ourselves into better people, by paying attention to the world, recognising our flaws, and focusing on change. We can enhance our ability to learn from events by increasing our tolerance of unpleasant experiences (see here). We can improve our control over our actions by learning to view our emotions as dodgy information instead of absolute certainties (see here). We can enhance our interpersonal intelligence by cultivating compassion for others. And we can learn to recognise that we’re probably wrong most of the time (even if we’re convinced we’re right).

Chances are you’re not nearly as smart as you think you are (and neither am I). Isn’t it about time you started working on making yourself a better person (and hopefully, setting an example for those around you), rather than blaming the world for your shortcomings? If intelligence is about recognising what you can change, then doing something about it (in a way that doesn’t harm anyone else) is your best bet at being smarter.

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