Home » Tech » What is Intelligence?

What is Intelligence?

It seems like a simple question at first glance. Obviously, it’s how smart someone is, right? But what defines “smart”- ergo, what defines “intelligence?” It’s a surprisingly complex topic that’s been hounding psychologists for over a century. There are a lot of opinions on the matter, some controversial, some not, and some that are outright wrong. There are a lot of different factors that can and have to be analyzed to come to conclusions about it if a conclusion about it can even be reached at all. It sounds like a tall order, and, well, that’s because it is a tall order.

The first thing we have to do is try and establish our definitions. Online casino games are different from regular ol’ casinos, and the details matter. If we can’t even agree on what basic factors go into intelligence, then we have absolutely no hope of creating a rigorous definition.

You might be asking, why do we have to be so rigorous? There are a number of reasons. For one thing, the more accurately we can understand ourselves, the better we can identify trends and extrapolate larger facts. If it turns out that all highly intelligent people don’t like pineapple on pizza for some reason, that would indicate an evolutionary correlation between the two, and it would behoove us to understand why.

The second reason, I think, would be because it’s so gosh-darned useful. If you’re a company that specializes in inventing pioneering technology in advanced STEM fields, you want to be able to find the best of the best to work for you, right? In schools, being able to accurately identify who is smart and who isn’t would allow teachers to focus their energies on the students that require extra help. (Although I’ll get to grades and intelligence specifically, later on).

The third reason and this is me just speculating (as if this whole article isn’t me just speculating), is that we want to be able to identify intelligence in others. Not people, human beings, but in other species entirely. Cats, dogs, monkeys, and other animals are very intelligent- but is that really comparable to human beings? Perhaps.

How we measure the Brain

No, not literally. That pseudo-science is called Phrenology- and it’s completely wrong.

There are two popular measurements of intelligence that are used. The most well-known of the two is Intelligence Quotient (IQ). It’s basically a measurement of how well one is able to handle abstract and logical problems. Basically, one is given a test that will ask them to solve math problems, word problems, memory challenges, pattern recognition- the works, and then a number is derived based on standard deviations and age.

This ranking of intelligence via IQ is still one of the most prevalent methods because it also most accurately predicts long-term success in life. A high IQ means a high likelihood to be successful in life. However, this test isn’t perfect.

Otherwise, we wouldn’t be discussing this.

For instance, people who study for the IQ test do better on it. On top of that, there are a whole host of factors that influence your score. Socioeconomic status, parental social status, and even just how hungry you are can change your score. This unreliability is a problem in psychology. A lot of pop-psychology can be debunked by just seeing if their results come out the same six months down the line.

This is why the sixteen personality types (INTP, INTJ, etc.) aren’t really accepted. The tests will declare you a different personality every time you take them, so either the tests are flawed, or the whole concept itself is flawed. IQ still has credence because of how accurately it predicts, but that doesn’t mean we’d rather find an even more accurate measurement.

Howard Gardner created a Theory of Multiple Intelligences that presented the idea that people could be intelligent in a number of different ways. Eight, specifically. These eight intelligences are Naturalist (ability to understand nature), Spatial (3D visualization), Intra-Personal (understanding your own feelings), Inter-Personal (understanding others feelings), Musical (discerning pitch, rhythm, etc.), Logical-Mathematical (IQ, more or less), Existential (philosophical), and Bodily-Kinesthetic (being able to coordinate your body).

Meanwhile, Robert Sternberg, thinking along the same lines, boiled all these types of intelligence into three categories: Analytical (the ability to problem solve), Creative (the ability to adapt to new situations), and Practical Intelligence (the ability to handle everyday tasks).

Both of these systems seem very reasonable. At the very least, their work helped teachers appreciate their student’s various talents. However, the problem with them is that more research seems to indicate that there is some underlying intelligence that affects all of these supposed “intelligence’s”. Plus, the method that these “intelligences” are used in mainstream culture and education ended up boxing people into a single one of these intelligences, rather than viewing people as a collection of intelligences at different levels. For instance, using Gardner’s definitions, a pianist of some sort could very well be a musical genius, but they also can be great at basketball, or math, or literally anything else.

The (Flawed) Education System

All this is important because of education and how we approach teaching knowledge to the next generation. Everyone seems to understand that the system we currently have sucks. This is true for a number of reasons. I won’t get into the most political of them, such as teachers’ unions, public schools, and vouchers, but the gist is that the system we have attempts to use a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching everyone the same exact knowledge in the same amount of time.

However, if Gardner and Sternberg are right (and think, at least partially, they are), then everyone is unique, with different abilities, talents, and learning paces. One-size-fits-all will never work because everyone is vastly different from one another. Even twins growing up in the same household can diverge enough in their interests and talents to get wildly different grades in school.

This is the crux of what I think Gardner gets wrong in his definitions. What he’s defining could more accurately be described as talents and skills. These are things that can be improved over time through practice and hard work- and perhaps this is something that’s not included in intelligence definitions. The desire and willingness to work hard to achieve.

Take, for instance, two students. One shows up on the day of the exam without studying and gets an A. The other student has to study for a week and gets an A. Is the first student smarter than the other? Perhaps. If we look at them both years down the line, say in University, the first student is struggling because he now actually has to put in effort into his studies, while the other is managing easier because he knows how to study. Is the second student smarter? Perhaps.

Perhaps not. If we compared them both on an IQ test, one could be said to be smarter. If we compared them using Gardner’s method, we could say that the first student is more Mathematically-Logically intelligent- but where does the second student’s hard work fall into consideration?

Do grades offer any accurate measurement of a student’s intelligence? Some would say yes, but others would say that a grade only reflects one thing: How well you did on a single test. A student with good grades isn’t necessarily smart. It just means that he’s good at taking tests. Studies show, too, that when tested against a year after graduation, most students forget a majority of the knowledge they learned.

Which, of course, makes the student inside me scream, why am I even bothering?

From the (admittedly shallow) research that I’ve done, there seems to be little correlation between intelligence and one’s personality. The Big Five Personality Traits (unconnected to Gardner’s and Sternberg’s Intelligences), which include Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism, is considered to be one of the most accurate ways of measuring personality.

However, their only correlation between intelligence and these personality traits seems to be with Openness- one’s willingness to explore new ideas. That would make sense, right? Well, while the numbers I looked at do indicate a correlation, it’s a small one at best (r=0.30).

Animal Smarts

And of course, one could argue that we’re looking at intelligence from a prejudiced, human-centric perspective. After all, there are a number of animals in the animal kingdom that could be said to be intelligent. Monkeys, Cats, dogs, dolphins, ants, elephants, octopuses, ravens, magpies, orcas, and even some species of fish have been proven to share at least some of the traits that we normally associate with highly intelligent beings (ourselves).

Octopuses are amazing at problem-solving. Ants are capable of farming. Elephants can paint. Ravens can remember specific people. Dogs can be trained to perform tasks. Peters’s elephant nose fish have their own electric language. A beluga whale once learned to shout “GET OUT” at a diver in its tank. While most people would hardly deny that humans are the smartest animals on the planet, how on earth can we possibly measure ourselves against them? We can’t exactly sit an octopus down for an IQ test.

The world is a wild and amazing place, and understanding our own minds is vital to understanding it. More importantly, understanding what makes a smart brain tick is vital for ensuring the humanity continues to grow and evolve in the future- and not become stagnant. Like how variety in our genes is important for keeping the species healthy, if there is variety in intelligence, having a variety of it is vital too.

Understand how to properly grow intelligence- whether it’s one underlying trait or a whole bunch of ’em will change the course of humanity. I don’t even have to have some glassy-eyed dream to prove it, either. After the industrial revolution, when more and more people started going to school, IQ across the West skyrocketed. What used to be considered impossible is now taken for granted. We could hit another revolution like that in the future- if only we knew how.

Leave a Comment