Who is intelligent….?

Curious Rascal
5 min readAug 9, 2023

Cost centre 3 broke my heart last year when she said to a medical professional…’mummy doesn’t think I’m very clever…’. There is no excuse. I have a lot to repair as well as think about what I send forth. But it pushed me into thinking what exactly is ‘clever’?

My daughter is neuro-diverse which today covers a broad spectrum of abilities. I know deep down she is a bright child and she proves it on many traditional academic metrics but she also fails on those same types of measurements. I like to think we can recognise and appreciate what a range of attributes inform us about a person, however as a society I’m not sure we do a great job.

Intelligence is broadly defined as a mental ability enabling us to learn, understand, adapt and use our knowledge or mental acuity. These faculties form general intelligence and we employ IQ tests to assess a person’s level of such. However along this broad definition, psychologists vary in their emphasis and as to whether intelligence alone is a sufficient tool. Some believe true intelligence emerges from the ability to adapt over the ability to learn. Others suggest via a concept of ‘Fluid intelligence’ the aptitude to solve new problems but without relying on knowledge from previous experience (learning). Sadly Fluid intelligence is something that declines after the age of 40. Which explains my inability to use an uber modern tv remote control! Still others believe without rationality or intuition so called intelligence leads to sub-optimal thinking or discuss behavioural biases and how despite the basis of intelligence, most of us can still be foolish.

But this still seems rather singular to me. I have known people who on any academic scale appear to be rather ordinary but place them in an alternate situation and they know how to shine. And vice versa. I am also familiar with incompetent smart people. This intimates intelligence is much more nuanced in how it manifests but also in how we should assess or categorise it. My thinking is in many of us, intelligence is specific, boundaried, probably needing additional skills or thought processes to be truly useful and applicable. So I was intrigued to read of Howard Gardner a Harvard researcher’s proposed theory of multiple intelligences highlighting various ways to process and apply knowledge. Eight specific types we could possess alone or to varying degrees.

  • Bodily-kinesthetic : The intelligence to perform activities requiring strength, dexterity, hand eye co-ordination or balance.
  • Interpersonal (emotional) : The capacity to detect and respond appropriately to the moods, motivations, and desires of others. Self awareness, empathy.
  • Intrapersonal : The ability to be introspective and self-aware of inner feelings, values and beliefs and to self regulate.
  • Logical-mathematical : The tendency to think conceptually and abstractly, to discern logical or numerical patterns.
  • Musical : The capability to produce and appreciate rhythm, pitch, and timbre.
  • Naturalistic : The skill to recognise and classify relationships between species in the natural world.
  • Verbal-linguistic : Well-developed verbal strengths; the intelligence to grasp and communicate concepts via words and symbols.
  • Visual-spatial : The capacity to think in images and visualise accurately and abstractly.

I appreciate the thrust of the theory as it recognises distinct types of ‘smart’ than mental gymnastics alone. However some suggest the above are talents rather than intelligence which I presume means talent towards or in something is not an intelligence. This is interesting as I had assumed many talents were driven by intelligence.

But I digress.

What I am advocating about intelligence is that it is not a straightforward or definitive topic of understanding. It feels an aspect of our nature we have turned into an academic thesis. My sense is what you believe about intelligence, beyond general intelligence — the types and how it reveals — is personal.

So let’s move on assuming we can identify our innate smarts. According to Psychologytoday.com, high general intelligence is correlated with ‘positive life outcomes’ including health, performance at work and income. Although intuitively this statement should have a footing, statistically it is not easy to prove — partly as IQ tests as a measure of general intelligence are controversial and in some cases nonsensical creations. Which is also curious because throughout our lives we use tests of intelligence to determine outcomes — school and university entrance, psychometric testing to secure a job, even one-upmanship in crossword puzzles or scrabble.

But if general intelligence is a causal factor. Can you or our society increase its level of general intelligence? There is a question as to why nature thinks it is relevant to increase our brain power. If we exist to propagate our genes, what is the need for higher cognitive functioning? Physical evidence suggests the size of our brain has increased three fold from when we first walked upright 3million years ago which would imply we have required greater intellect as our lifestyles evolved (or perhaps our unfolding intellect through improved nourishment, health, longevity delivered our improved lifestyles?) In more recent times over the last 100 years, according to BBC.com, on the basis of IQ tests our IQ scores have been steadily increasing placing someone as a genius today versus someone born then. Although we can speculate environmental and genetic factors have contributed we cannot be conclusive or specific in our deductions.

‘Mysterian thinkers’ believe our brains are not able to solve certain problems; some things will be and are beyond our mental capacity. Yet that doesn’t stop us trying. But the truth is, we cannot pinpoint exactly what determines intelligence in any one individual as the gene for intelligence has not been discovered. However research elaborates on a significant genetic component inherited from your parents (well apparently mostly your mother — sorry husband!) But environmental factors do augment — both pre, during and post birth. My understanding (and obviously I’m not a scientist) is we can attempt to enhance these environmental influences by taking action to boost Fluid intelligence (the ability to learn and retain new information), challenging ourselves and ensuring openness to novel ideas. The later of which create new synaptic connections (neural plasticity) positioning the brain to learn more. So I’m optimistic, one day I can be as smart as my Cost centres….

By the way. Cost centre 3 is breath-taking in ways I’d never imagined. I make sure to tell her about her marvellousness every day. She might think and go about things in a unique style, but to me that makes her even more intelligent….

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Curious Rascal

I'm keen to understand more of the world, people, history, science, making sense of the random because it helps me in life and improves my thinking.