Brain cell(s)

I was having a conversation with Tyler Cruz last week and the topic came up of what constitutes intelligence. This has been an area of constant debate among academics for years and I don’t foresee the debate coming to any kind of universally accepted conclusion any time soon. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth exploring.

While it should be noted that I majored in psychology for my university degree, I appreciate that my understanding of “intelligence” may not necessarily align with yours. The irony, I find, is that the smarter or more knowledgeable you become, the more you start to realize just how ignorant you really are. A little bit of knowledge is a very dangerous thing.

And with that, let’s have a look at how we can go about defining intelligence.

Intelligence Is Not Academic Performance

This is a very common misconception and it’s one that has to be addressed. In my mind, the person who gets the best grades in school may not necessarily be the most intelligent. The two could be related, but you can’t assume one based on the other. The particularly gifted student oftentimes gets “bored” in class and doesn’t pay attention. The grades may suffer as a result of this and other circumstances. This doesn’t make the student any less intelligent, per se. Consider folks like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and you get the picture.

Knowledge and the Ability to Learn

Another connection that many people make is one between intelligence and knowledge. Again, while having a great deal of knowledge can certainly make you sound smart, I don’t feel this is exactly the same thing as intelligence either. That’s more a matter of memorization. Would you say that a person who can remember every capital of every country in the world is intelligent? Or would you say he or she has a good memory?

To be fair, having a good memory and having a wealth of worldly knowledge certainly don’t hurt. We do have to recognize, though, that a lack of knowledge in one area or another doesn’t make a person any less intelligent. Consider Albert Einstein, for instance. He was a brilliant physicist, but he may not have known as much about female fashion of feudal Japan.

Instead, I think one mark of intelligence is the ability to learn, to learn quickly, and to learn extensively. Being able to grasp a new concept or understand a new set of facts is an indication of a beautiful mind.

Application of Concepts

More on point, I think a great indication of intelligence is the ability to apply existing knowledge in novel ways. This is where we are able to separate ourselves from rote memorization. All scientists within a certain field of specialization will have roughly the same basic knowledge, but it is only those who are able to take what is known and stretch into the unknown (or less known) that can lay claim to a higher level of genius. The ability to apply previously learned concepts in new situations is a big part of intelligence.

Related to this would be problem-solving skills. You take what you know and you apply that knowledge to solve a problem. Spatial reasoning and abstract thought are equally important, as is the ability to articulate a complex concept in a simpler way.

Fine Line Between Genius and Insanity

By definition, a high level of intelligence is not normal. People who we consider to be “very smart” are necessarily at the tail end of the bell curve. What this means is that we can find ourselves at a very fine line between genius and insanity. Indeed, some of the greatest minds this world has ever seen may not have been particularly sane, and it is precisely because of those circumstances that they were able to achieve what they did.