What is Intelligence? (Towards An Integrated Conception of Braininess)


Introduction: On Love and Light-Sabres

What is Intelligence?

It seems like an easy question. But it really isn’t. I’ve been thinking about intelligence for years, and I have yet to find a definition I entirely agree with. Of course, there is a very real likelihood that I am not intelligent enough to understand the concept of intelligence. If this were the case, though, the implication would be that intelligence is something akin to The Force – only known to the chosen few initiates. This may well be the case, but I think I do recognize advanced thinking when I see it – and even if you are going to insist that I will never myself wield the light-saber of advanced cognition, I should at least be able to distill a working understanding of how it buzzes and swishes.

We all have some kind of intuitive understanding of what intelligence is, and if pressed, we may be able to come up with a plausible natural definition. All of the formal definitions I have come across seem incomplete or inelegant. They are invariably taxonomies of what intelligent people are able to do, rather than a nice neat, all-encompassing definition of what intelligence actually is.

Perhaps intelligence is to the mind what love is to the heart: an intangible, subjective experience that slips away the moment you subject it to too much scrutiny. Perhaps intelligence is like those old ‘Love is…’ cartoons, and all we can do is to sketch a few cute scenarios in which we can see it played out, but we can never actually see what it is.

But perhaps intelligence can be properly defined. Perhaps there is something beyond the cute quips and imprecise checklists. Perhaps the disparate notions of intelligence – drawn from computer science to anthropology, from design to education – can be stirred together and carefully reduced in order to reveal the essence of the thing.

“Real intelligence is a creative use of knowledge, not merely an accumulation of facts. The slow thinker who can finally come up with an idea of his own is more important to the world than a walking encyclopedia who hasn’t learned how to use this information productively.” — Susan Winebrenner

A Taxonomy of the Mind: Researchers, Superheroes and Grandmasters

In my long quest to understand intelligence, I have asked almost everyone I know what they think it is. I’ve had a lot of strange looks, but I have yet to find anyone who can actually nail it down. In particular, cognitive researchers seem to have a very narrow and, frankly, disappointing notion of intelligence. Most of their studies rely on IQ tests and the ability to recall (meaningless) information as objective measures of their unstated conceptions of intelligence. It is for this reason that a great many of their research results remain questionable.

More broadly, people seem think that intelligent individuals are superheroes who’ve somehow acquired a combination of the following powers:

  • Knowledge. Intelligent people know a lot. They seem to retain information like sponges. Reference the dinner guest who can regale us with the Latin names for obscure animals and with his extensive knowledge of the not-so-Dark Ages.
  • Understanding. Intelligent people seem to understand even complex ideas and processes quickly and easily. Their great gift is to simplify complex ideas intuitively. Seeing through to the crux of an issue is very much a part of this process.


  • Reflection. Big minds take the time to think. And then to think some more. And then to think about what they’ve thought about. Reflection is like weight-lifting for the brain. Advanced practitioners might not look like much with their bodies in Spandex, but if you could put their minds in tights, they would be very buff indeed.
  • Making connections. I call this the generative tendency: smart people tend to find connections between different subject areas. Often, these connections are formed from elements drawn from very different fields. The result is a series of unusual hybrids: innovative ideas, new perspectives and fresh approaches. Great thinkers are synthesists – they see connections on many levels and are able to generate interesting new insights from this ability to see linkages on multiple levels.
  • Curiosity. Intelligent people always want to find out. This is why scientists are almost always thought of as intelligent: they know that even the best answers can still be questioned, and that there is always more to discover. Intelligent people ask questions at least as often as they give answers.


  • Problem-solving. Smart people are always on the hunt for new problems to solve.
  • Quirkiness. The truly cognitively gifted always seem to be a bit strange. Whether is it their hair and clothing, their eating habits, their living arrangements or their off-centre behaviour, the illuminated always seem a little weird to the rest of us. Because they’re always questioning and ruminating, they seem not to take much stock in how other people tell them they should live their lives.
  • Perseverance. The neurologically nifty tenaciously sink their teeth into ideas and don’t let go unless you open a hose on them. By the same token, when they realise an idea does not have merit, they lift a leg over it and trot over to the next interesting thing.
  • Consequential thinking. Like great chess masters, the mentally masterful always consider the effects, long and short-term, of their ideas and actions, and adjust them accordingly. They think strategically, and they do so to a degree that is almost automatic. Eventually, this leads them to spot patterns and trends; again like a chess masters, because they will most likely have seen similar scenarios before, and have played through the possible variations in their minds before arriving at an ideal solution.
  • Diversity. Smart thinkers usually have a great range of interests. There’s the business leader who’s mad about jazz and old cars, the engineer who loves opera and John Steinbeck – and the physicist who enjoys painting and making toys. Only very boring and uninspired minds care only about their speciality.
  • Openness. Being open to new ideas, and being able to handle conflicting, contradictory ideas in their minds without insisting on a solution, are important signs of advanced thinkers. At the same time, intelligent people engage in structured thinking – and do not simply accept the ideas that come their way. They shine the bright light of critical interrogation at them and ruthlessly question them until they prove themselves honest.
  • Enthusiasm. Intelligent people are enthusiastic about ideas. There is almost always a definite sparkle in their eyes and a wag in their tails.IMG_0474


  • IQ. Don’t make me sick. IQ has no place on this list.


“It’s not that I’m smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” – Albert Einstein

Consider how many of these living geniuses embody many of the attributes described above…

  • Elon Musk
  • Neil de Grasse Tyson
  • Richard Dawkins
  • Bill Bryson
  • James Randi
  • David Attenborough
  • Bill Gates
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Garry Kasparov
  • Craig Venter
  • Sheldon Cooper (He’s not crazy: his mother had him tested)IMG_0475

What’s really interesting about the luminaries on this list (with the possible exception of the last) is how they have turned their talents to the good of humanity. This makes me think that there must be some kind of moral aspect to intelligence. It seems to me that great thinkers do not simply ruminate in isolation, and that they share the products of their intelligence in such a way as to help individuals and / or society. (I think of helping people as ‘good’ in a universal sense, and hurting them as ‘bad’.) This has also been true of all of the great geniuses of history: Shakespeare, Tesla, Einstein and Da Vinci, to name but four. They share their ideas, and their ideas are aimed at the good. This means that the term ‘evil genius’ is an oxymoron, and those bright sparks who share nothing at all are not so bright.

Conclusion: A Sublimated Conception of Intelligence

“Action is the real measure of intelligence” – Napoleon Hill

For me there are two unifying principles running though all of the attributes described above. Neither of them is immediately explicit, though. The first boils down to wisdom, which I define as follows:

Wisdom: The sublimated essence of what is meaningful and useful extracted from the dedicated pursuit of truth and deep experience.

The second strand involves a strong social aspect: the sharing and dissemination of ideas, with a definite trend towards uplifting society. Intelligent people always share the products of their intelligence.

Hence, my definition of intelligence… Drum-roll please…

Pause for effect….

Intelligence is the intentional pursuit and acquisition of wisdom, which is subsequently shared and used towards the benefit of others.

This definition covers it all, I think. It weaves in all of the separate aspects of intelligence into a nice neat little bundle. But the definition of intelligence itself needs to be intelligent. As such, it needs to be malleable and entirely open to revision. I am happy to keep this post open and to make revisions as I come across new and different conceptions of intelligence.

One of the great things about intelligence in the twenty-first century is that it acknowledges and embraces the wisdom of crowds. I thus look forward to your diverse responses, suggestions and contributions.



Don’t forget to look me up on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/SeanHCole


About Sean Hampton-Cole

Fascinated by thinking & why it goes wrong➫ (Un)teacher ➫iPadologist ➫Humanist ➫Stirrer ➫Edupunk ➫Synthesist ➫Introvert ➫Blogger ➫Null Hypothesist.
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6 Responses to What is Intelligence? (Towards An Integrated Conception of Braininess)

  1. Thank you for your comment.

    Between you and Roy, you’ve given me much to think about. I now think the final definitions of both wisdom and intelligence are in definite need of refinement, and will be going back to the drawing board to try to figure out a more encompassing way of describing them.

    I am going to take my time on revising my definition, I hope you’ll check back in, in a few weeks. I will place a ‘revised’ somewhere in the title so that you know.

  2. Intelligence: if someone understands me, they’re intelligent; if they don’t understand me, they’re idiots.

    On a more serious note… your training is excellent. Your writing is excellent. But your conclusion isn’t up to scratch. You’ve introduced an unsupported concept: ‘for the greater good’. And you haven’t argued for it.

    I would suggest that there are many intelligent evil people. Evil geniuses. The entire Nazi top command structure were intelligent in the extreme. George W Bush’s advisors were intelligent (I’ll exclude him). Verwoerd was a genius. Not a shred of good in that list.

    Sure… they can argue that they were indeed working for the common good… just their definition of it. And there’s the problem. There is no objective definition of ‘for the common good’. It’s one of the chief failings of utilitarianism as a practical philosophy.

    No. A definition of intelligence has to be morally neutral. It’s fine to add some kind of morality clause if you’re talking about ‘how to be a decent, good, beneficial intelligent person’. But it has no place in an actual definition of intelligence.

    Head for my SlideShare page and look at my presentation — ‘The Brush Shaped Being’ — that I delivered at the Internetix conference some time back. It incorporates many of your points, in a different metaphor. Here’s the link: http://www.slideshare.net/royblumenthal/the-brushshaped-being.

    • Hi Roy.

      Thanks for your comment, as usual!

      I must tell you, though, that I disagree quite fundamentally.

      True intelligence has to be aimed at the advancement of others. And I think we can all pretty much agree on what that would entail. There is a universal, fundamental morality.

      Saying that Hitler was a genius in his own way, and that he thought what he was doing was for the good is, with respect, a naive take on morality. Hindsight hasn’t made him evil, his actions during the Second World War made him evil. Verwoerd may have imagined he was doing good, but the international community disagreed even then.

      It’s a simple concept: Whatever doesn’t hurt others and improve lives (on an individual or social scale) is good and, I argue intelligent.
      Sitting alone in a lab or behind a desk or in cave somewhere without sharing the fruits of one’s prodigious mind is meaningless, and thus unintelligent.

      Using one’s brain power for hurtful reasons is equally unintelligent. (Hence Einstein’s eternal regret at being involved in the development of the H bomb.)

      Think about it this way: If intelligence is a toy which is aimed at hurting others, it isn’t a very good toy. If it is meant uplift, educate and develop a child, it’s an excellent one.

      • Two things…

        1. Using the phrase ‘true intelligence’ indicates a judgement stance, a relativism: ‘When that person speaks of intelligence, it’s incorrect; when this person speaks of intelligence, it’s correct.’ I think the rhetorical error here is ‘The Straw Man’. (Not sure. Well have to look it up.) Whatever the name of the device is, what’s happening is that a concept is introduced and argued for: intelligence. A conclusion is drawn, using a factor not included in the argument. Then the rebuttal is denied using the factor that wasn’t argued.

        2. You may very well be right that a moral requirement needs to be present in a useful definition of intelligence. You may also be wrong. I’m open to you being right. Or wrong. Not the issue at all. The issue is that your piece has not at all argued for the moral component. It’s a bit of deus ex machina. The author WANTS that component in, and simply introduces it from nowhere, asserts its verity, and continues, incorporating the component as if it were previously posited and argued.

        I’m not trying to assert that you’re wrong for wanting a moral clause in the definition. What i am trying to do is draw attention to (what I perceive to be) incorrect reasoning. Thought hygiene is only possible through a sort of non-partisan examination of one’s own assertions.

        So, while your thinking might be right about the moral component, the argument you’ve presented doesn’t support it.

      • You may have a point about me not bring the moral aspect of intelligence to the fore enough to weave it into my conclusion. I shall try to remedy the situation today.

        Remember, though, that I was trying to sublimate a universal definition of intelligence. All I have ever seen are incomplete ones. I think we can all agree that intelligence (with a small ‘i’) is relative. I was aiming at trying to define what ‘true’ or overarching or big ‘I’ intelligence is. I still insist that Intelligence is bigger and more profound than intelligence. The project I set myself is somewhat akin to trying to whittle down a solid definition of what ‘love’ is. You might see it as being different in every situation and with every relationship, I reckon there has to be some fundamental core.

        Who am I to make this judgement? Just a humble blogger who happens to find this kind of thing interesting. (I may well be commuting a fallacy, but it isn’t the an ad hominem – ignoratio elenchi perhaps, but that is easily remedied.)

        The same applies to morality. Cultural customs aside, there is good (helping) and bad (hurting). Relativism focusses too narrowly on the differences in how these are expressed, and not enough on what unites them.

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