Introduction: On Love and Light-Sabres
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.
- 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)
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