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Jen are Smart

posted by Jen on 9/04/01

I've wanted to write this article for a long time, not so much to infiltrate your minds with my opinions on intelligence, but more so to get some kind of discussion going. After I wrote about my opinions on happiness, my inbox was flooded (OK, trickled) with e-mails from people with their individual takes on happiness. And I have to say, I probably learned more from all of you than I did from years of introspection. And just like my writing about happiness didn't necessarily mean that I know whether or not I am truly happy, my writing about intelligence doesn't imply that I think I'm intelligent.

Just to make what's probably an obvious distinction from the beginning, the words smart and intelligent cannot be used interchangeably. We use the term "book-smart" to describe people who study at will, but aren't necessarily the most intelligent people. Anyone with mediocre intelligence can apply himself and become exceedingly smart, just by studying vigorously and memorizing facts out of a book. A smart person, as I will define him, is the person who applies whatever intelligence he has and does well at school, succeeds in the workplace, etc. He's usually the one to bandy about big words with no genuine idea of what they mean. I remember sitting in my political theory class one day when the brainiest kid in class raised his hand and asked, "So professor, do you think it was expedient of Adlai Stevenson to appear as a character witness for Alger Hiss in his perjury trial?" My professor stared at him blankly for about ten seconds and finally asked, "Do I think it was expedient? Do you mean ‘Do I think it was speedy?' What the hell are you talking about?" My professor single-handedly humbled the most arrogant, self-important kid in our class. This was a crowning moment of achievement for me, friends.

Whether intelligence is solely reliant on genetic makeup, solely determined by environmental factors/experience, or a product of both genetics and environmental factors seems to be the major question for people regarding intelligence. So what do the experts say? Alfred Binet first defined IQ as (Mental Age divided by Chronological Age) X 100. According to him, if you are 8 years old and are capable of passing tests that most 10-year olds pass, then you have an IQ of 125 (well above average). IQ testers generally administer three types of tests: Verbal, Numerical, and Visuo-Spatial. So, if I consistently do well on IQ tests, if I do well on these verbal, numerical, and visuo-spatial tests, I'm deemed intelligent. These same IQ test creators staunchly believe that intelligence is an "innate general cognitive ability."

According to this guy, people who don't know their state capitals are dumb

Can we confine intelligence to the classifications of verbal, numerical, and visuo-spatial abilities? Many IQ tests are inherently flawed, not only as subject to human error and cultural biases, but simply because every IQ test has markedly different questions and dispenses dramatically different results for some test-takers from test to test. Yet IQ test creators claim that you should generally receive the same scores... The most fallible IQ tests will have questions like:

"A trichina is which of the following?"

a) a triangular structure
b) an ancient method of counting money
c) a parasitic nematode worm
d) an unscrupulous politician or lawyer

Any test that requires you to define obscure words like trichina is defective …and not just because I didn't know that a trichina is a nematode worm: Test creators claiming that intelligence is an innate quality should not be testing us on material that is necessarily acquired through study… As far as their visuo-spatial tests, I have learned that I have gotten "better" at some of the visuo-spatial tests through practice alone. Sadly enough, I'm a BIG dork and I have performed too many of these tests to know if I'm developing an ability to discover new patterns, or if I'm just remembering similar patterns from tests I've taken in the past.

Now, to poke some holes into the "innate" theory …what if I were born and raised in an environment completely bereft of intellectual stimulation, where my development was stymied to the point where sounds were words, and gestures were the medium of communication? If I were to take an IQ test, I would probably score a big fat zero on all of these tests, especially the verbal segment. Now, it's likely that I could have a brother who is raised in an economically stable society, with a family who sends him to school and encourages his educational development…and that same brother can go and score 170 on an IQ test. Both of us would be endowed with a very similar genetic makeup…yet his score would be 170 points different than mine. This example, while somewhat oversimplified, lends credence to my proposal that intelligence is an innate ability, but it can be improved upon, and our natural abilities call for certain environmental factors to be set in place.

Since most standard dictionaries define intelligence as the capacity to learn, let's use that as our starting point, although we should consider some qualifications to this definition:

1) Can people have a capacity to learn a lot in some areas and not in others. Can someone be "intelligent in math" and "unintelligent in verbal comprehension?"

2) Should time constraints be a factor? If one person completes an IQ test half an hour earlier than another person, is the first person more intelligent?

To the first question, I would have to say yes. Most everyone seems to be "more intelligent" in one area than the next. A colleague of mine made the interesting point that the truly intelligent people may have mastered both the logical and the creative ends of the spectrum. Speaking to the second question, I think time constraints should be considered on a case-by-case basis. My brother, who is mathematically "gifted," can definitely solve any math equation twenty times faster than I can. But then again, I wouldn't say my friend with dyslexia is any less intelligent than me, just because she takes un-timed tests. Also, let's not forget, Donna Martin graduates.  Besides, sometimes we just get distracted, plain and simple. Kind of like I do when I'm trying to write an "intelligent" article…

So what are the precise components of intelligence in my (limited) brain?

Logic and reasoning are the first characteristics that come to mind. What may seem like a rudimentary skill, the ability to problem solve in a reasonable fashion escapes many of the most "intelligent" people I know.

I love chimp movies

Plus, logic and reasoning seem to be the classifications we use to label primates as "intelligent" or "unintelligent." In the case of chimpanzees and orangutans, we consider them the "most intelligent" species next to homo sapiens primarily because of their ability to use logic and reasoning to get what they want. Of course, some of the really advanced chimps, like Amy from Congo, possess some of the more advanced verbal skills to be discussed next.

Almost everyone agrees that some variation of verbal and mathematical abilities are the bases of intelligence. As previously stated, this verbal component is somewhat problematic to me, as I don't think people with large vocabularies are necessarily more intelligent than those who say "merge" instead of "amalgamate." In most cases, I think people who use simple words to convey their ideas are more intelligent, as my political theory professor pointed out; they don't need to hide behind big words to make their points carry a lot of weight. I often find that I use big words when I am most insecure with my audience. However, I do think this capacity to learn a number of different vocabulary words and actually use them in natural speech requires intelligence.

As a subset of verbal acuity, a capacity to learn foreign languages should be considered as a worthy component of intelligence. This component seems somewhat sketchy to me, as I have found that anyone can become proficient in the more common languages, simply by taking classes, memorizing, practicing, and spending enough time in the countries. In terms of learning some of the more intricate, non-Romance languages, I can see where intelligence might come into play. A friend of mine immersed herself in a tribe in Africa and learned what I believe was a Bantu tongue; she can now speak it fluently. Given 6 months of intensive studying, could anyone learn this language, or any others for that matter?

Mathematical components of intelligence are a little more concrete, a little easier to characterize. The ability to solve different mathematical problems in a logical format is about as concrete and innate an ability as one can possess. Because while all of us can memorize words and develop a command of any language, mathematical abilities cannot always be acquired. Those of us who aren't mathematically intelligent can't just study and memorize equations. For tests, sure, we can memorize a bunch of patterns and then identify them when we recognize them. But for the most part, if we aren't mathematically gifted, we will have a difficult time grasping math from a logical perspective; we will never understand why and how it works.

I think imagination and creativity should be included in the discussion as well, at least in my (non-Mensa affiliated) book. I think artists, including (some) painters/sculptors/etc, (some) musicians, and (some) actors/playwrights reach a level of intelligence that logicians could never hope to reach. That intelligence relies, to a large degree, on a heightened level of perception. When a genuine artist constructs a work of art, he has the ability to perceive, recreate, and interpret the most minute details, from the faintest shadow above the shoulder, to the contrast of light and dark that will make the eyes appear to, at the risk of sounding cliché, "twinkle." While artists are certainly born with the ability, a large number of them acquire a great deal of their inspiration from their contemporaries. Almost all of the most gifted artists need an innovator to influence them in the first place. Most agree that Jeans Arp is the founder of Dadaism…if he hadn't gotten the ball rolling, perhaps more memorable artists like Max Ernst and Salvador Dali wouldn't have joined the movement.

In all this discussion of intelligence, I really haven't talked about the brain too much.

Back in the day, phrenologists divided the brain into 27 faculties and declared that these were the exact points where components of intelligence as well as personal character were located. For example, the faculties are given ambiguous labels such as "murder; carnivorousness, " and "sense of cunning." As you can guess, phrenologists were largely discredited in later years, but the study of the convolutions of the brain is still valid today.

I actually studied the brain carefully my senior year in college for one of my psychology classes. While the class was insanely difficult (for me), I learned many interesting, mysterious things about our human brains. For instance, when we memorize words to a song, there is actually a pinpoint location in our brain that corresponds with those exact lyrics. So, if we go back in time and recall the lyrics to an old favorite like "Cherry Pie," there is some metabolic activity going on in one precise location in our brain that hasn't been used in a while.

Our final exam question consisted solely of the following (abridged) question: You get into your and turn on the ignition. You start driving, turn on the radio and tune the radio while you are driving. You come to a red stop light and watch it turn green. You continue to drive when the aroma of freshly baked-bread comes into your nose. You are aware that objects are staying in place while the car is continually moving. You see a dog dart out in front of your car and you stop. (I can't remember the rest of the question). Describe IN COMPLETE all of the neurological activity that is going on inside your brain without omitting any steps. As you can imagine, we had three hours to answer this question. I covered almost 10 pages, front and back in very small type with all of the information I learned from the class. And I still ended up with a B minus. Just goes to show, your fearless author is not as intelligent as she would like to be…or am I not that smart? Or both? Who knows?

Donna Martin graduates!


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