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What is intelligence?

Dad's response

One can often read that intelligence is what IQ tests measure - the common factor behind certain types of cognitive abilities. This g-factor is often considered a rather reliable predictor of success in educational systems and, to some extent, a predictor of job performance. It is relatively stable in life and can hardly, or not at all, be improved through mental exercises. However, it is rather questionable that intelligence, or more specifically, a high IQ score, covers all the different skills and knowledge types that produce success in human society and can help people to live a happy life.
The usual definitions

Intelligence is the mental ability to comprehend complex, abstract ideas, solve mathematical, spatial, logical, or linguistic problems; evaluate social situations, device plans and make judgments. See:

Intelligence is a common factor (the so-called "g"-factor) behind various cognitive abilities. See:

Intelligence is the first component in a statistical factor analysis ("principal component analysis"), calculated from test scores of various cognitive tasks in an IQ test battery. Therefore, intelligence is what IQ test measure. See:
Critics have argued that the common factor measured in IQ tests is simply a statistical artifact. They have pointed out that one typically gets one dominant first component in any factor analysis, which uses numerical values that are even slightly correlated. Other critics have pointed out that there seem to be more than one kind of intelligence - possibly three basic types. But the most fundamental challenge to traditional intelligence theories comes from the results of recent brain research, which is studying a wide range of brain functions. This research has shown that intelligence is not just a computation result of the neo-cortex (as if produced by a smart computer), but a complex process involving various parts of the brain that must work together to generate intelligence. For instance, it was shown that positive emotions play a major role in good memory - which is a component of intelligence. Creativity, another intelligent ability, is clearly related to certain emotional or physiological states - which are induced by various processes in the human body. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries where made under hot showers or relaxing walks in the park. A famous physicist (Feynman) believed that he had his best ideas while playing the drums and Albert Einstein used to play his violin when he had a mental blockage.

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My definition
Intelligence is the mental ability to comprehend complex, abstract ideas; solve mathematical, spatial, logical, or linguistic problems; evaluate social situations, device plans and make judgments. However, intelligence can develop into various, specialized branches, where people have learned or inherited abilities that far exceed the average level of intelligence. These specialized branches of intelligence include:


Mathematical and logical intelligence: This is the ability to quickly understand mathematical and logical problems and translate mathematical notation symbols into abstract concepts. The highest forms of mathematical intelligence include the ability to follow extremely long and complicated logical steps that prove the formal correctness of a mathematical statement.


Practical intelligence: This is the ability to efficiently solve common problems in every-day life, such as taking care of one's nutrition, hygiene, health, and finances. Some of the smartest mathematicians have been incapable of such mundane tasks. They lived with their mother who took care of them or had a partner who managed their everyday life.


Social intelligence: This is the ability to understand the motives, emotions, and intentions of other people and to motivate and influence groups of people. Social intelligence should not be misunderstood as a bleeding-heart caring attitude. People with high social intelligence can be rather manipulative and sinister. Demagogues and political agitators and leaders often have high social intelligence.


Strategic intelligence: This is the ability to conceive, think-trough, and modify, if necessary, a strategic plan of action. People with strategic intelligence are not just smart, they have the ability to anticipate the intentions of their opponents or enemies. They also have a calm, self-centered temperament which allows them to think clearly in dangerous and chaotic environments. Warren Buffet, Henry Kissinger or Sun Tzu are prototypes of strategic thinkers.


Action intelligence: This is the ability to make instant decisions under extreme (time) pressure, adjust to sudden challenges and still to focus on a particular action or objective. Fighter pilots, assassins and football players need this kind of action-oriented intelligence.


Musical intelligence. This is the ability to hear music in your head and "hear" sheet music. It is also the ability to associate colors, moods, and particular environments with certain pieces of music. Some people have perfect pitch hearing - which is a rare auditory phenomenon characterized by the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone. By the way - some of the best classical orchestras in the word have players that do not have perfect pitch hearing.


Visual and spatial intelligence: This is the ability to see the beauty in colors and shapes and create visual art. Alberto Giacometti, for instance, had the ability to shape clay into a rough sculpture that not only looked like a particular person, but also communicated a certain mood (but only to those observers, who have a minimum of visual intelligence). Pablo Picasso could draw a few lines and colorful shapes on a white canvas and describe the essence of a "bull fight".


Poetic, verbal and linguistic intelligence: This is the ability to use words for creating captivating and beautiful narratives. People with this intelligence can create (or at least perceive) a particular rhythm and tone in a text. Sometimes these texts may follow complicated formal rules (such as poems); sometimes they may trigger pity, outrage, indignation, shame or fear in their readers. People with verbal intelligence have told or written stories that have changed the world and triggered in other people the deepest emotions and the most extreme actions possible. Texts, such as the Bible, the Curran, the "Republic" by Plato, the "Communist Manifesto" by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels or "Mein Kampf" by Adolf Hitler were so powerful that they could incite the best and worst emotions and actions.


Kinesthetic intelligence: This is the ability to use one's body in challenging situations. Ballet dancers, football players, or base jumpers must have this kind of intelligence. They have "smart" and very quick reflexes, exceptional balance, outstanding spatial orientation and unusually precise eye-foot or eye-hand coordination. Without high kinesthetic intelligence you cannot become an outstanding table-tennis player, baseball player, or trapeze artist. 
These specialized branches of intelligence do not necessarily correlate with each other. There are examples of rather dumb tennis players who excel on the court but stumble with words; there are scores of naive poets who totally lack strategic intelligence; there are mentally severely handicapped people with IQs in the 70s who can create the most beautiful paintings or sculptures. Authors have written captivating stories, who could hardly multiply small numbers. Football players must have the capacity to coordinate their bodies' movement with an overall game strategy and the actions of their own and opposing team. If you doubt that this is an outstanding mental capacity just watch, side by side, a real football game and a game of "football playing" robots (see videos below). Currently, the very best programmers and engineers on earth are not able to produce anything that comes even close to the "football intelligence" of an average human football player. Actors and ballerinas also possess this kinesthetic intelligence. They are not necessarily good in math.
On the other hand, some of the specialized branches of intelligence seem to go together, such as mathematical and musical talent, or the ability to lead people and understand their motives and emotions. Brain research will clarify, if these correlated mental activities are carried out in related physical structures of the brain - which could explain why they often come together.
IQ tests are pretty meaningless - if you are not good at them, all they prove is that you are not good at IQ tests. We need to stop simplifying brain functions into the score value of an IQ test. When a wide range of cognitive abilities is explored, the observed variation in performance can only be explained with at least three distinct components: short-term memory, reasoning and a verbal component. No single component, or IQ score, explained everything. Furthermore, the scientists used a brain scanning technique, known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to show that these differences in cognitive ability map onto distinct circuits in the brain.

Don't worry! IQ intelligence is over-rated. A lower IQ only means that you are not good in those IQ tests. Don't waste your time worrying about it. You can still run a successful business, reach highest levels in politics, become a world-famous artist or sports champion and have a happy life. Your IQ-measured intelligence is just one of many different abilities of your brain - there are others that you can use to become a success.

Improve those of your brain functions that have plasticity. While cognitive reasoning, as measured by IQ tests may not improve (much) with training, there are mental abilities that clearly can be improved. For instance, you can train to be patient, relentlessly persistent and utterly disciplined - which are key factors of success in many areas of human activity. In my life, I have seen scores of people who were clearly not blessed with the sharpest brains; but who managed to get smoothly ahead in their education and academic career. And I have seen truly brilliant colleagues, who ended up driving taxis or flipping burgers, because they lacked the discipline to follow through their research and their publications.

Become a good, well-balanced person. The cognitive functions of the human brain are certainly important. But the brain not only consists of the neo-cortex, which seems to be (primarily) responsible for most of what we call intelligence. There are many other parts in the brain that regulate our inner organs, process sensory inputs or activate our muscles. Some of these brain regions may be responsible for particular forms of specialized intelligence that can be trained. But some parts of the brain also regulate hormones and perhaps our immune system. They control our emotions, our addictions, our general health and perhaps our ethical standards. There are parts of the brain that make people feel optimism, empathy and kindness, but also pessimism, rage, cruelty and viciousness. And all this can be totally unrelated to the higher cognitive functions. There are extremely intelligent psychopaths, brilliant alcohol addicts, murderers with strategic talent, clever crooks and rather smart cheaters and liars. Being a decent, healthy and optimistic dummy is certainly much better than being a smart psychopathic killer.

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Howard Gardner (2011)
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Scott Barry Kaufman (2013)
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Copyright 2014, 2015 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved.

Updated: 3 February 2015