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4 key things you need to know about intelligence

Let’s guess. Four things about intelligence. IQ? Tests? Exam results? Beards?
Nope, none of the above.

Although these might be the first things that come to mind, the keys to understanding intelligence are nothing to do with IQ, tests or exam results. And beards certainly aren’t mandatory.

Here’s my list of important things to know about intelligence.

1. We can’t define it particularly well

Intelligence is the ability to problem solve.

Intelligence is your score on an IQ test.

Intelligence is how fast you are at understanding something.

Intelligence is processing and using information.

Intelligence is having a good memory.

Maybe intelligence is all of the above. And yet it’s something else as well. When you get into it, it’s actually rather hard to pin down what we’re talking about. But you have an idea of what we understand by “intelligent.”

How would you define it?

One thing is for sure: when you meet someone who’s super-intelligent, you know it. You recognise it. It’s pretty obvious, in most cases. And it’s still hard to say exactly what it is.

2. It’s not just one thing

Think of the five most intelligent people you know. Maybe you know them personally. Maybe you know them from TV or from reading their books or blog.

Now think about their intelligence. Is it the same for each of them?

Does a top mathematician have the same intelligence as a top linguist? A top scientist the same as a world-class musician? A first-rate comedian?


These people all have different intelligences. That’s right – it’s not just one thing, but many.

And each category of intelligence has myriad sub-types of intelligence in it. Mathematically you may be great with numbers and logic, but terrible with spatial work: geometry, topology and so forth. Linguistically, you might be grammatically tight but vocabulary light. And you might be fantastic in theoretical, abstract work, but finding and creating practical solutions is not one of your strong points.

We could look at creativity as an intelligence too. The creative genius springs to mind. How many different types of creativity can we discover across the breadth of humanity?

So there are many different intelligences, and the intelligences have many aspects to them too. Just because you’re great in one or two areas, doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to be a star across the board. Unless you’re a polymath, but that’s another story too.

3. It’s not fixed

Some people might think that intelligence is fixed. It’s a number on a test. A grade. A fixed ability.

The old saying goes, “If you don’t use, you lose it.” That’s true of the intelligences as well as physical form.

The converse is also true: you can train and develop your intelligences just as you can train your body.

Take a look around. How many people do you know who have improved a skill – a mental skill – over time? Kids do this all the time. They develop their intelligences. They develop ways of processing and using information, and become more and more adept at the things they apply themselves to. School work. Hobbies. Games.

You can train yourself to have a better memory, to become faster at processing, to know and understand more things.

So often we think of intelligence as fixed, even though it’s not.

This begs the question, of course, of why doesn’t everyone train to become super-intelligent? I don’t have an answer for that. I can only say that it seems to be a relationship between innate cognitive ability (genetics), the opportunity to develop (or not), and whether or not you’re interested in making the effort to develop your intelligences.

Maybe there’s a kind of limit that you’d reach if you trained yourself as far as possible. It would certainly be interesting to know more!

4. You can’t measure it

How can you measure intelligence?

In tests you can measure speed of task completion, power of recall, knowledge (knowledge is not the same as intelligence, lack of knowledge is not the same as stupid, but that’s another article on its way soon!), and all sorts of other facets of mental performance. But intelligence, or intelligences, themselves? Nope.

IQ tests have been around for decades now and, admittedly, they do give a measure of something which is defined by the test as ‘intelligence’. However, IQ misses out a whole host of intelligences. Linguistic, logical, pattern-recognition and mathematical intelligences feature in the standard IQ test, but none of the body intelligences. And IQ certainly misses out on any measure of creativity.

All in all, IQ tests are only good for measuring one thing: IQ. And IQ is not the same as intelligence. Unfortunately, supporters of the IQ test see IQ and intelligence as one and the same. As you can see here thought, they are definitely difference (depending, of course, on the definition that you accept: the limited IQ one, or the broader one that I support).

Because intelligence is not one thing, but rather multiple intelligences, you can’t measure intelligence with a single number. You’d need at least one number for each type of intelligence, but then you’d need subtypes and more subtypes of intelligences.

We need a profile of intelligences, not a number. And even then, how would you measure each aspect? The multiple intelligences profile that I use gives us a start, a self-evaluation tool that sheds light on our various intelligences and the strengths we perceive in ourselves. Here, though, we must be mindful of under- or over-estimating ones capabilities.

So you can’t measure intelligences, but you know what they are. You know high intelligence when you see it. And now you know a few more key things about it, too.

What are your intelligences?

The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this webpage are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this webpage. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this webpage. Sue Mahony PhD disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this webpage.

Sue Mahony PhD is gifted, autistic, and ADHD. She provides 1:1 specialist support for brains similar to her own, giftedness group programmes, speaking and bespoke support for organisations, and a wealth of articles on this website.

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