By: Jazlyn Moock
For as long as I can remember, my life has been defined by a myth. A socially constructed, mystical entity that has shaped the way I think, the way I act, and the way I perceive and even treat others—and no, I am not talking about religion. The biggest facade and misconception in my life, and perhaps in modern society as a whole, has been the theory of “intelligence.”
Like generations before me, I have had the audacious belief that people are either “smart,” “dumb,” or somewhere in the middle. As a child, all I ever wanted to be was a “genius” and this craving to be the most intelligent person in the room overwhelmed me and eventually became a part of my identity. When in a school filled with hundreds of other children, it can be hard not to ponder who is “intelligent” and yearn to be the special one. Thankfully, I had the determination and support in order to thrive in a school environment and always earn good grades, however only now do I realize that my success, or anyone’s success, did not sprout from a “natural-born intelligence” or some kind of innate mental superiority. I now realize that the “intelligence” I pined after for so long never truly existed, or at least not in the manner I expected.
The most widely acknowledged theory of intelligence in society is that of general intelligence, or “the g factor.” This construct is centered around the ideal that intelligence is one entity and can be measured by a single number, or a cumulative IQ score. However, I cannot help but feel skeptical of the vague, straightforward nature of general intelligence, especially due to the history of the first “g factor” IQ tests.
In the 1900’s, after IQ tests had popularized in Western society, the theories of intelligence and eugenics became intertwined. Since general intelligence was claimed to be determined by genetics, eugenicists argued that race could also be a factor. The IQ tests’ role were to prove the racial differences in intelligence scores, therefore justifying the oppression of “feebleminded” minorities who threatened to “dilute the White Anglo-Saxon genetic stock of America.” The implementation of these tests became increasingly more cruel and disturbing when the Supreme Courts in the late 1920’s legalized forced sterilization of citizens with low IQ scores. The majority of the 65,000 people who were sterilized were people of color or of low socioeconomic status.
These IQ tests have also been used up until 2014 to determine whether inmates on death row with cognitive disabilities are eligible to be executed, which makes discovering the validity of the general intelligence to be of the utmost import because not only have g factor tests dictated who is “smart” vesus who is “dumb,” but they have also dictated who has lived versus who has died.
Two years before the supreme court ruled that it was unconstitutional to use IQ tests in death penalty decisions, the largest study on intelligence to date, including 100,000 participants, revealed that this theory of general intelligence is fundamentally flawed.
After monitoring the MRI brain scans of participants while taking a cognitive “IQ” test, the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Onterio concluded that underlying general intelligence does not influence performance on cognitive tasks.
Dr. Adrian Owen, the study’s senior investigator and the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging stated, “If there is something in the brain that is IQ, we should be able to find it by scanning, but it turns out there is no one area in the brain that accounts for people’s so-called IQ. When we looked at the data, the bottom line is the whole concept of you having a higher IQ than me is a myth.”
So if general intelligence does not exist, then what does?
Scientists and psychologists have continuously defined intelligence as one’s ability to solve problems. However, the issue with this definition is that the term “problem solving” is too broad and implies that the only problems that need to be solved are mathematical and logical ones. Yet, there are infinite problems in the universe, which all require different mental capabilities to solve them. Similarly, each individual human perceives the world in their own unique way, hence each individual solves “problems” in their own unique way.
Someone may be able to triple numbers in their head without a calculator, but do they have the social skills to sell a car, or the linguistic skills to communicate with a person in Ukranian, or the musical skills to identify changes in pitch and rhythm of sounds?
The true misconception about intelligence is that it has been measured in levels from low to high, when in reality it should be measured by types.
This can be explained by the theory of “multiple intelligences,” conceived by psychologist Howard Gardner. He suggested that all people have different kinds of “intelligences” that extend far beyond the traditional, limited views of general intelligence. The ideals that intelligence is a singular entity, Gardner believes, fail to capture the full range of abilities that people possess such as kinesthetic, musical, visual, naturalistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, existential, logical, and linguistic capacities. There has been hesitation to integrate the theory into the definition of intelligence, since Gardner’s types of intelligences do not align with the preconceived notion of IQ and may resemble personality traits and hobbies to some scientists. Yet, these types of intelligences are more than just hobbies, as they have been used to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Take musical or visual intelligence for example: art and music have been used as a platform to initiate problem-solving around civil-rights issues, to spark peace on the borders of warring countries, and even to provide alternative healing treatments for people suffering from Dementia and Alzheimer’s. These mediums have their own specialized importance, as artists have the unique capacity to use innovation, creativity, and passion freely to construct something completely new, transformative, and personalized.
Likewise, naturalistic intelligence can allow agriculturalists and scientists to understand the complexities of the living world, making flowers, fruit, and bread magically appear from the dirt, feeding the billions of hungry people on Earth, and eventually solving the growing threats of climate change.
After researching Gardner’s work, I now understand why I have felt the most intelligent and capable not when doing long division, or solving for x, but when I have drawn detailed portraits, played fast-paced Beatles songs on the ukulele, or been able to stop a person from crying and comprehend their emotions.
Although often forgotten in regards to intelligence, this capacity of social interaction and interpersonal intelligence can help solve endless societal obstacles. It is the reason why diplomats, politicians, social workers, teachers, and more are able to relate to others emotions, manage relationships, and pick up on the feelings and intentions of those around them.
An equally important and substantial form of intelligence is intrapersonal intelligence, which explains the ability to understand one’s own emotions and desires. Aristotle, Emily Dickenson, Hellen Keller, Malcolm X, and Maya Angelou are all examples of those with self-reflective, intrapersonal intelligence.
Maya Angelou, a woman who grew up in a world against her—being an African American, gay woman with no college education and working as a cocktail waitress, prostitute, and cook—was not exactly perceived as having the cut and paste perfect “intelligence” that social elites defined in the 1920’s when she was born. Despite these limiting definitions, Angelou had immeasurable introspective and linguistic capacities that led her to recieve dozen of rewards and over 50 honorary degrees for her autobiographies, poetry, and plays. Her ability to express herself and her thoughts into words can only be described as pure intelligence, just as bright as an artist like Picaso, a politician like Gandhi, or mathematician like Einstein.
So whenever the question intelligence arises, remember this:
No matter in what way we learn, solve problems, or make decisions, our methods are all valid and special.
No matter what kind of differing abilities we have from another, each and every human on earth is intelligent.
No matter our background, we all have strengths and weaknesses.
And finally, like the different 88 keys on a piano, each human’s uniqueness is essential; without our differences, we would not be able to play the beautiful chords and melodies of life.