We all have ideas about what makes someone intelligent (or not).
Many of us look at memes or funny video compilations of people doing incredibly stupid things and poke fun at how unintelligent they must be to partake in those pursuits, without considering that the people who are making very questionable life choices may be smart in other areas.
For instance, the guy who tried to ride a grizzly bear like a pony may not have made the most rational decision at that moment and may still be recovering in hospital, but his understanding of code and ability to take apart a computer and repair it may be unparalleled. So, is he intelligent or not?
Let’s go beyond personal perceptions and biases to look at what intelligence really means, as well as how it may manifest differently depending on the individual.
1. There are many different “types” of intelligence.
You’ve likely heard of emotional intelligence before, but are you aware that there are several other types of intelligence out there?
In 1983, a renowned American psychologist by the name of Howard Gardner established a theory of multiple intelligences. From his observations of patients over the years, he discerned that there are eight (8) different and distinct forms of intelligence:
It’s unusual for an individual to display strengths in all eight areas. Instead, most people have a great deal of strength in one of them, moderate ability in a few others, and relative weaknesses in the rest.
2. Intelligence is defined differently between cultures.
If you’ve traveled a fair bit, or even eaten in different ethnic restaurants, you’ve likely noticed that table manners differ among cultures. What’s considered polite in one country may be considered horribly rude in another, and vice versa.
The same goes for different perceptions of beauty; one culture may treasure features that another finds abhorrent.
As you can imagine, perceptions and signs of intelligence will differ among cultures as well. One may place enormous emphasis on logical-mathematical intelligence and academic achievements related to it, while another will value social dynamics or artistic creativity.
Similarly, different cultures expect people to know how to do a variety of different things. A person who knows the uses for thousands of plant species may be considered stupid by a culture that places higher value on computer coding or spear fishing. They can’t conceive of someone not knowing how to do things that are second nature to them.
3. While intelligence may be influenced by genetics, it isn’t limited or defined by them.
It’s common for two intelligent people to have intelligent children, but this isn’t always the case. Scientific studies suggest that genetic influence accounts for somewhere between 57% and 80% of intellectual development.
Other factors include proper nutrition during a young child’s development, as well as whether they experience trauma, hardship, a stable living environment, and sufficient engagement and challenge.
Let’s say a couple of academics had identical twins. One of them was raised in a stable home, with plenty of good food, encouraging adults, and a lot of healthy mental and emotional stimulation. Meanwhile, the other one was raised in poverty or in a war-torn country, with insufficient nutrition and constant stress.
If both twins were given IQ tests at the same age, the former would likely score higher than the latter even if they had the same level of education.
4. Intelligence can be developed and strengthened over time.
There isn’t a finite amount of intelligence that a person can cultivate over a lifetime. While we may hit plateaus when it comes to height or physical strength, our minds can grow and stretch until we finally expire.
Since intelligence involves acquiring and applying knowledge, a person’s IQ can rise as they learn more over time, whether it’s through academic study or practical experience.
Small children may have the potential for high intelligence, but one who’s immersed in mind-nurturing subjects will end up having a higher IQ score than one who’s only exposed to stimuli that arrests their development at a certain age or stage.
It’s also important to note that although there’s a difference between wisdom and intelligence, one can influence another to great benefit. Wisdom is also cultivated over time, as one experiences situations—and makes mistakes—that expand self-awareness, compassion, insight, empathy, and overall perspective.
Think of it this way: cognitive intelligence may allow you to have an abstract idea of how a knee can get sprained, as well as how to treat it.
In contrast, wisdom involves firsthand experience of what a sprained knee feels like, as well as different approaches to treatment that they know work for them.
When you combine the two, you’re a well-rounded powerhouse of information with practical, problem-solving experience.
5. There’s a difference between “crystallized” and “fluid” intelligence.
When you think of the words “crystal” and “fluid,” you likely envision one thing that’s set in stone (quite literally) and one that’s liquid.
Intelligence can also take these different forms, with the former referring to acquired skills, knowledge, and expertise that one has accumulated over time, and the latter referring to deductive reasoning, creative problem-solving, and abstract thought.
In essence, it’s the difference between knowing how to do something because you’ve done it a thousand times before—as did the person who taught you—and trying to figure out new and possibly more effective ways of approaching the same task.
6. Emotional intelligence is as important as cognitive intelligence.
We mentioned emotional intelligence early on in this article, but are you familiar with what that term means?
A person can have incredible cognitive intelligence but struggle to recognize (and cope with) their own emotions. In addition, they may have difficulty recognizing what other people are feeling based on their body language and facial expressions and not know how to empathize with them.
We often see this type of behavior in neurodivergent people, but those who are more cerebral than emotional can struggle with this as well.
According to psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovy, emotional intelligence (EI) involves the following:
- Self-awareness: the ability to recognize one’s feelings, as well as values, strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, aversions, preferences, and personal motivations.
- Self-regulation: knowing how to manage and control one’s feelings and impulses, such as keeping things together under stress, avoiding impulsive/destructive tendencies, and not lashing out at others when upset.
- Empathy: understanding and “sharing” other people’s emotions by recognizing what they’re going through and showing patience, compassion, and care.
- Motivation: the ability to be one’s own cheerleader to get things done, whether that’s personal growth and development or goals to achieve.
- Social skills: this involves anything related to interpersonal interaction, from communication and relationship building to leadership, teamwork, conflict resolution, and negotiation.
Like other forms of intelligence, EI can be developed and expanded upon over time. Those with PTSD or anhedonia may have more difficulty with this than others, as will people on the autism spectrum or with various personality disorders.
That said, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be invaluable for helping to develop and expand upon these skills.
7. Highly intelligent people often have difficulty with interpersonal relationships.
People with high intelligence often struggle with friendships and intimate relationships because of differences in their information processing and communication methods.
They often overthink and analyze things from many different perspectives and end up being more emotionally detached, logical, and analytical when communicating with others.
If those around them are more emotional and empathic, this can lead to a lot of miscommunication and frustration on both sides.
This can be as simple as feeling frustration with another person’s lack of precision and reasoning to arguments over what constitutes enough emotional or physical affection.
Additionally, many people with high IQs feel contempt for those who are more comfortable with emotional expression over logical and rational reason.
As a result, many people with high intelligence prefer friendships and romantic relationships with those they connect with on an intellectual/cerebral level (e.g., “sapiosexual”) rather than emotionally.
They may have brief dalliances with fiery, emotional types, but their differences will make any kind of long-term pairing untenable. They won’t be able to meet the highly emotional person’s needs or expectations, and in turn will be frustrated and annoyed by those who seem too needy, emo, or dramatic for them.
8. Intelligent people are more prone to anxiety.
You may have noticed that people whom you’d consider as “less-than-bright” are rarely plagued with the same anxieties as those who are more intelligent.
Studies have shown that people who have higher IQ levels are often more prone to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Their perfectionism paired with hyper-awareness of everything that could possibly go wrong in any interaction results in anxiety and even depression. In simplest terms, they overthink everything and expect themselves to behave perfectly in every situation in which they find themselves.
Other studies have shown that highly intelligent people (HIP) seem to be less prone to developing PTSD after experiencing traumas. It implied that their higher cognitive abilities allowed them to remain analytical about their experiences instead of reacting emotionally, and to have more effective and widespread coping mechanisms.
9. One can be intelligent, but not “street smart.”
You probably know a ton of people who are fiercely intelligent but lack common sense. These are the folks who may have taught themselves how to speak different languages or take apart a toaster and put it back together again, but they’ll walk away from an ATM with a fistful of money waving around, or leave their car unlocked because “it’ll be fine.”
This is because being intelligent doesn’t guarantee anyone success in real-life scenarios. You may have graduated at the top of your class and are renowned for your academic achievement, but “street smarts” are cultivated through personal experience and rarely adhere to theoretical situations.
It’s usually a lack of direct life experience (or the inability to learn from those experiences) that leads highly intelligent people to do things that leave the rest of us baffled.
Quite often, their hubris about their perception of their own intellectual prowess ends up being their undoing. Their brilliance has been reinforced time and again by pieces of paper telling them how smart they are, and as such they don’t cultivate situational awareness, real-time problem-solving skills, negotiation abilities, or the ability to read social cues.
10. Those with cognitive impairment can retain intelligence.
It’s often heartbreaking to watch people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or brain damage deteriorate over time, especially if they had been fiercely intelligent and capable when they were younger.
One interesting thing to note is that since Alzheimer’s primarily affects executive function and memory, a person’s cognitive abilities may remain fairly intact. This is known as “cognitive reserve,” in which a person’s brain can adapt and compensate for decline and damage.
So far, studies imply that this type of cognitive reserve is associated with overall brain health (e.g., due to nutrition, rest, and reduced stress) as well as intellectual stimulation, engaging social interactions, and continued education (such as continuous learning through life, whether that’s languages, crafts, or new cooking skills).
It’s important to note that this is the exception rather than the rule, but the potential for cognitive reserve can certainly inspire us to try to keep our brains as healthy as possible as we progress through life!
Hopefully these insights have expanded (and even shifted) your perspective on intelligence and how perceptions of it can change between cultures and even personal experiences.
Now the question is, what are you going to do about your own intelligence? Do you feel like trying to expand it and improve it? Or do you think you’ll do your best to maintain it well into your elder years?