07 July 2011

Intelligence, Part I

I think most of us have met the brilliant professor type who can’t ever seem to find his keys. I knew a professor when I was a student at Berkeley who was a Nobel Laureate.  Each day his wife would drive him to uphill end of the campus (she didn’t trust him to drive himself). He would get out and she would yell “Downhill, Owen, downhill!” and the campus security guard would pick up on this and kindly direct him towards nearby Leconte Hall.  Owen Chamberlain had an incredible gift for making sense of the many particles being discovered in high-energy physics during the last century. He had real trouble finding his office, however. This may be an extreme example, but it makes a point: we all have gifts, but no one has all the gifts.  One gift that Owen Chamberlain had in abundance was intelligence.

There is intelligence, and then there is intelligence.  Actually, there are also intelligences, which I will write about tomorrow.  1 Corinthians 12 talks about many different gifts given to human beings, but I’d like to discuss variations on that one gift - intelligence - that I see frequently as a scientist.

There is "IQ", which is supposed to be a broad indicator of quickness of mind. I've given keynote lectures at Oregon MENSA meetings and it's not so much talking to an audience as engaging the audience. They are equally quick to admit to anyone who has patience that they are almost all nerds, and say that with evident pride.

I’ve seen mathematical intelligence, and I’ve seen verbal intelligence – these are measured by the SAT exam you may have taken in high school.  My wife can unsramble word puzzles in milliseconds - I don't even bother to try, it's just too frustrating. I’m guessing that what is measured in the SAT represents perhaps 12% - 15% of all forms of intelligence. 

I’ve also seen geographic intelligence – you probably know someone who can navigate in cities or in a wilderness with apparent ease.  A young Navajo boy would quietly sit through my quorum lessons and never say a thing.  Get him out in Aravaipa Canyon, however, and the kid would light up - and seemed to be able to walk sideways on the canyon walls.

There is emotional intelligence – the famous “EQ” – that is a measure of how sensitive a human being is to other peoples’ feelings.  A famous dictum of the Federal Executive Institute is this: no matter how smart you are, if you have a low EQ your stint as a manager will end in a train-wreck. 

There is practical intelligence – I have a son-in-law without a college degree who can figure anything out, and can fix any thing. This goes hand-in-hand with mechanical intelligence, and is closely related to geometric intelligence – some people can easily see things in three and even four dimensions, while I may stare at the car and wonder why it died suddenly in the middle of the I-205 bridge.

There is language intelligence – one son learned to speak, read, and write Mandarin in about 18 months, the equivalent of someone going to school in Taiwan for 15 years. All his siblings, incidentally, speak at least two and up to five languages in addition to their native English.  Don’t look at me - it comes from their Mom, who can also read 10,000 words per minute (I read about ~200).

There is also physical intelligence – the things we see in great athletes.  Baseball players who bat .400 is one hard-to-explain example.  I can generally tell pretty quickly that one of my new Jujitsu students is going to get to Shodan – 1st degree black belt – quickly and easily.  She’s a “natural.”

There are many more manifestations of intelligence, and I've just barely scratched the surface here.

Where is this going? If you saw the movie “Rainman” you will understand what an Idiot Savant is: someone who may not be able to do most things you and I take for granted, but who has an incredible gift down inside just waiting to be discovered.  

And this is my point: when you see or work with someone who seems “slow”, be very, very careful about making a dismissive judgment.  I have known people who speak slowly, measuring their words, and if you err in discounting them, you will make a grave mistake. They are probably smarter than you.

Instead, it seems that we all have several forms of intelligence to varying degrees. Look, then, to discover the hidden gem in the people around you. Someone you’ve been married to for 40 years may be a genius – and you have just overlooked it all this time. If so, shame on you.


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