The Varieties of Human Intelligence
By John H. Douglas
THEN TEEN-AGER had crushing news for his parents. Slow from infancy, troublesome in school, he was now capping his academic failures with a disgraceful expulsion order “Your presence in class is disruptive and affects the other students.”
Years later, he recalled his learning problems philosophically: “My intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space ad time only when I had already grown up. Naturally, I could go deeper into the problem than a child.” And so, 11 years after expulsion from school, young Albert Einstein published the theory of relativity that changed our understanding of the universe.
No one in this century has been more widely recognized as a genius than Einstein. Yet his problems with early intellectual development and his peculiar gifts cast great doubt on all our conventional ideas about genius, intelligence or “I.Q,” On the one hand, Einstein showed early defects in abilities that our mental tests value; on the other hand, his special intellectual faculties went far beyond most definitions of intelligence. Moreover, their growth appears peculiarly gradual, contradicting the popular conception of intelligence as something inborn and fixed. Aptitudes that he had learned rather than inherited-particularly his dogged persistence and his skills in playing games with ideas-were apparently as crucial to his genius as any cutting edge of intellect.
These powerful aspects of intelligence that conventional definitions overlook are getting close attention in a new wave of research. This comes after years of earlier studies exposed the narrowness of our usual measures of mental aptitude. Intelligence, it turns out, is multifaceted and marvelous; it includes personality traits, creativity skills and intellectual wizardries that show up on no test.
What is most exciting is that some of these ill-defined abilities are possessed by many people. Just knowing about such neglected skills will help us discover and nurture untapped potential-in ourselves and in our children. A better understanding of these abilities is emerging from research along four major lines:
1. Intellectual Quotient. I.Q. test scores are not as important as once believed. Long-term studies show that the scores may vary considerably over a person’s lifetime, and their value as predictors of success in school has been vastly overrated. According to recent studies, I.Q. accounts for only about 35 to 45 percent of the variation in students’ academic performance. More than half still remains unexplained. Moreover, studies demonstrate that success in school is a poor predictor of success in later life.
New research also indicates that reasoning ability, an aspect of intelligence that I.Q. tests do measure, can be trained in ways that help students do better in school. Experimental pre-school programs have helped raise the scholastic ability of slum children for example. And psychologists Arthur and Linda Shaw Whimbey assert that any healthy person can learn abstract reasoning skills. They have helped college students make better grades through a training program described in their book intelligence can Be Taught, Large vocabularies, which are learned, usually correlate with high scores on I.Q. tests, as does reading comprehension, a skill stressed in I.Q. training programs.
Many such programs view the I.Q. variables of intelligence as a particular psychological “set”-a problem-solving readiness. Obviously, this can be trained, just as physical readiness for competitive sports can be trained.
2. Creativity. I.Q. scores, which reflect ability to home in on a single correct answer through logical steps, measure only about a half-dozen variables of mental ability. “Creativity tests,” which involve adeptness at finding many solutions to a problem, measure perhaps a dozen more. Between the two, only about one sixth of the specific abilities believed to be involved in intelligence, by itself almost as narrow as I.Q.
3. Personality. Individuals who achieve greatness in some intellectual endeavor usually do so through force of personality as much as through sheer smartness. In the past narrow definitions of intelligence usually excluded personality factors. Today, scientists studying persons who have demonstrated outstanding intellectual accomplishment have found they differ from ordinary people in several personality traits. In addition to curiosity persistence and capacity for self-criticism – qualities that Einstein had-highly creative people also show an unusual openness, independence, imaginativeness and play-fullness.
4. Brain structure and chemistry. Advances in our knowledge of brain physiology may help us understand some of the dozens of other intellectual faculties not measured by I.Q., creativity or personality tests. For example, attention-so fundamental to guided intellectual effort-is largely governed by the more primitive regions of the brain that also control emotions. And the link between emotional involvement with a subject ad one’s ability to comprehend it appears to be a chemical “reward system” located I the brain, in which the emotions reward the attention center for a job well done-creating a feeling of satisfaction and well-being.
THE IPLICATIONS of these four broad areas of research are serious. By concentrating mainly on I.Q. tests alone, schools have often rejected students whose strengths lie in other sorts of mental ability. As one leader in the field of ability testing, E.Paul Torrance, puts it: “If we identify (talented) children only on the basis of intelligence tests, we eliminate approximately 70 percent of the most creative.”
The point is that the majority of us shine in some facets of mental ability. Some people are better than others at problem solving, others excel at originality, still others succeed at mental tasks requiring persistence. All these trails are key components of human intelligence. To discover and develop your own kind of “smarts,” try asking questions like these:
# what do I like working with: words or numbers, abstract concepts or concrete ideas?
# Am I better at dealing with people or things, and why?
# When I’m explaining something, do I draw pictures, use words, or do I prefer to act things out?
# Faced with a new situation, do I tend to memorize things or figure them out?
# For fun, would I rather solve puzzles or make up stories?
# Am I better at grasping the specific relationship between things or at seeing the whole picture?
# Given a choice between two jobs, would I take the one demanding quick action or the one requiring patience?
Depending on the problem at hand, any combination of these diverse skills could add up to being “smart.” A marriage counselor, for example, had better be good at working with people, determining relationships and evaluating courses of action. On the other hand, a physicist needs to feel comfortable manipulating numbers, solving puzzles and glimpsing a larger vision of nature from scanty threads of data.
Intelligence can be developed, but it takes effort. The first step is to capitalize on the kind of smarts you already have while trying to improve the rest. Often this involves a change of thinking habits and looking at the world around you in a new way.
To understand the process better, let’s look at some methods used by people respected for their intelligence. They have adopted positive thinking habits. They welcome challenging problems and try to learn from each new situation. They have the courage to defend their ideas. The best, like Einstein, man-age to balance urgent motivation with patience enough to see a project through. That’s tall order, but here are some ways each of us can improve our own intelligence:
• Adopt a systematic approach to problem solving. One of the most common traits among students who score poorly on I.Q. tests is impulsiveness, which leads them to guess at answers without thinking through a problem thoroughly. Practice solving problems by breaking them down into a series of steps.
• Master they many skills of reading. A critical element in most I.Q. tests involves being able to identify relationships between words, a skill that can be mastered only through much reading-paying particular attention to unfamiliar words and how they are used. Anyone who has ever had the experience of adding a powerful new word to his vocabulary or a new logical idea to his understanding, and has then found it helpful in analyzing, discriminating and problem solving, knows the satisfaction that comes with expanded mental ability.
• Develop a thoughtful environment for yourself and your children. Research on productive people shows they have been encouraged to entertain original, even “wild” ideas, without fear of ridicule; wherever an environment threatens a person with immediate rejection of some new idea-whether at the dinner table, in a classroom or in a repressive society-original thinking suffers.
It seems likely that certain subjects or mental activities-such as logic, or math, or poetry –will exercise reasoning skills more than other activities (such as watching television). A thoughtful environment is not only full of support but free from distraction.
The secret of intellectual success is realizing that no one traitor ability is sufficient. A high I.Q. is lost unless supported by perseverance and empathy. Imagination and openness to new ideas-what most people call common sense-can contribute as much as I.Q. to your success.