Our Idea of Intelligence Is Broken. This Is How We Can Fix It.

Our Idea of Intelligence Is Broken. This Is How We Can Fix It.


Intelligence is one of those terms that causes quite the turmoil within society but also within ourselves.


From a very young age, each person is raised to perceive intelligence as probably the most critical factor that will determine his or her well-being.


The truth, however, is that the way intelligence is portrayed and eventually interpreted leads to a myriad of issues that every generation needs to face.


Most of us tend to think of intelligence as this elusive skill that characterizes people who have achieved a great deal of success in their lifetime or managed to solve seemingly insoluble problems.


Moreover, the overwhelming majority of social agents believe strongly that intelligence is an innate trait that has no plasticity and that each individual needs to make peace with the idea that their intelligence will remain unchanged throughout their lives.


This controversial belief always bugged me in that once one accepts his or her own limitations, he or she agrees to a very limited and limiting version of reality. A version that not only reinforces the unquestionable struggle that encompasses the human condition but also, in some cases, imposes a layer of misery upon one’s life that makes the struggle almost impossible to bear.


Despite my adherence to pragmatism, as one of the main tenets that characterize my worldview, I couldn’t just charitably accept such a debatable truism.


Over the past five years, I have undergone a transformation with regards to the way I view and, most importantly, understand the essence and applicability of intelligence.


I achieved that through a process of immersion in skills that require a lot of cognitive effort, but also by being an astute observer of the underlying narratives within the social ecosystems that I inhabited.


This process allowed me to conduct careful inquiries into the actual functions of intelligence and, thereby, engineer an effective way to deal with the conundrums posed by its complicated nature.


My present article constitutes an attempt from my side to illustrate my belief that intelligence is a very malleable concept that, once properly construed, can change one’s life in monumental ways.


What intelligence is


In one of my favorite Waking Up podcasts, titled Complexity & Stupidity, Sam Harris invited biologist David Krakauer to discuss information, complex systems, and the future of humanity.

David Krakauer

At one point, Harris asks Krakauer to offer his own definition of intelligence. He does so in a lengthy way, but I assure you this is one of the most potent definitions you will ever encounter:


“Intelligence is, as I say to people, one of the topics about which we have been most stupid. All our definitions of intelligence are based on measurements that can only be applied to humans. An IQ test is not interesting if you’re trying to calculate the intelligence of an octopus—which I would like to know, because I believe in evolution. I think we need to understand where these things come from, and having a definition that applies just to one particular species doesn’t help us. We’ve talked about entropy and computation, and they’re going to be the keys to understanding intelligence.

Let’s go back to randomness. The example I like to give is Rubik’s cube, because it’s a beautiful little mental model, a metaphor. If I gave you a cube and asked you to solve it, and you just randomly manipulated it, since it has on the order of 10 quintillion solutions, which is a very large number, if you were immortal, you would eventually solve it. But it would take a lifetime of several universes to do so. That is random performance. Stupid performance is if you took just one face of the cube and manipulated that one face and rotated it forever. As everyone knows, if you did that, you would never solve the cube. It would be an infinite process that would never be resolved. That, in my definition, would be stupid. It is significantly worse than chance.

Now let’s take someone who has learned how to manipulate a cube and is familiar with various rules that allow you, from any initial configuration, to solve the cube in 20 minutes or less. That is intelligent behavior, significantly better than chance. This sounds a little counterintuitive, perhaps, until you realize that’s how we use the word in our daily lives. If I sat down with an extraordinary mathematician and I said, “I can’t solve that equation,” and he said, “Well, no, it’s easy. Here, this is what you do,” I’d look at it and I’d say, “Oh, yes, it is easy. You made that look easy.” That’s what we mean when we say someone is smart. They make things look easy.

If, on the other hand, I sat down with someone who was incapable, and he just kept dividing by two, for whatever reason, I would say, “What on earth are you doing? What a stupid thing to do. You’ll never solve the problem that way.”

So that is what we mean by intelligence. It’s the thing we do that ensures that the problem is efficiently solved and in a way that makes it appear effortless. And stupidity is a set of rules that we use to ensure that the problem will be solved in longer than chance or never and is nevertheless pursued with alacrity and enthusiasm.”

In essence, what Krakauer suggests is that intelligence is the ability of humans to innovate with regards to the way they approach problem solving.


Apropos, one of the most important cognitive tools humans have come up with in order to make problem solving more effectual is education and the transference of knowledge.


In a way, our intelligence is predicated upon our capacity to embrace novelty and knowledge.


That is something very crucial to ponder.


If you take into account that most of the people society portrays as intelligent, that is, usually, academics, scientists and entrepreneurs, you will notice that a certain pattern can be identified.


Most of these people are high in traits openness and conscientiousness, which is roughly translated as a proclivity towards new information and the methodical adoption of this information.


The substrate of our social edifice is formed in accordance with our capacity to deal with new information and evolve ourselves to the degree that we are capable of converting information into something valuable.


Evolution itself adheres to this fundamental principle and throughout our history we have used it as a means to the betterment of our living conditions.


Evidently, intelligence can be summarized as the ability of humans to push the envelope of conventional wisdom and push back against everything that impedes their progress.


Intelligent people are, in a sense, the pioneers of knowledge creation.


What about IQ?


IQ is one of those subjects that can lead to quite heated debates, especially due to the recent racial issues that emerged in modern America.


My view on the topic has always been open since I have not yet encountered an all-encompassing theory that can offer a canonical interpretation of how IQ is related to achievement, well-being, and social impact.


Yes, IQ is an important factor when determining the aptitude of an individual to process information fast and also engage in complex problems. But IQ, in and of itself, can by no means be used as a panacea whenever we try to have a fruitful dialogue about what constitutes intelligence and intelligent behavior.


In that nebulous landscape, many contemporary thinkers have attempted to offer their own interpretation with regards to how IQ is molding the fabric of society.

Charles Murray

Charles Murray for instance, after publishing the infamous “Bell Curve,” argued that IQ is substantially influenced by both inherited and environmental factors and that it is a better predictor of many personal dynamics, including financial income, job performance, birth out of wedlock, and involvement in crime than are an individual’s parental socioeconomic status.

This assertion has caused a hyperbolic backlash from many progressive and liberal groups since it creates an uneven dichotomy when it comes to evaluating the impact of IQ compared to that of the environment.


Although Murray was speaking in averages and his samples were taken in the 80s (and can’t under any circumstances be characterized as exhaustive), he raises some interesting points, such as:


  • IQ is heritable, apparently no less than 40 percent and no more than 80 percent.
  • IQ scores are stable, although not perfectly so, over much of a person’s life.
  • There is such a difference as a general factor of cognitive ability on which human beings differ.

If you ever take an IQ test, you will realize that what it attempts to measure is, more or less, your ability to process information quickly and understand certain patterns within a system.


Below is an example:

Some IQ advocates suggest that IQ remains relatively stable over a person’s lifespan and some others argue that, based on studies, researchers have noticed major fluctuations in IQ points after tracking people for several years [1].


My personal experience has shown that, over the years, and after taking many tests, my average IQ has raised significantly and I can attribute that to many factors ranging from my ability to focus better to my being able to feel accustomed with the general principles of an IQ test and also my multidisciplinary approach to knowledge acquisition.


Whatever the case, I can’t say for sure how much of a critical factor IQ can be in determining the intelligence of an individual.


I know people with extremely high IQ who can feel intimidated by me during an interaction because I can showcase certain skills that can make their IQ seem irrelevant. I also know people with lower IQ than mine who have managed to excel in disciplines where I feel severely incompetent.


David Krakauer, in his interview with Sam Harris, asserts that IQ is measuring mainly working memory and that if you subject individuals to deliberate practice regimes, you can witness them acquiring skills that seem extraordinary.


So, evidence is gravitating towards the side of plasticity and not on that of innate aptitude.


Interesting fact, “The Flynn Effect”: In his study of IQ tests scores for different populations over the past sixty years, James R. Flynn discovered that IQ scores increased from one generation to the next for all of the countries for which data existed. This interesting phenomenon has been called “the Flynn Effect.” Research shows that IQ gains have been mixed for different countries. In general, countries have seen generational increases between 5 and 25 points [2].


What about Memory?


Before I explain the relationship between memory and intelligence, let’s devote a couple of sentences to explaining how it actually works.


Back in the day 1 people used to think that memory is like a filing cabinet full of individual memory folders in which information is stored away [3].


Today, scientific consensus suggests that memory is a far more complicated apparatus in that it is located not in one particular place in the brain but is instead a brain-wide process.


The following image illustrates which areas in the brain are responsible for the storage of different memories:

As you can see, in order to recall a specific memory, your brain needs to processes information in a way that different systems will work synergistically to provide cohesive thought.


The closest we have come to connect the terms memory and intelligence is via the term crystallized intelligence, coined by psychologist Raymond Bernard Cattell in the 70s.

Raymond Cattell

Crystallized intelligence, refers to cognitive functions associated with previously acquired knowledge in long-term store. That is the ability to use learned knowledge and experience. Every form of education, formal or non-formal, capitalizes on crystallized intelligence in order to create a coherent body of learning and organize its operation as such.


Memory serves as a function of intelligence only if the individual’s brain structure is formed in a way that it can recall certain processes that are pertinent to the exhibition of specific skills.


However, this advantage has also been trumped.


Despite the fact that there are inborn variations in humans, when certain practices get applied, memory can be “hacked.”


Studies have shown that via learning techniques, like mnemonics, people can make use of elaborative encoding, retrieval cues, and imagery as specific tools to encode any given information in a way that allows for efficient storage and retrieval.


During university, I used to employ a specific technique I called “the rule of three” to allow me to remember ways to solve different math problems. I used to write down the solution of a problem, after understanding its mechanics, on a piece of paper slowly and deliberately. This process, almost magically, helped me recall the solution effortlessly during an exam.


My main point here is under no circumstances to degrade the notion and importance of memory, but to question ubiquitous assumptions that memory is one of the holy grails of intelligence.


That is also a critique of the prevailing tactics of the current education system that focuses mainly on the promotion of rote memorization instead of creative thinking.


Interesting Fact via “About Memory“: The brain areas known to be important for fluid cognition are part of an interconnected system associated with emotion and stress response, and it is hypothesized that functions heretofore considered distinct from emotional arousal, such as reasoning and planning, are in fact very much part of a system in which emotional response is involved. We’re not saying here that emotions can disrupt your reasoning processes, we all know that. What is being suggested is more radical – that emotions are part and parcel of the reasoning process.


How to fix intelligence – Proposals


If you come to think about it, smart people are perceived as smart because of their ability to make difficult things look easy.


The universe is a very elaborate and complex system, and it is this complexity that requires us to be smarter. The smarter we become, the better we will be able to identify and eventually exploit regularities in a random and complex environment.

Our history as species is a prescient story of survival, adversity, and prosperity that hinges on how persistent we are in reinventing our strategy towards complexity.


Such a perennial struggle might seem intolerable for most of us, but the truth is that if we don’t embrace it and eventually internalize it, it will persist and intensify.


As I mentioned earlier, the current status quo doesn’t really favor innovative approaches to our current predicament. The modern education system is operating more like a worker factory than it is as a knowledge cultivation hub.


Contrarian approaches need to be nurtured both on a personal, but also on a family and, eventually, community level if we ever want to escape the maladies of modern education.


Persistent reliance on erroneous practices is a recipe for disaster that will only result in further stagnation.


It is imperative to create a pedagogical schema that helps people embrace uncertainty and provoke conventional thinking.


To move from a nascent state to a sustainable steady state, there are steps in between that will require both stimulus and guardrails. This interim period needs to manage two strong forces:


  • The resistance from actors supporting the current system.
  • The friction encountered during the initial adoption of innovative philosophies.

To the best of my knowledge, such ambitious endeavors can’t be expected to come to fruition overnight.


They require systematic adherence to a certain knowledge framework that is comprised of the following parameters:


  • Artistic appreciation – That is the realization that there is truth in art and that the capacity of the individual to explore and understand the underlying truth in art reinforces their capacity to think in an intelligent way.
  • Multidisciplinary thinking – That is the immersion in various disciplines in an attempt to formulate a more holistic interpretation of the world around us.
  • Innovative technologies – That is the ability to keep up with new trends in technology, the rejection of technology as a tool for solely entertainment purposes and the realization that technology will enact monumental changes in monolithic structures within society that previously seemed impossible.
  • Philosophical and psychological awareness – That is the comprehension and eventual internalization of major philosophical and psychological concepts that can aid the rise of self-awareness.
  • Mind and body connection – That is the realization that mind and body are interconnected systems that need to operate synergistically and that the negligence of the one will impede the growth of the other.
  • Proper understanding of history and national identity – That is the adoption of the belief that history is a place where multifarious lessons can be extracted and that these lessons can offer important guidance to the way the individual understands his or her roots.  

In closing, I am going to engage in a controversial comment:


Whenever you notice people exhibiting non-intelligent behavior, although IQ, memory, and upbringing may play their role, I strongly believe that the non-intelligent behavior is, primarily, a byproduct of the mental and physical space they decided to inhabit.


The disposition of humans to blend in order to avoid ostracism can generate a contradiction between what they actually believe and how they manifest what they believe into words and deeds, leading to what we perceive as non-intelligent behavior.


Such a space generates parochial attitudes antithetical to the mere nature of intelligence, thus recycling behaviors and mindsets toxic for the flourishing of an individual.


What keeps feeding my optimism, though, is that the Internet has helped voices that were afraid to express contrarian viewpoints in the past, do so nowadays without fear, even if some are anonymous.


For me, this is the only cure for non-intelligent behavior; to empower the individual to such an extent that they can understand that their intelligence can only flourish when they embrace personal responsibility, pursue freedom and are contrarian whenever the situation demands it.


History is the greatest school of all and history has shown that only contrarians can turn the tide.


As I mentioned before, over the past 5 years, I immersed in activities that clearly helped me improve my intelligence and showcase more intelligent behaviors. 30 of those activities are collected in my popular book “30 Challenges-30 Days-Zero Excuses.” I suggest you try them out. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.


Also, don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter. It is thought-provoking, free, easy to unsubscribe and some great resources will await you once you confirm your subscription:


[1] https://www.livescience.com/36143-iq-change-time.html

[2] https://www.intelltheory.com/flynneffect.shtml

[3] https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/human-memory.htm


Featured Image: Photo by Cody Davis on Unsplash. If you get why I chose this photo for this article, email me your interpretation.

Adrian Iliopoulos

I am the founder and main contributor at "The Quintessential Mind" - A unique personal blog that offers a holistic approach to self-development. I am striving to create high-quality content by investing in a reality-based form of self-help, informed by a deep understanding of psychology, philosophy and my own personal experiences and social adventures.
Adrian Iliopoulos