What Makes You So Smart?
Are you smart? Really? How smart? Socrates famously said that “the only true knowledge lies in knowing that you know nothing.”
More recently, G. H. Hardy wrote that “For any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.” Einstein himself said that his gift for “fantasy” was more important than his ability to retain facts.
Those are some pretty smart guys, so they would know.
That some of history’s most brilliant people hold such opinions about what it means to be smart should give the rest of us pause. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “smart is as smart does.” So the question is, what does smart do?
We’re all familiar with the concept of innate genius, those who were simply born with incredible intellectual aptitude. They make intriguing fictional characters, like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting or Dr. Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds, but are there really such people?
It appears that there are. History has documented prodigies such as Leonhard Euler, Carl Friedrich Gauss and John von Neumann, all of whom had seemingly superhuman faculties in computation, memory and languages.
There are stories of Gauss doing complex computations in his head at the age of three. It was said that von Neumann could read a book in one language and recite it from memory in another. As a child in Budapest, his parents would entertain guests by having him memorize pages of the phonebook at a glance.
However, despite these exceptional talents, another salient feature of these amazing minds is that most people have never heard of them. Meanwhile, others famous for major intellectual breakthroughs, such as Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, were late starters, showing little or no special early aptitude.
The measure most associated with innate intelligence is the IQ score. We’re all given IQ tests at a young age to gauge our intellectual aptitude and there is much evidence to support the importance of IQ scores. Identical twins raised separately have very similar IQ’s and scores correlate fairly well with later professional success in intellectual fields.
However, the relationship is far from complete. While a reasonably high IQ is required to perform well at certain tasks, once a threshold is past it loses its relevance. Richard Feynman, a Nobel prizewinning physicist considered so smart that even other leaders in the field considered him a “magician,” had an IQ of only 125, above average but by no means unusual.
Another curious thing about IQ scores is that they keep rising, by about 3 points per decade, a documented fact referred to as the Flynn Effect. That’s much too fast to arise from anything but environmental factors. Steven Johnson, for one, attributes it to more complexity in popular culture, such as TV shows and video games. There are of course, other theories as well.
In any case, we’re all getting smarter. It also stands to reason that some of us are improving faster than others. So, while very few of us are blessed with photographic memories or can count cards in Las Vegas with Tom Cruise, overwhelming empirical evidence suggests that we can improve our aptitude.
Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist who researches decision making. He became intrigued when one of his patients, a highly intelligent and professionally successful man named “Elliot,” suffered from a brain lesion that impaired his ability to experience emotion. It soon became clear that Elliot was unable to make decisions as well.
This became the basis for Damasio’s Somatic Marker Hypothesis. The idea is that when we encounter certain stimuli, we have a physiological reaction (in effect, a “gut feeling”) which drives how we will react. We can use our powers of rationality to override these feelings of intuition, but only with difficulty.
Researchers call our ability to recognize such stimuli in other people and act appropriately emotional intelligence. Some even suggest that emotional intelligence has greater influence on professional success than IQ does.
One thing is clear, being smart involves a whole lot more than the ability to retain facts and calculate figures. Our minds are set up to take shortcuts, which is why we learn with experience. Smart thinking often depends not on being able to retain and manipulate lots of information, but by focusing on the data that matters most.
What Smart People Do
Chess Grand Masters are able to remember where every piece on a chessboard sits, even if they are playing 20 games at once. Jack Welch was legendary for his ability to digest complicated financial statements at a glance. Aren’t these signs of unusual ability?
Hardly. In memory tests unrelated to chess, Grand Masters don’t perform any better than anyone else. Jack Welch’s amazing feats of financial cognition were conspicuously absent in his early career. What they are actually doing is chunking. In other words, they are recognizing familiar patterns, not memorizing atomic facts.
And that, it seems, is where the secret lies. Our ability to think is a direct result of the firing of synapses in our brain, most of which, we acquire throughout life. Smart people, then, are the ones who constantly seek out new patterns and learn to recognize them.
The ability to retain facts and compute numbers is, of course, helpful, but as computers increasingly do those things for us, the value of natural skills in those areas is diminishing. To innovate, we need to understand relationships between clusters of information and realize new and important ones when we see them.
How to Get Smarter
The truth about being smart is both encouraging and daunting. The smartest of us get that way by working at it. Einstein spent 10 years thinking about special relativity before he was able to publish his breakthrough paper. He then spent another ten years before completing general relativity. Geniuses, it seems, are more often made than born.
Moreover, the vast body of research suggests concrete steps we can take to improve our intellectual ability.
Build a Database of Experience: The reason that people like chess Grand Masters and Jack Welch can instantly recognize complicated patterns is because they have seen so many of them. The more our neurons fire, the more synapses we build and the better we will be able to “chunk” information.
Break Out of Your Comfort Zone: As we settle into a specific field of endeavor, we stop actively thinking and rely on patterns that are familiar to us, which is very helpful for executing tasks, but hinders our faculty for original thought. That’s why, as I wrote in a previous post, great innovation is more likely to happen when you cross domains.
It is not enough to simply go through the motions. In order to build our abilities, cognitive or otherwise, we must think about what we’re doing, concentrate while we’re doing it and then review what we have done. Further, we need to seek out mentors and peers who will critique our efforts.
So, it seems, Socrates had it right all the time. If you want to be smart, it helps to think of yourself as dumb. That’s how you keep learning.
Update: In an earlier version, I wrote that IQ’s were rising by about 3% per year, which was a misprint. It’s about 3% per decade. Thanks to Christopher Burd for pointing that out.