We have always referred to people with exceptional abilities as “smart”, “clever” or “bright”. By doing so, we unconsciously recognize the existence of a number of different intelligence-subtypes. It has now become a commonsense notion that there exist certain types of intelligence like “arithmetic” intelligence, an “artistic” intelligence, a “commonsense” intelligence, a “cognitive” intelligence, “semantic” (vocabulary based) intelligence or “knowledge based” intelligence.
Such a categorization is rooted in our concept that a person who is good at one specific area should necessarily be deficient in another area. For example there are examples around us, of exceptionally brilliant scientist who are absent-minded or super mathematicians who can hardly learn a new language etc.
So how far is this notion true…?
Well, scientifically speaking, this notion is partly correct and partly wrong. The analysis of data from more than 400 classic databases on human intelligence research has brought to light three important findings about this:
a) People good at one area of intelligence tend to be good at all other areas generally!
b) Intelligence can be an expression of certain pools of interrelated abilities.
c) Though people have a tendency to be “generally intelligent”, there are sufficient evidences for specific types of intelligences and people who are good in such areas.
Let us examine each. Point (a) suggests that there is definitely something called “general” intelligence…some specific property of the brain that makes you “clever” on the whole.
What is this property of the brain ?
Extensive research into factors like “brain size”, electrical activity, its efficiency in processing visual data, and reaction time to various challenges have shown that people with higher intelligence have faster decision and response times. Such tests have concluded that intelligence correlates well with “speed of processing information”. It is curious to note that though this is the case, we don’t yet have a consensus on how exactly we‘re gonna test this “speed”!
Point (a) also suggests that our intuition about “clever” people being adept at one thing and inept at another is not exactly true.
Though there are sharply defined pools of intellectual abilities, in reality, a clever person can possess varying degrees of all these abilities. But there are compelling evidences of patients called “idiot savants” in neurology that are exceptions to this rule. These patients are a result of a phenomenon called “ Paradoxical functional facilitation”. This means that some brain related hindrances or injuries can result not only in loss or suppression of particular functions but also the enhancement of certain other abilities.
Idiot savants generally have the IQ of a 5 year old or a 10 year old child but may exhibit amazing capabilities in other areas like Calculations or Artistic works, or music.
A famous example is that of Nadia, an “autistic savant” patient who could draw more life-like illustrations than even DaVinci at the age of 8. There are similar people who can retain thousands of pages of Shakespearian literature, but can’t even find their way home after an evening walk. The theory behind this is that the birth injuries caused to their brains enhance the expansion and development of certain other unexpected areas.
Point (b) supports the “savant” theory to some extent. There are indeed inter related pools of certain intelligences, which are outlined as below.
- Verbal Comprehension pool: consists of abilities involvingVocabulary, similarities, information processing & comprehension
- Perceptual organization: includes abilities like completing patterns, picture sequencing, block designs and matrix reasoning.
- Working memory: comprises faculties like digit span, letter-number sequencing, and arithmetic intelligence.
- Processing speed: constituted by abilities like symbol search and digit-symbol decoding.
All these capacities exhibited in intelligence tests can be conveniently categorized into 8 chief mental faculties, viz.
- Visual perception
- Auditory perception
- Fluid intelligence
- Retrieval ability
- Crystallized intelligence
- Cognitive speediness
- General memory and learning
- Processing speed
In 1988, Snyderman and Rothman brought out a book on IQ controversies. They published the results of an opinion poll conducted among the specialists in cognitive psychology and allied fields.
About 99% opined that the major element of intelligence was “Abstract Thinking”. The “Ability to Solve Problems” was chosen by ~97%. And 96% of the experts considered intelligence as a product of the “Capacity to Acquire Knowledge” too. But curious enough, only 80% chose Memory as a component. Cognitive speediness was considered by 71% and General knowledge by 62%.
Still strange was the case of Creativity: hardly 60% chose this aspect as an important constituent of intelligence!!
Research data run parallel to this poll result…but we shouldn’t forsake the fact that some of the most successful scientific theories in mankind’s history were born out of sheer creativity. Examples include General Relativity, parts of QED, photonics, Planck’s theories…