What Is Intelligence?


Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Socrates said, “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” For centuries, philosophers have tried to pinpoint the true measure of intelligence. More recently, neuroscientists have entered the debate, searching for answers about intelligence from a scientific perspective: What makes some brains smarter than others? Are intelligent people better at storing and retrieving memories? Or perhaps their neurons have more connections allowing them to creatively combine dissimilar ideas? How does the firing of microscopic neurons lead to the sparks of inspiration behind the atomic bomb? Or to Oscar Wilde’s wit?

Uncovering the neural networks involved in intelligence has proved difficult because, unlike, say, memory or emotions, there isn’t even a consensus as to what constitutes intelligence in the first place. It is widely accepted that there are different types of intelligence—analytic, linguistic, emotional, to name a few—but psychologists and neuroscientists disagree over whether these intelligences are linked or whether they exist independently from one another.
The 20th century produced three major theories on intelligence. The first, proposed by Charles Spearman in 1904, acknowledged that there are different types of intelligence but argued that they are all correlated—if people tend do well on some sections of an IQ test, they tend to do well on all of them, and vice versa. So Spearman argued for a general intelligence factor called “g,” which remains controversial to this day. Decades later, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner revised this notion with his Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which set forth eight distinct types of intelligence and claimed that there need be no correlation among them; a person could possess strong emotional intelligence without being gifted analytically. Later in 1985, Robert Sternberg, the former dean of Tufts, put forward his Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, which argued that previous definitions of intelligence are too narrow because they are based solely on intelligences that can be assessed in IQ test. Instead, Sternberg believes types of intelligence are broken down into three subsets: analytic, creative, and practical.

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