Defining intelligence: What does it mean and how do we measure it?

What is intelligence? 

The word comes from the Latin “intellegō” meaning to choose between different options. 

Essentially, then, intelligence in its original definition means perceptiveness and discernment. 

The different forms of intelligence

Theories of intelligence vary widely, but the consensus emerging at this time is that of multiple intelligences, which means various ways to be smart. 

In this model, there are eight main types of intelligence

They are:

  • Numerical intelligence: skill and aptitude working with numbers, equations, mathematics and calculations.
  • Verbal intelligence: skill and aptitude with words, speech, linguistics, language learning, linguistic subtlety and context, songwriting and poetry. 
  • Spatial and visual intelligence
  • Musical intelligence
  • Bodily intelligence
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Interpersonal intelligence
  • Environmental intelligence

How do we measure intelligence? 

Mathematical, verbal, interpersonal, musical and visual intelligence can be at least partially measured via testing and various types of exams. 

Bodily intelligence and environmental intelligence remain somewhat more subjective or at least more difficult to quantify under a testing model or by asking questions or assigning tasks. 

The main ways to measure intelligence at this time remain the IQ test, the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale and the Stanford-Binet scales. 

There is no one universalized IQ or intelligence test, although various types predominate and have become more popular. 

Here’s a look at these ways of measuring intelligence: 

IQ Tests

IQ is an abbreviation of Intelligence Quotient. 

The way a modern IQ score is determined is actually quite simple: you are rated on a Bell Curve for intelligence compared to peers in your age group.

In this case, 100 indicates a higher average score than those in your age range and less than 100 representing lesser average scores than your peers. 

Generally more than 110 is considered “very smart,” with ranges increasing from there, while 200 is the maximum. A score lower than about 70 generally indicates some mental confusion, disability or particularly low intellectual ability. 

Wechsler Scales

Developed in 1955 by Romanian American psychologist David Wechsler, The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) measures intelligence aspects of intellectual and cognitive ability. 

The tests came before the theory of multiple intelligences and don’t take into account aspects of creativity and other forms of artistic or spatial awareness.

Nonetheless, WAIS is still widely used and respected to measure intellectual ability. In addition to measuring intelligence, Wechsler hoped his tests could point out early symptoms of mental illness in kids and different learning challenges. 

The WAIS is an aptitude test that is expensive to do and must be administered one-on-one, but can be useful for diagnosing particular gifts or problems, especially in kids. 

The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales 

The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales are a test given one-on-one that measures your IQ as well as your specific intelligence in verbal intelligence, nonverbal intelligence, working memory, fluid reasoning, visual and spatial intelligence and ability to grasp complex knowledge. 

Anyone from a small child to an elderly adult of 85 can take this test. 

Scores on the Stanford-Binet can range from under 40 to over 160. It can be helpful in many circumstances to take a more specific view of areas of intelligence. 

Looking at intelligence in a new way

As I mentioned earlier, intelligence is widely viewed as having multiple vectors and coming in various forms apart from purely intellectual. 

You can be creatively and visually brilliant while being terrible at math, or be a linguistic prodigy but have a hard time understanding directional and spatial reasoning or logic. 

Scientists also tend to talk a lot about what leads to intelligence, including the ongoing debate about whether intelligence is more determined by environment and upbringing or by genetics and inherent nature

However, when we take into account the nature of creativity and artistic and environmental or emotional intelligence, it becomes clear that the old way of looking at intelligence is becoming at least partly outmoded. 

There is certainly still such a thing as being intellectually intelligent and “bright.” Verbal and numerical intelligence definitely exists and definitely can be measured to some extent. 

Yet at the same time there are undoubtedly different ways to be intelligent and it’s important to recognize that in order to more effectively provide insights and a framework for people to find their purpose and inspiration. 

Believing you are utterly brilliant or desperately stupid is unhelpful. The one tends to lead to arrogance and overestimation of one’s abilities, while the other tends to lead to undervaluing oneself and self-sabotage. 

The fact is that even if you are a measurably brilliant musician, you may be quite a poor communicator or mathematician, and vice versa. 

Helping people see how their intelligence varies and fits in many categories is a helpful way to increase appreciation and the chance for contribution from everybody. 

Being smart or stupid

One of the strongest proponents of the idea of multiple intelligences was psychologist and researcher Howard Gardner. 

As Gardner pointed out, our evolution demanded many different kinds of intelligence

If everybody developed the historical ability to have high verbal intelligence without any numerical abilities or spatial intelligence, most of us probably wouldn’t exist or would just be gathered around a burned out camp reciting poetry while half-starving.

We evolved to be good at different things, and there’s something beautiful about that.

Some needed to be good at building fires and structures, while others needed to be strategic about tracking bison or understanding the patterns of the weather. 

It’s not about “better” or “worse,” and ideas like “stupid” or “smart” are also increasingly vague statements in many ways, particularly when taken in isolation from other social and psychological questions. 

For example, you could be a brilliant author like F. Scott Fitzgerald but still be beset by suicidal depression and alcoholism. 

Or you could be an incredible mathematician like John Nash but still be plagued by devastating mental illness and paranoid, racist delusions.

Intelligence is not just one thing, and having particular intelligence in any one or various fields is no immunization against having deep challenges in other areas of your life, career or development. 

Having said that, evolution provided roles and abilities for everyone and the way we measure intelligence is certainly evolving and should be evolving. 

But let’s take a deeper dive here. Does this mean that nobody really has the evidence to prove intelligence or stupidity? 

Is intelligence just a cultural term and true and untrue merely conventions that most agree on at any one time?

Debunking cognitive relativism 

Cognitive relativism is the belief that truth and ideas like intelligence or being “correct” are just cultural and historical constructs. 

In other words, truth or untruth and intelligence or stupidity are just ideas in our head passed to us by our culture and have no ultimate meaning or validity. 

Thinkers like Michel Foucault and Thomas Kuhn have championed these ideas of relativism, but like many people who over-analyze and overthink, they are wrong and end up tying themselves into knots. 

Unlike moral relativism, which was also pushed by people like Foucault, cognitive relativism asserts that most facts themselves are mainly a matter of opinion and consensus rather than any inherent truth.

If cognitive relativism is true, then it breaks its own rule of asserting that no one thing can be true. 

It can be thrown out on such a basis alone, but at a higher level it can also be debunked by considering that it ignores numerous examples of objective truth such as the law of gravity or the fact that water nourishes the human body and sustains it. 

These aren’t opinions, just facts. 

The relation to intelligence in intellectual terms is clear: 2+2 is indeed four, and this is not just a cultural belief. It is a fact. 

But what about when it comes to things like artistic ability or musical skill? How can these objectively be measured?

Measuring beauty and creativity

As any sophisticated person will tell you, the truly timeless works of art and beautiful creations are adored partly for their priceless and immeasurable quality. 

You could go through and give every Renoir painting a numerical rating based on 10 factors that are rated out of 10 and then divided by 10 to give an exact score for each painting like 8.2.

But what would it really mean? If you look at an 8.2 and become emotional and swept up in nostalgia and inspiration, but have no reaction to a 9.7, who is to say that the 9.7 is “better?”

Objective and numerical measurement of art and creation is not generally a useful proposition. 

But this doesn’t mean that we cannot point out specific elements of art, music, architecture and creative projects that inspire and awe us. 

Indeed, entire books have been written on arches or the creative process behind Beethoven’s symphonies. 

Not all intelligence needs to be measured. Sometimes it can just be appreciated. 

Many of the greatest figures of history who changed the world the most were complex and sometimes paradoxical mixtures of many character traits. They were smart one moment, stubborn-headed and angry the next. 

Sometimes true intelligence needs to be worked with and appreciated more as a force of nature than a quantifiable commodity the way that capitalistic society wants it to be. 

This extends to the audience member, the reader, the student, the appreciator of art: your intelligence in appreciating and caring about beauty, truth and inspiration is, itself, a form of intelligence and culture. 

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