Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A few thoughts on intelligence

So I read Gino Segre's book Faust in Copenhagen (which I quite like) a while back, and now I'm reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein. Both are about the doings of geniuses, Einstain being the obvious one, but Faust in Copenhagen is about people almost as revered in physics: Bohr, Pauli, Dirac, Heisenberg and Schrödinger among others. What separates these people from regular folks like me? I'm pretty smart, but by no means a genius. Obviously these people have accomplished far more than I probably ever will (at least in terms of physics), but what traits did they have that made these advances possible? Obviously a large amount of intelligence, but what is intelligence? Many people (and almost all game designers) think of intelligence as a single value, measured by IQ, and known by some social science researchers as "g" (for general intelligence). What is this "g", however? What traits do people with high "g" have? I've made a list of ones I can think of right now (it's by no means exhaustive). Also note that not everyone with a high intelligence has all of these traits (as a hint to where I'm going, I'm trying to figure out what one of these traits all geniuses have, and is in some sense true intelligence).

  • Education: This is more than knowing just a lot of facts, but understanding what they mean.
  • Memory: ability to learn quickly.
  • Computational ability: ability to do mental computations quickly. This mostly means math, but can also include other types of computation like finding anagrams, etc.
  • Creativity: ability to come up with new ideas.
  • Mental Quickness: ability to think on one's feet.
  • Mental Clarity: ability to reduce a problem to it's essentials, as well as to separate what one wants to be true, from what is true.
All of these are parts of intelligence. I would say that computation and memory are becoming less important as computers get more ubiquitous and powerful. Mental quickness is helpful in many situations, but not for making true breakthroughs. Of the remaining three Education is necessary but not sufficient: a thorough understanding of the topic is important to advancing it, but many people understand things and are not geniuses, also education is not inherent to a person and does not correspond to what we often think of as intelligence. It seems that a combination of creativity and mental clarity is the key condition of genius. Someone who is otherwise intelligent and is creative, but not mentally clear will become a crank. Someone who is mentally clear, but not creative would make a good critic or regular working person in their field, but not a genius. The combination is what makes genius.

Now different geniuses have had different relative strengths: for example Einstein is almost the poster by for creativity above all, whereas Pauli was known as the Scourge of God because he was able to see the flaws in an idea so quickly and is the perfect example of Mental Clarity.

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