Everyone’s intelligence is unique and changeable. Here is why.

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Everyone is made up of the same matter; most humans have the same anatomy – 2 hands, 2 legs, 1 head, etc. Layouts are roughly the same. But, the more you zoom in, the more differences you find. We have differently-sized palms, we have different eyebrows, lips, noses, etc.

So why are we unique if we have the same brain and body?

The answer lies in how much you are willing to zoom-in into the brain or someone’s mental capacity to draw comparisons.

While it is true that most of us have roughly the same brain structure, there is a whole lotta difference at the finer level of neural connections and neural density. This difference is an “accumulated difference” from all of our experiences, past learning, stress from the environment, and even the order in which we learned things and used them professionally. The form of our brain is genetically determined in its rough structure but dependent on the environment for finer differences.

We, individuals, have many differences. 80 billion neurons – each with 100s of 1000s of connections to other neurons. The way these neurons are connected changes how the brain functions. Due to minute changes in how our genes organize the cells in our bodies, the ever-changing environment, and differences in our experiences, these 80 billion neurons have small differences in how they connect to each other. These individual differences exist.

Differences in intelligence

Researchers have looked at intelligence from just about every angle – genetic, adaptation and evolution, theoretical models, arrangement of neurons, cell structure, life experience, etc. From our personal uniqueness point of view, Howard Gardner’s 8 intelligence types is useful. He defines intelligence as “biopsychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture.

His 8 types are:

  1. Visuo-spatial intelligence – Describes sophistication in visualizing and arranging information in a mental map.
  2. Naturalist intelligence – Describes an understanding of nature and life forms.
  3. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence – Describes a deep understanding of movement, body positions, coordination, dance, sports, etc.
  4. Musical intelligence – Describes an intuitive understanding of sounds, rhythm, voice, etc.
  5. Linguistic intelligence – Describes language skills and comprehension.
  6. Intra-personal intelligence – Describes personal insight, self-reflection, self-awareness, etc.
  7. Interpersonal intelligence – Describes social and emotional intelligence regarding relationships, culture, communities, etc.
  8. Logical-mathematical intelligence – Describes scientific thinking, liking of numbers and theories, etc.

These intelligences are not just cultivated, they are partly inherited through biology. During a child’s growth, society observes these and encourages them to build skills in some areas. So a small bump in 1 type of intelligence becomes a specialized intelligence in the future. Similarly, there could be high intelligence in all 8 domains but only a few are encouraged in schools and at home, so over time, a child acquired specialized skills in just 1 or 2 domains. It’s predisposition + lifelong developments that create unique differences in intelligence.

Regardless of IQ scores, one study[1] on 1000+ 12 to 16-year-old school children saw there was a huge diversity in all types of intelligence and most students (low and high IQ) had more than 2 types of intelligence. But only logical-mathematical, music, and visuo-spatial intelligence correlated with IQ. Students had other forms of intelligence unrelated to IQ, but more often than not, schools and society don’t encourage honing those other forms of intelligence. That’s an opportunity for developing unique intelligence in children.

The main finding here is that children had multiple types of intelligence simultaneously, which means they also had unique combinations of intelligence, making them as students, more unique.

Fluid vs. Crystalized intelligence

Let’s now simplify this. Another approach to individual differences in intelligence is to look at crystallized and fluid intelligence. Crystalized intelligence is past learning and Fluid intelligence is the brain’s processing power in a particular situation.

All 8 domains could technically improve crystallized intelligence if someone builds skills and specializations.

Fluid intelligence is very interesting because researchers know we have cognitive processes like memory, attention, perception, and decision-making working together. But where is the “core” intelligence here? One point of view, which I personally think fits the world as we know it, is that our ability to break down problems into small chunks and then combat big problems is a form of intelligence in itself. Here’s an example. You are new at your college and you’ve been given a new assignment on a topic you’ve never studied before. Will you have the capacity to break down that new topic into small manageable parts and conquer it, or the whole thing has to make sense from the very start?

One study[2] suggests our ability to make micro-decisions and break down a complex task into small sub-tasks is our “fluid intelligence”. It uses attention, memory, working memory, critical assessment, etc., together. Why should this be the case? Researchers argue that high fluid intelligence can manage more complex sub-tasks. And low fluid intelligence makes it harder to manage complex sub-tasks even if they are small tasks. Fluidity in intelligence is proportional to the complexity of a small task that one can handle.

This is where humans get more interesting. Breaking down a task into small units is a skill we acquire since birth. We develop this skill differently based on how we are challenged, what we are exposed to, what we are encouraged to do, etc., So our fluid intelligence itself becomes diverse and unique. And on top of that, all our life experience adds to more variation in crystallized intelligence.

It is also very easy to say we are similar to chimps and yet we have the internet and they don’t. It’s about how detailed a picture you are looking at to see the differences. Humans and chimps have about a 95% similarity in genetic coding. Humans on average, from any race and place, are 99.9% similar. You can read more about genetic variation here[3].

But that ain’t the main thing. Humans are plastic and developmental beings. That means we change over our lifespan. Many of our traits and capacities are ephemeral. We change how we think, how well we think, how our brain is organized, etc.

Neural connections change based on what we learn. There are massive differences between some regions for musicians and non-musicians, professional taxi drivers, and direction-void people like me.

Neural changes have a 2-way channel with mental capacities. Just like mental capacities have a 2-way channel with neural changes. One affects the other in both directions.

Culture

Some cultures have different ways of conceptualizing ideas and have different words for them. The Kuuk Thaayorre people from Pormpuraaw (west of Cape York) don’t have words for left and right. They always speak in terms of north, south, east, and west. They even locate objects based on these directions. For example, they can point to a rock and say it is northwest of me. This cultural quirk[4] has positively affected their direction orientation and spatial reasoning, making them better than us – we, the traditional ‘left-right’ people.

Another example of a debated phenomenon is the extensive vocabulary the Inuits have for snow. Turns out they have many different words and this may be due to the dominance of snow in their area which has conditioned their senses to perceive subtle differences. Here is a detailed account of it[5]. Most of us from non-snowy regions call all things white, soft and falling from the sky snow.

These differences further affect one’s readiness to assess something ‘intelligently.’ One isn’t stupid if one can’t differentiate between multiple types of snow. The context matters. Similarly, one isn’t more intelligent because one can recognize everyone’s voices perfectly. Such differences are abundant. And there are transfer effects (a skill in one domain helping in a different domain) in noticing changes that could contribute to higher or lower IQ.

These factors contribute to what we call intelligence. Now IQ is not intelligence. What people often misunderstand is that IQ is a number that correlates with many abilities that predict intelligence – verbal ability, attention span, memory, etc.

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Changing IQ

IQs are roughly stable but one cannot say that IQ is hardcoded in us. Early experiences that help build memory or train your attention span can affect IQ in the future. So human experiences and their biology, both contribute to IQ.

IQs follow the normal distribution where the human average is an IQ of 100 (by design). 99.9% of people will be in the 60-140 range. The interesting thing is that a number of studies have found that practicing IQ test-like tasks[6] and practicing other cognitive tasks[7] (like memory training and learning logic) can improve your IQ over time. But, there is research that suggests the IQ score increase is not genuine[8]. Regardless of what the studies say, there is an element of assumptions here. You can interpret your growth in intelligence as “rigging the game” by practicing it more than others or improving your overall cognitive capacity and becoming more intelligent based on how much you assume your intelligence is changeable in the first place.

Now, how someone uses their cognitive capacity to function in life is further affected by their motivation to do so – by their readiness to do well, their confidence in their own ability, etc. This may not guarantee neural changes over a short term but it can affect the IQ score.

Add a layer of expectations and confidence to real-life differences in intelligence. Let’s take memory as an example. Your confidence[9] in what you can remember or not, affects what you actually remember. And, other people’s expectations affect how well you perform in school.[10] (it’s called the Pygmalion effect)

Motivation during an IQ is very well documented[11], and we see 1 trend – motivation determines the IQ score. On average, trying hard to do well in an IQ test and getting incentivized to take the IQ test can bump your score by 10 points. Researchers propose that the value of IQ reduces in predicting achievement and success once you consider how much motivation affects the score.

This is a crazy opportunity for individual differences to arise.

Do you see why it is so easy for people to have different IQs, different personalities, different skills, etc. even though we all roughly have the same brain structure?

A lot of it depends on your choices while you are alive. You are uniquely intelligent. That’s probably the best way I can put it and that isn’t political correctness.

P.S. I have something more for you if you liked this article. Have you wondered if you are weird or normal? You’ll find your answer here.

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3 thoughts on “Everyone’s intelligence is unique and changeable. Here is why.”

  1. Thanks for your insights.

    I think this explains perfectly what was going on:

    “Then they just become templates of thinking (mental models) which can be used in any other area. Transfer effects and mental models end up positively influencing the fundamentals that go into IQs – think short term memory, pattern matching, attention & working memory, etc.”

    Reply
  2. I really like this post and would like to add a bit my perspective (which supports 100% this point of view.

    1. When I was young, my parents, friends, and teachers were all telling me that I was intelligent. To the extent that it made my inferiority complex worse “I’m good at nothing except for being intelligent”.

    Yet, when I took an IQ test, I always failed badly.

    The reason why is that when I took them, I was worried I’ll fail in the only thing I had “intelligence”.

    I think elements such as fear of failure can affect an IQ test as much as the person’s intelligence itself.

    2. Related to the cultures part: If something that remotely looks like a crocodile is spotted miles away from my country’s shores, it will be all over the news, and people won’t go swimming anywhere for months – just in case the crock comes back.

    In Somalia, people just go swimming in crocodile-infested rivers after passing through a riverside infested with rattlesnakes.

    The reason they still go swimming, I’ve come to know, is that they know all the nuances of both rattlesnakes and crocodiles. They know not only if there is a crocodile in the vicinity or not, but can predict the crocodile’s every move.

    While once in a while a person does get eaten by a crocodile, it’s not common because they have developed the finer skills to deal with it.

    3. I believe intelligence can be increased at will. I’m a musician and there was a point in my life, where I was practicing so heavily (and with full motivation) that I started noticing changes in my brain.

    It’s hard to explain it but if I had to put it in words, I would say dots were being connected. I started seeing patterns in everything – life, politics, a flower, music – whatever.

    Do you have any knowledge of this process? I would love to know more about it and though I can’t exactly explain how it happened, I know it happened and I know it happened because of the practicing, not because I was growing up or anything.

    Reply
    • Hey Robert, thanks for sharing your story and the kind words! It’s honestly surprising how IQ scores rarely account for motivation and anxiety. The 3rd point you made is striking because that is a significant contributor to what we call intelligence. We are looking at something called the transfer of learning. Being a musician involves a lot of things like understanding patterns, non-linear thinking (harmonies), sequences, etc. One keeps honing these cognitive skills and internalizes them. Then they just become templates of thinking (mental models) which can be used in any other area. Transfer effects and mental models end up positively influencing the fundamentals that go into IQs – think short term memory, pattern matching, attention & working memory, etc.

      Regarding point 2, yeah I find this is a common cultural nuance. It’s almost like certain aspects of intelligence is embedded in culture. In India, it is so common to know 3 languages fluently that one may overvalue this as a sign of intelligence in single language cultures. Then there is the 3rd world trait of finding odd solutions to basic life problems (life hacks??) with random resources present in the house. This certainly ends up helping with problem solving skills. That’s an interesting example you’ve shared! Nuances matter a lot.

      Regarding point 1, yeah, I know the feeling. The anxiety of failing at the one thing you are supposed to be good at can be hard to deal with. You are right in pointing out that fear of failure can matter just as much. If you are interested you can look at research on test anxiety & motivational factors in testing. There is quite a lot of research. Here is one to begin with.

      Reply

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