What is Intelligence?

I enjoy a good general knowledge quiz and I am fascinated by the skills of some high profile and successful quizzers like the stalwarts of ITV’s ‘The Chase’ such as ‘The Governess’, ‘The Beast’ and ‘The Dark Destroyer’, otherwise known as Anne Hegerty, Mark Labbett and Shaun Wallace. The breadth and range of their knowledge, the accuracy and speed of their recall and the fact that they stay calm and confident through questions, easy and challenging alike, is impressive. Do I think they are persons of high intelligence? Not necessarily, especially since I watched a new ITV production ‘The Chasers Road Trip: Trains, Brains and Automobiles’. In this piece of popular TV, according to the promotional material; “we follow our three fearless brainboxes as they pit their wits against extraordinary competition as they try to answer the age old question ‘Are we really as smart as we think we are?’

For years the majority of my clinical practice consisted of individual assessment work, an important aspect of which was to determine an individual’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses in order to help them in their studies and/or work. The arguments for and against cognitive assessment are many and feature in an ongoing debate within psychology. This isn’t the place to go into the details of this but in relation to the question of intelligence the problem I encountered most frequently was upon the fixation and in my view, mistaken, notion that a cognitive assessment could define an individual’s complex and multi-faceted intelligence in its entirety and irrespective of any factors other than what the individual brought to the table on one particular occasion. For example, I have assessed people whose cognitive scores were so low that, were you to think that their whole intelligence was thus reflected it would mean the chances of them living functional, let alone independent and successful lives would be minimal. This, I have observed, countless times, is nonsense. Going to the other end of the intelligence spectrum, I have assessed some people whose scores were so high and at the upper reaches of the possible test scores, that you might think they could not fail to be completely successful in any aspect of living but again, this is a fallacy.

The word ‘intelligence’ comes from the Latin word intellegentia, which in turn emanates from intellegere that means quite literally to choose between or to comprehend or discern. Inter means between and legere means to choose. This is interesting and encapsulates the essence of what most agree is intelligence, i.e. the capacity of an organism (I’ll put artificial intelligence, AI, to one side for another post for now) to notice, take in, understand, process and organise, what is in the environment around them and to then select aspects, parts and/or functions in a way that suits their needs and/or wishes and informs their actions. 

Back to the reason for me writing this post; a mild disappointment about my own TV viewing choice and also the choices made by the Chasers I mentioned in the first paragraph in agreeing to take part in a daft and simplistic TV programme. The main idea in Episode 1 was that by pitting human quiz champions attempting a new (to them) cognitive activity against bonobos and chimpanzees who have been trained repeatedly over time to do the same test we can then conclude on the basis of the inevitable results in which the animals win, that the humans aren’t as smart as you would assume.

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