Everyone wants to become smarter and more intelligent. I mean, who doesn’t dream to be the next Einstein’s or Elon Musk of their field or school?

But in the midst of all this excitement, few stop and ask what is it to actually be intelligent, what is it at the core of this mysterious ability that humans possess. Hopefully, if we end up discovering the essence of intelligence, perhaps we can figure out how to improve ours and become smarter…

Let’s take a look.

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Investigating Intelligence

Our first step will begin with ol’ friend the dictionary. If we google the definition of intelligence, the first result is:

The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.

It’s a good start but it doesn’t tell us much. Let’s check out the second result:

Intelligence has been defined in many ways: higher level abilities (such as abstract reasoning, mental representation, problem solving, and decision making), the ability to learn, emotional knowledge, creativity, and adaptation to meet the demands of the environment effectively.

That’s a better definition but still… it’s quite vague and it doesn’t pinpoint the essence of intelligence.

It seems we’ll need to find another way to go. So, let’s go deeper, into the mechanism of human thinking itself.

Categories and Distinctions

If we take a look at our own thoughts, we find that concepts are its building block – me, chair, youtube, tv, future, homework, imagination, stock market – and the interplay between them – I’m sitting on a chair watching YouTube, and I hope that the stock market goes up today.

These concepts spring to mind almost automatically and there’s little effort from our part to make them happen. That’s the brain way of dealing with the demands of the environment quickly and effectively.

If we are about to cross the street and there’s a big object coming our way fast, we instantaneously label it “car” as well as add several other tags like dangerous, red, Ford, and so on. But this tagging not only happens in extreme situations: we are swimming in it.

Right in this moment you are, an unconscious level, labeling everything around you, from the objects in your room to your own thoughts and emotions. In other words, the objects we encounter are assigned to a category – a mental box so to speak that pulls together many phenomena – that enables us to manage them effectively.

As an example…

You wake up at your friend’s place one night after hours of heavy drinking and, naturally, are desperate for a coffee. You walk down the stairs, open the drawer, and search for a cup. Although the ones he has are not the same to the ones you have at your place, they are similar enough to be included in the category cup. You proceed to grab one of them and pour the hot Italian coffee in it.

The process of categorization occurs so fast that it just seems that the name cup is written all over the object. In fact, for ages we believed that concepts and names just sprung from things in the real world, almost magically.

That’s a cup, that’s a tree, that’s Sarah, and there’s that annoying neighbor that I cannot stand. That’s the way it is… But consider this for a moment.

What if in our hypothetical hangover morning we walk downstairs, grab the “cup” and when we are about to pour the coffee a huge spider appears. Intuitively – BAM – you trap that scary monster with your spider-catcher, also previously known as cup.

What happened here is that you quickly changed how you categorized the object you had in your hand from cup – a recipient that is able to contain liquid – to a spider-catcher… in a matter of milliseconds.

Let’s do another one.

As you walk downstairs and grab your cup, you hear strange noises from the door. In a flash, a thief enters your friend’s house, and without thinking, you throw the cup at bulger. Luckily, you have good aim and hit him in the head, rendering him unconscious.

Again, the so-called cup moved to the category things-that-I-can-throw-the-thief-with.

These scenarios show us that how we understand the object “cup” changes on the situation, it’s not fixed. It can be a cup in one moment, and a second after it becomes a dangerous weapon. Sure, the object it still the same but way we hold it is completely different.

After reading this, you might argue that a cup is still a cup even though we categorize it differently when encountered with rare situations. But then, what is this category cup exactly? Is a broken cup still a cup? Is a cup with a hole within the category? Can a huge leaf with which I can drink water from considered a cup? Can my hands be labeled cup if I use them to drink water?

 You can see that the matter is not that simple.

Even though it seems that categories are rigid mental structures and that objects belong to just one of them, this hypothesis doesn’t hold when we put it under rigorous scrutiny.

The Flexibility of Categories

 We fall into the illusion that categories, and therefore reality, are fixed because our brain performs this process at lightning speed, but it’s just that, an illusion. The truth is that depending on the categories that we use to label and organize our experience, it’s how we will see and handle our world.

If we get fired from our job, we can categorize this event as an opportunity to look for something better and progress or as a curse-to-endure. Likewise, if we are walking down the street at night and two tall, hooded men are coming, they can be put in the category possible-thiefs or peaceful-peasants.

How we label people, situations, and places will determine how we will act and respond to them.

Categories create the point of view from which we will see the world, but even though its nature is arbitrary and subjective – meaning that there’s no one perfect correct category that fits every object, situation, and person – it doesn’t mean that there are ways of seeing that are better and more appropriate than others.

And that’s where intelligence comes in.

Defining Intelligence

When trying to come up with a story that illustrates intelligence at its finest, Archimedes and the crown is one of the first ones that comes to mind.

Archimedes, a popular Ancient Greek scientist, was charged with proving that a new crown made for Hieron, the king of Syracuse, was not pure gold as the goldsmith had claimed.

The scientist thought long and hard but could not find a method for proving that the crown was not solid gold. Tired, he filled a bathtub to relax a bit. When he got in, he noticed that water spilled over the edge and had a flash of insight: he realized that the water displaced by his body was equal to the density of his body. Knowing that gold was denser than other metals the crown maker could have substituted in, Archimedes had his method to determine that the crown was not pure gold. Forgetting that he was undressed, he went running naked down the streets from his home to the king shouting “Eureka!” 

If we carefully analyze the story, we realize what happened: everybody knows that the more one submerges into a body of water, the more its level rises. And Archimedes knew that gold had more density than most metals. What he did in his flash of insight was change his body and the crown categories’.

Instead of holding these objects in separate conceptual boxes, he realized that since both share certain characteristics, they can be categorized as objects with volume that can displace water – and therefore, what’s true for the body is also true for the crown. That was his stroke of genius.

Another powerful example is the story of Newton and Gravity.

Thanks to Galileo, Newton knew that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun… the question was why. As he was thinking about the problem under an apple tree, one of its fruits fell on his head, and that was when inspiration stroke.

He realized that the same force that was pulling the apple down also was keeping the earth and other planets from flying away. He called this force gravity.

In other words, by understanding that what was happening in space and what was occurring in his backyard shared the same conceptual skeleton – that both the Earth and the apple were attracted to the Sun and the ground respectively – he concluded that it was a result of the same force. Both occurrences were part of the category consequences of gravity.

These two stories show us that whenever one changes the categories of a situation, one changes the perspective on the situation, and that can lead to new, interesting, and intelligent ideas. But it’s not like categories appear out of thin air: they are created based on previous our past experience as well as the knowledge we learned and accumulated over the years.

So, based on what we discovered, we can now define intelligence as the ability to make the appropriate categories – slicing the world in such a way – that produce the intended results. This ability is determined by the number of categories we possess and therefore, the analogies and connections we can make. The question is, how can we create more of it?

Creating more intelligence and Becoming Smarter

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Ludwig Wittgenstein

Our level of intelligence is determined by the collection of categories and concepts that we acquired in the past and inherited from our culture. It follows that the more we store and learn, the more ways of seeing the world we possess.

It’s obvious now why the smartest people knew a lot about everything.

Da Vinci was an expert on biology, physics, botany, painting, and more.

  • Aristotle studied and wrote about metaphysics, poetry, music, logic, government and zoology.
  • Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, a diplomat, an inventor, a politician and even a humorist.
  • Einstein excelled of course at math and physics, but he was also an essayist, a violinist and read quite a lot of philosophy.

Many of their discoveries and inventions were thanks to this fact. They learned a concept in one field and then transferred it to another one, creating a whole new thing.

Learning about multiple and diverse subjects grow our concept repertoire and therefore, our categories and analogies. Also, the network of concepts that form in our minds becomes more complex and intricate, increasing the chances of coming up with innovative and creative ideas.

Trying new experiences like travelling to a completely different country, playing a new sport or giving a musical instrument a try increase the bag of concepts and categories we possess. Discovering how different cultures and fields slice up their world to be effective is very nutritive to our intelligence.

Rediscovering IQ and Intelligence

So, to sum this whole investigation up, we can say that intelligence has three components:

  • The first one is the reality is fluid and the categories that we make are the ones responsible for shaping it.
  • And the second one is that by storing more and more of them, it opens up the possibility of applying the right ones to a given situation and produce the results we intend.
  • Using analogy, we can transfer concepts from different fields to come up with new ideas and ways of seeing problems and situations.

Of course, this ability won’t just fall in our lap. To be more intelligent we will need to put down the hours, study, and learn. There are no quick-fix solutions, a magical app or 5 tips you can apply to instantly become smarter. Sure, they can help to some extent but will not go that much further.

Becoming more intelligent is a process that takes time and effort but there is hardly anything more fun that it.

I want to give credit to Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanual Sander. Many of the ideas that inspired me to shoot this video came from their book Surfaces and Essences.

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