Intelligence is Nonlinear

The word “sports” covers a wide variety of activities. It’s so broad that its usefulness as a word is limited. What can you say about sports? “I like/dislike sports. I play/don’t play sports”. If you talk about “popular sports”, “contact sports” or “mind sports”, there’s so much more you can say than if you’re just talking about “sports”. And if you pick a particular sport like basketball then you open up a world of things you can talk about. You can talk about rules of the game, the history, famous players/teams, statistics, etc.

In the same way, you can talk about “intelligence” in a general sense. But when you’re just talking about intelligence, it’s hard to say much. So instead, to make it more interesting, you can differentiate between mathematical intelligence, social intelligence, historical intelligence, philosophical intelligence, etc. For many people, talking about intelligence in a linear or binary way doesn’t accurately describe their situation. Let’s look at a few case studies.

Case Study #1: Kim Peek

Laurence Kim Peek is the perfect example of the abstraction of general intelligence breaking down. Kim is the inspiration for the movie Rain Man. According to Kim’s father Francis, Kim learned to read before age 2. Kim read the left page with his left eye and right page with his right eye. He was able to read 1 page per second remembering nearly all of it years later. He was a human encyclopedia.

Kim also didn’t learn to walk until age 4. He was diagnosed severely mentally retarded and had an 87 IQ. He couldn’t button up his shirt and had great difficulty socializing and performing basic motor tasks.

In one way, Kim was superhuman. In another way, he was cognitively limited. He possessed a skill to a degree that no one else on the planet was known to have it. He also had limitations associated with being severely mentally retarded. He’s no genius, but he’s no idiot. He’s not really of average intelligence either. And so here you can see the word “intelligence” breaks down. It fails to meaningfully describe Kim. For describing Kim Peek, it’s more useful to talk about “types of intelligence”, not just generalized intelligence.

Case Study #2: Daniel Tammet

For the second case study, we’ll look at Daniel Tammet. He is an autistic savant. Daniel set the European record reciting pi to 22,514 digits without a single mistake. He knows 10 languages and is able to become conversational in new languages in only a week. Daniel is able to perform huge math calculations in his head.

Perhaps the most unique thing about Daniel is that he has subjective insight on how he can perform huge mental calculations. In our first case study with Kim Peek, Kim could not articulate how he remembered everything. Most savants can’t articulate their abilities, but Daniel can. He wrote an entire book on it called Thinking in Numbers. In his own words:

“When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That’s the answer. It’s mental imagery. It’s like maths without having to think.”

The fact that he is able to introspect on his own savant capabilities is extraordinarily unique and worthy of recognition in and of itself. He also happens to share my feeling about intelligence:

“I know from my own experience that there is much more to ‘intelligence’ than an IQ number. In fact, I hesitate to believe that any system could really reflect the complexity and uniqueness of one person’s mind, or meaningfully describe the nature of his or her potential.”

Daniel has no apparent mental disability. But he can’t leave his house without counting the number of clothes he’s wearing. He can’t drive. He has a hard time at the beach because of all the grains of sand. Socializing takes much more mental effort for him than it does for a neurotypical person because he has autism. He’s so high-functioning that his mental disability is more or less invisible, but that doesn’t make his struggles any less real.

Autism and Savantism

Less than 1% of the neurotypical population has savant syndrome while that number is up to 1 in 10 with autistic individuals. About half of savants are autistic while the other half have some other developmental disorder.

Autism doesn’t guarantee you to be intelligent at something else as a trade-off for social intelligence. Instead, you have up to a 10% chance of being a savant if you’re autistic. It also isn’t necessarily true that autism causes savantism. But it’s clear from the statistics that autism goes with savantism more than neurotypicality goes with savantism. Savantism seem to defy the conventional notion that intelligence is linear and genius is on one end with mental deficiency on the other. It seems to suggest that treating intelligence as linear is an oversimplification.

Social Consequences

Although savantism is a fun research topic, there are interesting social consequences of the nonlinearity of intelligence that have nothing to do with savantism or extraordinary mental ability. I’ll give an example of nonlinear intelligence in the context of free software.

Free Software

There were so many conversations I had about free software during my time as a student. For those who don’t know, free software is software that respects the user’s freedom. It’s more ethical than non-free software. What I came to realize through those conversations is that technological prowess and moral wisdom are two completely separate types of intelligence. But before I explain how I came to realize that, I need to make an important distinction.

There are those that understand something has negative effects yet do it anyway and those that don’t understand the negative effects. There are more people that believe in being vegan than there are actual vegans.

Likewise, there are more software engineers that believe in free software than software engineers that write free software. When I distinguish the type of intelligence that is “technological prowess” from the type of intelligence that is “moral wisdom”, I’m talking about skilled software engineers who don’t understand the harm of writing non-free software, especially if it has been explained to them before how harmful non-free software is.

There were some students and professors I talked to that fell into that category of possessing the technical prowess to write software while lacking the moral wisdom to see the importance of free software. They were great at programming, but did not understand the social consequences of writing proprietary software even after I explained it and provided several online resources. This is not to say they’ll never understand. But the point is I understood why free software is important and how non-free software harms society after watching Richard Stallman’s TED talk once.

I don’t share that to gloat, but to make a point. It was hard for me to understand how others, especially professors far more knowledgeable about software than I am, could not grasp the social necessity of free software instantly upon hearing a single TED talk even with their sincere effort. Eventually, I realized that technological prowess and moral wisdom are two completely separate types of intelligence.

Moral Wisdom as Intelligence

Some readers are going to disagree with me referring to “moral wisdom” as a form of intelligence. After all, being a good person and being intelligent are two separate things, right?

I agree, but knowing which actions and policies lead to a better society isn’t a matter of being a good person. It’s a matter of possessing a certain kind of intelligence that I call “moral wisdom”. History has shown the worst atrocities were carried out by people who thought they were doing good, usually perverted by religious ideology. When I talk about moral wisdom, I don’t mean doing the right thing. I mean having the intelligence to know what the right thing is.

When people have technological prowess without moral wisdom, we end up with the negative social consequence of having people with the kind of intelligence necessary to engineer proprietary software but lacking the kind of intelligence necessary to see that they’re perpetuating an unjust social system. It would be better if those people had never learned to program in the first place because their work will only subjugate people. Most software engineers don’t become software engineers to think about ethics, so there are lots of software engineers out there engineering evil software.

In fact, software engineering isn’t even the only endeavor that negatively affects society when people have asymmetric intelligence.

Socially Harmful Combinations of Intelligence

Some more examples are:

  • There are people with the kind of intelligence necessary to fly planes into towers but lacking the kind of intelligence necessary to see past the religious myth motivating them.
  • There are people with the kind of intelligence necessary to build mass surveillance systems but lacking the kind of intelligence necessary to see how incompatible those systems are with a free society.
  • There are people with the kind of intelligence necessary to acquire political power but lacking the kind of intelligence necessary to make good, evidence-based policy decisions.
  • There are people with the kind of intelligence necessary to see the importance of voting but lacking the kind of intelligence necessary to pick a good candidate.

I’m not saying all these instances are only related to intelligence. Sometimes people are just malicious or selfish. But lacking certain kinds of intelligence often has far more to do with apparently malicious behavior than is admitted. It’s easier to just say someone is a “bad person” than to consider their intelligence.

For instance, the terrorists that flew the planes into the twin towers on 9/11 were motivated by an ideology. If they had the kind of intelligence related to critical thinking and questioning core beliefs, they may have found out that Islam is a fairytale and never would have carried out the attacks. Believing baseless ideologies is related to critical thinking which is a kind of intelligence. You can blame it on society for never explicitly applying critical thinking to religion, but critical thinking skills are still a form of intelligence regardless of the reason a person may lack them.

Intelligence is Dynamic


The last point I want to make is that intelligence is it’s highly dynamic. The human brain is capable of creating new patterns of behavior and thought to become better at a skill. Once you learn to ride a bike, that muscle memory stays with you. You don’t forget how to do it unless you have some traumatic brain injury.

There are other types of intelligence that do require constant reinforcement. Magnus Carlsen, the world’s greatest chess player, could not quit chess for 5 years, come back, and still expect to be the world’s greatest chess player. Brain research suggests that the brain is a “use it or lose it” organ. You either keep learning or you lose your ability to learn. The brain needs to learn new things to remain plastic and healthy.

The takeaway here is that brains are extremely dynamic systems. If you’re missing a certain kind of intelligence, you can learn it. That’s one of the most freeing things to learn about yourself. You might never be as intelligent at chess as Magnus Carlsen, but you can improve. You’re not confined to things you already know.

Environmental Factors

Intelligence is not only dynamic because you can learn. Intelligence and learning are both dynamic because they’re affected by other factors such as your mood, the amount of rest you get, your diet and environmental influences. One of the most important factors for learning is an environment where you feel comfortable making mistakes. Being in an environment where your mistakes are mocked kills motivation to learn.

If there’s a professor that mocks a student for asking basic questions, that student will eventually become demotivated and stop asking. They’ll accept their ignorance on the subject because nobody likes being put down. Put that student in a different classroom where they feel they can be open about their ignorance and won’t be judged or mocked and they might excel beyond what others originally thought them capable of.

Be Open-Minded About Intelligence

What I want to promote is a sense of open-mindedness about human intelligence. It’s very easy to get frustrated when someone doesn’t understand something that comes easily to you. That’s the natural thing to do. But perhaps you’re the wrong person to explain it or the way you explain it is confusing to them. Perhaps it’s just not the right time, environment, or circumstances for them to learn. Everyone has different intelligences and different capacities for acquiring intelligences. That’s why it’s really important to have patience with others. I don’t just say that to be politically correct either. To call anyone generally intelligent or unintelligent is almost always an oversimplification of intelligence and human potential.

Intelligence is not binary nor linear nor static. It’s a multidimensional, highly dynamic human capacity. We should consider that before putting labels on people. I’ll end with a quote from Bill Nye, the science guy:

“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”