How do we measure intelligence?
Is the brain already set at a certain parameter for each individual or does everyone possess the same
potential maximum ability?
As an analogy...the size of the processor and hard drive are an indication of a computers potential
ability to perform the task required and the maximum amount of data that can be held. A less
powerful processor may take longer to process the information required or may produce an image
with less clarity than a more powerful processor, but the outcome is ultimately the same. A very large
hard drive that has most of its capacity filled with numerous applications and programs, will play a
significant part in slowing down the processor, like-wise a less powerful processor only dealing with a
couple of applications will display to the user properties equal to that of a more powerful processor.
Anselm also asked:
When we listen to someone speak, does the grammar they use provide evidence to their intellect?
My girlfriend was in conversation in a local pub with a middle aged man about social class and
Marxism, my girlfriend who has recently started a BA in Social Science then went on to describe the
man to her friends as 'very clever'. I argued the point that he only sounded clever as he used
unfamiliar words to her and because he was more versed than her in that particular subject.
Well, one of the problems here is that we don't really have a good idea as to what intelligence is.
Since the brain is not, and does not at all resemble, a digital computer, either functionally or
structurally, that metaphor: the brain as computer, is not a good one, despite its popularity. Yes, I
know, everyone uses it these days, believe me, I know... it's one of my pet peeves. Initially it was a
very useful metaphor; it has now, in my very strong opinion, outlived its usefulness (Dennett, Minsky,
et al notwithstanding). It's another question entirely to ask whether a digital computer can simulatea
brain. The answer to that is probably yes, given computers many orders of magnitude larger than
what we currently have (I'm not going to go into why I'm saying that, except to refer you to the details
of the dynamics of single neurons, to understand the nature and complexity of their processing — but
even that's questionable, in my opinion, given possible extensions to Turing theory: various
topologies of Turing machines, continuous tapes, or whatever, and the relationship between that and
the flexible analog structure and dynamics of the neuron).
But let's say that intelligence has to do with adaptability and with problem solving... whatever those
are (adapting to what? social situations? physical situations? emotional crises? — solving what? math
problems? directional problems? verbal problems? problems in getting along with others? problems in
learning sports?)... I'll just be conventional here and say it relates to doing well in school, just for the
sake of saying something. Yes we can measure that... by how well someone does in school. Well,
what about IQ tests, you ask. Yes, they correlate pretty well with performance in school, everything
else being equal, which it isn't always. Well, here I am being cynical... isn't there anythingto the
intelligence thing? Yes. We just don't really know what it is, except in pretty vague and general ways.
Take your example above, of someone speaking "cleverly". Ok, how well do they do in math? What
about the great poet who has no math ability... is that person intelligent? What about the inarticulate
mathematician (of which there are many)? Let's see. Abstractions... what about abstract ideas? Yes,
fine... in what area? Math, literature, philosophy, art?
In Britain, as I understand that culture, verbal ability is highly prized. One's social status is abstracted
from their accent, one's "cleverness" from their articulateness, and so forth, am I correct? Well, in
general, abilities in one area do correlate with abilities in others. Generally, a highly verbal person can
learn math, and vice versa. This correlation has given rise to the conception of "general" intelligence.
Alternatively, the modern picture of the brain as modular has supported the idea of intelligence as
consisting of disparate abilities, tools for different situations, as it were, depending on separate brain
areas. The above correlation is seen as fortuitous, no more. Which picture is correct? Do we have to
choose? Maybe they're both correct, to some extent, which varies among people.
Is intelligence fixed? Nobody knows, really. Recently some people seem to have found a correlation
between intelligence and the amount of grey matter (number of cell bodies) in the brain. Not
unreasonable... can that be increased? Can the efficiency of neural processing be increased? It
seems that by dint of tremendouseffort we can do that, to a certain extent. But remember, what we
have to work with is the human skull, the cortex with its 6 layers of cells... there's a limit to size and
efficiency. Of course there are people with different intelligences, it would be silly to claim otherwise,
just as it would be silly to claim that everyone has the same physical capacities. The distribution of
intelligence follows a classical bell curve, pretty much like everything else. What that means is that
when you get to the outside ranges, differences become small. We converge to the human maximum
(and minimum). In the middle of the curve, differences are large.
So I've gone from being doubtful and cynical to being gung ho in favor of intelligence, etc., right? But
you see, bothare correct. There's something there, but it's not clear what it is. This is just not a
simple question, and it cuts to the heart of lots of controversies in philosophy, in cognition, in social
sciences. So, how do we "measure" intelligence? Carefully. Dubiously. Tentatively.
Steven Ravett Brown