What is intelligence?

What is intelligence?

The definitions of intelligence are dogged by controversy and disagreement. While there are  different definitions about intelligence, they all share some common features.This includes a wider range of areas:

  1. The ability to learn and apply knowledge to manipulate environment.
  2. The ability to reason and have abstract thought and to comprehend complex ideas..
  3. Adaptability to a new environment or to changes in the current environment.
  4. The ability to understand, make judgments and take decisions.
  5. The capacity for original and productive thought.
  6. The ability to learn from the environment and from experience.
  7. The ability to comprehend relationships.

Measuring intelligence

Bell shape

Bell shape

Intelligence tests assess various types of abilities such a mathematical, spatial, verbal, logic and memory. These tests are given to a group of people representative of the wider populatio. The results  show the classic ‘bell-shape’ distribution, meaning that most people are of average intelligence. Only a few are at the extreme top ends of the scale.

Do you say one intelligence?

Instead of looking at intelligence from a single point of view, new approaches to intelligence focus on a variety of abilities rather on fixed sets of abilities.  Scientist dissatisfied with the traditional idea of a single intelligence have postulated alternate theories of “multiple intelligences”. Howard Gardner(1983) argues for instance that intelligence, particularly as it is traditionally defined, does not sufficiently enclose the wide variety of skills humans display. He presented a theory with 8 distinct components:

  • Bodily-kinesethic: this relates to bodily movement and physiology (dance,sport,  movement…)
  • Interpersonal: interaction with others. Sensitivity to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments and motivations. Ability to cooperate in order to work as part of a group and communicate effectively…
  • Verbal-linguistic: linguistic abilities including writing, speaking …
  • Logical mathematical: logic, abstractions, reasoning, and numbers
  • Naturalistic: relating information to one’s natural surroundings
  • Intrapersonal: introspective and self-reflective capacities. Affinity for thought-based pursuits such as philosophy…
  • Visula-spatial: vision and spatial judgment. Strong visual memory and often artistically inclined. A very good sense of direction…
  • Musical: rhythm, music, and hearing

Another psychologist who thinks that traditional intelligence tests highlight only one aspect of intelligence, namely analytical, is Robert Sternberg. He presents 3 fundamental aspects of intelligence:

  • analytical,
  • practical
  • creative.

New trends in intelligence theory  focus on emotional intelligence. The latter aspect is  presented by Daniel Goleman and several other researchers. This deals with the ability to identify, assess, and manage the emotions of one’s self, of others, and of groups.

Intelligence and creativity

There is a distinction between intelligence and creativity. Intelligence  is the ability to see relationships and to use this ability to solve problems.  Creativity on the other hand is the ability to come up with a range of possible new original solutions to a given problem. creative thinkers are divergent thinkers who diverge and throw up as many solutions as they can. They are also lateral thinkers in the sense that they explore various paths to discover original creative solutions although a lot of these ideas might appear to be wrong at first sight.


If intelligence is the ability to see relationships and to use this ability to solve problems, it doesn’t necessarily lead to outstanding success. Hard work and organization play an important roles. Remember what Thomas Alva Edison said:

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

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