How we define intelligence

April 2023
Phyllis Shragge

It was that deep thinker Homer Simpson who once purported: “It’s so simple to be wise ... just think of something stupid to say and then don’t say it.”

Homer’s unique philosophy is reflected in another perceptive quote: “How’s education supposed to make me smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home wine-making course and I forgot how to drive?”

As I consider Homer’s words, I realize that I’ve had misconceptions about intelligence my entire life. I think my upbringing molded my perception of intelligence into an inflexible one-size-fits-all box that needed reconfiguration. 

When I was growing up, I thought intelligence was synonymous with intellect. Intelligent people were well-read, well-spoken, and well-schooled.  Being well-schooled of course, meant you had excellent grades, thus solidifying your path to an undergraduate degree, with a postgraduate degree to follow.  This path, in my mind, was the only viable path to consider. And it was somewhat daunting.

With a father who was an icon in the legal field, I set high expectations for myself.  Perhaps if I had realized then that intelligence and accomplishment come in different forms, I might have been open to various routes towards self-fulfillment. 

As a young person, it never occurred to me to question why my father, who was a brilliant and accomplished jurist, hadn’t a clue how to fix anything that needed repairing in our house.  I took it for granted that if something broke, my parents would call Mr. Tetrault, our handyman. I’m sure Mr. Tetrault didn’t have a clue how to write a judgement, nor did my father have any idea how to fix a furnace, but each man had his own abilities and his own unique intelligence. 

A recent article outlined some current ways of assessing intelligence, including:

Emotional intelligence
It’s the ability to manage both your own emotions and understand the emotions of people around you.  It includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.  

It may manifest itself in a talent for art or writing or an unusual way of interpreting what’s around us.  Creativity may encompass intellectual prowess, but just as often, it may not. 
Boundless curiosity
Every brilliant person asks questions.  Curiosity is a marker of exceptional and true intelligence.

High self-awareness
This person is aware of his or her strong and weak points and how to succeed because of them, or despite them.

High situational awareness
This person is cognisant of his or her environment, including emerging threats.

Immediacy in reaction time
This person has a quick reaction time in case of emergencies and is intuitively able to solve conflicts and daily problems.

Negotiating and peace-brokering 
This person can compromise and break through a conflict situation. 

Thinking you’re not very smart
This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Intelligent people generally know their weak spots and are humble.  Often less intelligent people believe they are smarter than they are.

I like that last one: thinking you’re not very smart.  Since I fall into that category, does that make me brilliant, or am I just self-aware?  It’s for others to judge, I suppose.

We’re all so different and have varying types of intelligence.  The adept computer programmer may have a limited vocabulary.  The accomplished musician may be dyslexic.  The skilled garage mechanic may be a poor reader.  The superb daycare worker may lack social skills with adults. The university professor may lack emotional intelligence. The talented visual artist may have difficulty expressing himself with words.

Intellect is just one aspect of intelligence, but who’s to say it’s the most important? Maybe Homer Simpson had the key when he said, “Boy, everyone is stupid, except me.”

Phyllis Shragge is a local writer, mother of five, and grandmother of five.