Intelligence is a skill. One that anyone can learn.

Actually, I tell a lie. Intelligence is not just one skill, but rather a collection of closely related skills and habits. Skills and habits that anyone can learn. Really? Isn’t that a rather bold statement? I say not at all – but an explanation might be helpful. What do you think?

Definitions, definitions…

First of all, what is intelligence? It’s a boring truism to say that there as many definitions of intelligence as there are people talking about it, and most definitions say much the same thing anyway. Intelligence, in the classic sense we’re thinking of here, is a combination of pattern recognition, perception, problem solving and memory. It is a practical skill that helps us successfully navigate life and achieve our goals, and it is all about getting stuff done. Intelligence spans psychology, mathematics, science and philosophy, and the fact that it is actually one thing applicable to so many domains is the reason that Nobel-prize winning physicists are also best selling authors and comfortable, confident public speakers who can think on their feet.

With that definition in mind, there are three broad skills and habits which research shows are indispensable to high intelligence. By constantly working to improve these skills, we can become smarter.

Structure

The joke is that Richard Feynman had a special algorithm for solving problems:

  1. Write down the problem
  2. Think real hard
  3. Write down the solution

But actually, it’s not just about thinking really hard, and writing down the problem is almost never straight-forward, and Feynman himself said so. You see, that algorithm secretly combines lots of little steps, and absolutely key to all three of those is bringing some structure to the problem, task or question at hand. In turn, structuring itself can be thought of in three inter-related ways.

Chunking

Firstly, it’s all about chunking. I don’t understand the questions or see the solutions to the puzzles I post on this blog in one blinding flash, and even combined me and my wonderful fiancee can’t plan our wedding in one fell swoop. But what anyone can do with any problem is make a deliberate effort to divide and conquer, and over time one gets better and better at doing just that.

So, instead of trying to figure out how times Mrs Smith shook hands at the ten-guest dinner party, I try and figure out how many times she shook hands at a four-guest dinner party, and that problem is small enough I can do it by brute force enumeration in my head (or on paper if I’m lazy and out of practice). With that small section of the problem solved, I can think again about the bigger problem.

And the wedding? Wedding planning is no difficult thing. Fundamentally it’s a big party with some other bits around the edge. Break that task into chunks (photographer, reception venue, church and vicar, guest list, flowers etc), solve each chunk individually – and bang, one wedding organised.

Story writing

If the problem is especially difficult or the solution rather complex, just chunking might not be enough. In that case, the next step to making the overall problem even easier is to build a story out of the chunks. This might be a story of how the parts relate to each other (first comes the ceremony, then the reception, then…) or it might be a story of how the parts relate to the solution (first I’ll figure out this smaller dinner party, and then I’ll see what that tells me about the larger problem) but ultimately it’s a story that helps you understand the problem and build a solution.

It also helps you see the gaps and things you missed out – like the fact that before the ceremony, we both have to get to the church. It’s convenient to pretend that being intelligent is a black box out of which complete and comprehensive solutions come fully formed, but in truth, it’s much more about having habits like this that build safety nets into our solutions.

Prioritisation

Last but not least, now that we’ve broken our problem down into chunks and built a story out of them, we need to decide what to do first. If we could solve this problem in one go then we’d have done exactly that already. But we can’t – and so we chunked and built a story. And now we need to give ourselves permission to ignore most of the story and think about just one part, like that mini-dinner party with just four guests.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially if our emotions are running high or we feel time pressure – but a small problem is much easier than a big problem, and successfully dealing with that emotion and pressure so that prioritisation becomes possible is nothing more than another learnt skill (also known as being an adult).

Of course, none of this is any use if we didn’t properly understand the problem in the first place, or if we can’t hold a train of thought together for long enough to find the solution to some chunk. And that’s because two other key skills are…

Concentration and awareness

There’s a fair bit of research around now that hints at the link between someone’s ability to concentrate and their intelligence (e.g. see here and here). Ultimately, concentration is key to thinking really hard, and it’s also key to understanding the problem and even being perceptive and aware enough to know that the problem is there. Thus, improving your ability to concentrate is one way of improving your intelligence.

The great news is that improving concentration is something we’ve studied as a species for eons. It’s called meditation, or prayer, and it’s something you can practice.

In that vein, an exercise I came across earlier this week that I quite like the sound of goes as follows:

  • Each evening, set a timer for 3 minutes
  • Put a small black dot on the wall, about the size of a pin head and sit one and a half metres away
  • Concentrate on just that spot, trying to focus attention so that you see nothing else
  • As this becomes easier and easier (might take a while), now imagine a black square around that dot and then grow the dot outwards, trailing a pyramid behind it. Focus on the colour and texture of that pyramid and it’s three-dimensional depth.

Of course, there are numerous other things which can affect our concentration positively and negatively, but we can control these as well.

Environment, diet and self-awareness

Two other factors key to having good concentration are your environment, and your diet. Self-awareness of your ability to concentrate can also help improve your ability to concentrate.

Background noise – especially background words – are very distracting. As best you can, work somewhere quiet or listen to music without lyrics to block them out. Meditation, where you practice concentration despite distraction, can help with this, as can spending time mindfully noticing the world around you – the colour, heat, wind, background noise and other noises – so that at other times you are more familiar with these distractions and better able to ignore them. Ultimately, do what you can to change your environment too. Close the door so your flatmates can’t disturb you. Shut the window. Explicitly schedule time to work into your calendar so that your day doesn’t get shotgunned with meetings.

A good diet is also really important. Start with breakfast. Your brain runs on glucose, and it will be completely depleted by sun-rise. Without something to pick you up you’re off to a bad start (see here). Whole grains, nuts and milk are rich in B vitamins and research shows that these can also help to some extent (as well as the glucose hit you get from eating). Similarly, tiredness and poor concentration are often due to a dip in your blood sugar levels – another reason why many small meals throughout the day and slow-release carbohydrates are better than fewer big meals and another can of coke. Consider having a mid-afternoon power nap to help your brain rest and refresh for the rest of the day.

Understanding what drives or disrupts your concentration is really helpful too. Multi-tasking will be one, so if you’re like me and got in the habit of opening a new tab and starting a new task whenever a web page is loading, you’ll have some habits to change too.

Self-control and self-confidence

Closely related to the skill of self-awareness is the habit of self-control and having a depth of self-confidence that you can rely on. One thing I struggle with is a feeling that I always have to be doing something productive – that every minute needs to be filled. Which means that the moment I’m blocked in my work – like by a webpage loading – I feel a compulsion to switch to something else, even if it would be smarter to wait and not work for just a few seconds while the page loads.

Building up the self-control to break this habit and force myself to wait even though it feels wrong is a key example of how important self-control is to intelligence. In the same vein, having the self-confidence to back yourself is so important as well. You need to believe in your chunking, to trust your prioritisation and to confidently present your answers to others. There isn’t much else to say here about self-control and self-confidence. You might get it wrong a few times, even most times to start with – but if you don’t give yourself a chance to learn you’ll never improve. And perhaps that’s the key message: intelligence is a skill, but you can only improve if you give yourself a chance to, including the chance to make mistakes.

Addendum: But what about nootropics?

Indeed, what about nootropics? Nootropics are drugs which give you a cognitive boost, like ritalin, adderall, piracetam and NZT, and they’re a whole other post of their own. Watch this space…

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