Cognitive disinhibition: not the whole story of genius

Here’s an interesting article with a stupid and misleading title on the role of what the author calls “cognitive disinhibition” – a fancy term for “allowing oneself to notice what others miss” – in enabling creative genius.

While in many ways I could be a poster child for Simonton’s thesis (and I’ll get to those) I also think there are some important things missing from his discussion, which is why I’m blogging about it. The most crucial problem is that his category of “madness” is not sharp enough. I know how to fine it down in a way that I think sheds considerable light on what he is trying to analyze.

First let’s get through the easy stuff. Go read the article. It’s short.

I was especially struck, in a positive way, by Simonton’s discussion of childhood factors that promote the ability to disinhibit cognition. He mentions “bilingualism” – ding ding ding, been there and done that and I have always thought it helped free me from over-dependence on fixed linguistic categories. It’s easier to bear in mind that the map is not the territory when you have two different maps.

Also, under “various forms of developmental adversity, such as parental loss, economic hardship, and minority status”, yeah, I think congenital cerebral palsy qualifies not just as developmental adversity but as the right kind. It’s not news to anyone who has studied or dealt with CP kids that they are disproportionately gifted and bright. Rage against the limitations of the body can lead to a sharper mind.

More things he gets right: I think it is correct that geniuses are distingished from madmen in part by higher general intelligence. The brightest people I have known are hyper-sane. I can be precise about that: elsewhere I have defined sanity as the process by which you continually adjust your beliefs so they are predictively sound. Extremely intelligent people tend to be extremely good at this; it’s the half-bright and merely gifted that are more likely, in my experience, to be unsane or insane (that is, poor at maintaining predictive beliefs).

Now we get to what he’s missed. First, Simonton writes as though he believes that only cognitive disinhibition can produce genius-level conceptual breakthrough. I think this is mistaken; there’s an alternate path through plain hard work, climbing the mountain foot by foot rather than teleporting to the peak in a flash of lightning Zen insight.

For an instructive study in the contrast I like to cite two instances from the history of chemistry: Kekulé’s discovery of the benzene ring versus the elucidation of the double-helix structure of DNA. Kekule’s breakthrough was a sudden insight, an eruption from his unsconscious. By contrast, there does not seem to have been any large aha moment in the discovery of the structure of DNA. That was done by painstaking collection of data, meticulous analysis, and the gradual elimination of competing possibilities.

There’s a kind of romanticism in many people that wants to see genius only in the sudden lightning flashes. I think I know better; I have a lot more lightning Zen insights than most people but even for me they’re comparatively rare. Most of the time, when I pull off something that looks like creative genius it’s because I’ve worked very hard at getting up the mountain.

Matters are confused by the fact that the kind of immersive effort that gets you “genius” by hard work is also an important enabler, a setup condition, for the lightning Zen insight. But having experienced both I believe they are different processes. Possibly related to the distinction between “theory one” and “theory two” thinking that’s fashionable lately.

Most importantly, I think Simonton’s category of “madness” is de-focused in a way that harms his thesis. The most important truth about human psychology that I have learned in many years is that psychosis (which is what Simonton is identifying as madness) is a very specific thing, not merely “cognitive disinhibition” but a loss of the ability to maintain an integrated sense of the self. As I have put it elsewhere, the delusional psychotic frantically spins his theory-building wheels because he cannot identify the fragments of his disassociated mentation as “self” and must therefore attribute them to external agency.

Armed with that insight, I think we can improve on Simonton’s thesis in a major way. I propose that cognitive disinhibition is not a primary feature of madness but a secondary effect of the dissassociation of the self, the society of mind cracking up into Babel. Conversely, the key trait that distinguishes functional geniuses (especially the cohort in the hard sciences that Simonton notes are unusually sane) is the combination of cognitive disinhibition with an exceptionally well-developed ability to distinguish self from other in perception – anti-insanity, as it were.

Again, this is partly informed by my own experience. I have always had a very firm grasp on who I am. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I realized that “identity crisis” isn’t just a literary conceit or self-indulgent silliness. People really get those! I sort of understand that now, intellectually, but the possibility of having an “identity crisis” myself…no. It would take drugs or brain damage to do that to me.

I think there are hints about the neurology involved from the study of how the brain acts during meditation. It’s been found (can’t track down a source, alas) that some kind of meditation temporarily shut down portions of the right parietal lobe that are responsible for maintaining our representation of the physical self-other distinction. The meditator feels “one with everything” for exactly as long as the wiring that tells him he isn’t remains switched off. This isn’t quite like madness – the meditator’s sense of self is unitary and extended rather than fragmented – but I think it is instructively similar.

All this has some functional implications. It tells us we needn’t fear cognitive disinhibition in itself – it’s not causative of madness, it’s a near-accidental side effect of same. What it means for how we cultivate more genius is less clear. Probably the best strategy would be a combination of intelligence-enhancing nootropics with training to enhance the self-other distinction, if we had any real clue how to do the latter.

115 thoughts on “Cognitive disinhibition: not the whole story of genius

  1. Nice post, as usual. Just a minor concern:

    >Possibly related to the distinction between “theory one” and “theory two” thinking that’s fashionable lately.

    Isn’t it “type one” and “type two”? (Like the Volkswagen Beetle and Kombi! XD)

    • >Isn’t it “type one” and “type two”?

      You’re probably right. I haven’t read the actual book, just seen buzz about it.

  2. “The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

    — Isaac Asimov
    The whole essay is at:
    http://www.technologyreview.com/view/531911/isaac-asimov-asks-how-do-people-get-new-ideas/
    it’s short. Worth your time.

  3. In the realm of physical evolution, mutation is a precursor and its impact is largely inexorable. However, in the realm of memetic evolution, mutation is malleable and, for some people, controllable. Psychological abnormality can harm or enhance depending upon the circumstances, but we can often proactively intercede to shed the bad mental habits and promote the good ones. Psychopathology is hard wiring that does not easily yield to this will power.

    Genius, creativity, and madness are all mutations and, as such, a fundamental part of the march of evolution.

  4. “Isn’t it “type one” and “type two”? (Like the Volkswagen Beetle and Kombi! XD)”

    Actually Daniel Kahneman refers to them as ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2’.

    “The meditator feels “one with everything” for exactly as long as the wiring that tells him he isn’t remains switched off. This isn’t quite like madness – the meditator’s sense of self is unitary and extended rather than fragmented – but I think it is instructively similar.”

    I haven’t read his newest book yet, but I’m almost positive Sam Harris would disagree with you about this. He fingers the subjective, perceived sense of self as one of the primary tributaries to the suffering, and it’s temporary elimination as one of the most freeing acts a human can experience.

    • >[Harris] fingers the subjective, perceived sense of self as one of the primary tributaries to the suffering, and it’s temporary elimination as one of the most freeing acts a human can experience.

      That is Buddhist orthodoxy, which Harris is prone to. It is at least less crazy than most other kinds, but I think it is an inadequate account of what I am trying to point at.

      When I say “the meditator’s sense of self is unitary and extended” (rather than fragmented) I intend a kind of experience which could be intellectually interpreted either as ego-death (many versions of Buddhism), or as oneness with everything (some versions of Buddhism), or as piercing the veil of Maya (in Hinduism).

      Where all these conceptualizations differ from madness is that they don’t involve the fragmentation of the meditator’s identity; extension or dissolution, perhaps, but no state in which parts of it are set against each other or that the experiencing point of view fails to be one.

      We are now, alas, trailing off into realms of experience in which words are of little help. But I have been there, and this particular issue about it is one where I am not in doubt.

  5. He mentions “bilingualism” – ding ding ding

    Guess what part of the reason I thought to send the article your way was?

    There’s a kind of romanticism in many people that wants to see genius only in the sudden lightning flashes.

    It isn’t just romanticism, it is also safe. As a muggle if Genius is just a flash that happens from time to time then the genius is no better then I am, someday the flash might descend upon me from on high.

    Relatedly, you have stated in the past that people think that the intelligent are crazy more often than a normal person as a way of feeling better about themselves. There is another factor to this: the muggle frequently is incapable of comprehending many of the behaviors of an intelligent person, especially ones such as what you describe in How To Become A Hacker:

    Hackers will sometimes do things that may seem repetitive or boring to an observer as a mind-clearing exercise, or in order to acquire a skill or have some particular kind of experience you can’t have otherwise.

    To the muggle this maps out as insanity.

    It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I realized that “identity crisis” isn’t just a literary conceit or self-indulgent silliness. People really get those!

    Huh, I always thought it meant more of a “What am I doing with my life” sort of thing. Must think about this……

  6. I think you’re off a bit with the mountain metaphor. The hard work, climbing the mountain is a requirement. The creative genius part comes in when you note that the mountain exists, that climbing it might be a worthwhile goal, and find that there is at least one possible path that might get you up the mountain.

    Noting the mountain, the summit and the hint of a path is the genius part.

    All the stories about lost wisdom — especially lost engineering ability are mostly bunk. For a skilled person in the field, if an artifact exists, it can be re-created. The two key parts are 1) It *is* possible. 2) At a high level, this is what it does and how it works. From there, given a budget and time, you can re-create it. (may be a very large budget and a lot of time. Building a chip fab starting from post apocalypse 1800’s tech might take a generation or three.)

    Jim

  7. Foo Quuxman said:

    “It isn’t just romanticism, it is also safe. As a muggle if Genius is just a flash that happens from time to time then the genius is no better then I am, someday the flash might descend upon me from on high.”

    I tend to think it’s the other way. If only geniuses can do genius work, a person can put a boundary around themselves. What I find shocking is how often we convince ourselves to not even try.

  8. Tangentially…. I’m firmly in the “better living through chemistry” camp, but I’m woefully unaware of the state of nootropics. At first glance, it looks like it’d take at least a half-day of Googling to separate the placebos/homeopathy from the real deal. Anybody care to enlighten me? Eric, is this in your wheelhouse?

  9. I was thinking roughly the same thing as Jim Hurlburt. What if Simonton is defining genius subconsciously in a way to make his thesis tautological? Namely, that genius is what you get by crossing intelligence with insight, and so if there was just intellectual grindstoning, it wasn’t genius. (It was merely really good and useful work.)

    This in turn implies that Eric has a different working definition of genius from Simonton. This isn’t surprising – the term isn’t scientific. …so what is Eric’s definition?

    • >This in turn implies that Eric has a different working definition of genius from Simonton. This isn’t surprising – the term isn’t scientific. …so what is Eric’s definition?\

      “Genius” is insight that is impossible for a person of normal intelligence to replicate – they can understand the result once arrived at, but they cannot understand or emulate the mental process by which it was generated. For “normal” we can say, oh, a standard deviation from the mean. The exact boundary of “normal” isn’t as significant as grasping that a qualitative difference does exist.

      I’ve observed before that over a spread of about more than 20 IQ points actual communication about mental states becomes increasingly difficult. I have friends and acquaintances with a very wide range of intelligence levels, so I occasionally get to see the resulting degrees of incomprehension first-hand.

  10. @esr: “Also, under “various forms of developmental adversity, such as parental loss, economic hardship, and minority status”, yeah, I think congenital cerebral palsy qualifies not just as developmental adversity but as the right kind.”

    That bit struck me, too. Among other things, when you cope with that level of adversity, you better have a good basic level of intelligence to simply *survive*.

    “As I have put it elsewhere, the delusional psychotic frantically spins his theory-building wheels because he cannot identify the fragments of his disassociated mentation as “self” and must therefore attribute them to external agency.”

    Gregory Bateson, in “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” postulated that schizophrenia was precisely a matter of weak ego function and ill-defined sense of self. I got a graphic example years back, when I dated a schizophrenic, who would do things like refer to her genitals in the third person – “She’s a good girl”. Her boundaries between self and external reality were porous and ill defined.

    “I have always had a very firm grasp on who I am. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I realized that “identity crisis” isn’t just a literary conceit or self-indulgent silliness.”

    Bear in mind where notions of who you are come from. Your sense of self and notion of who you are is something learned by osmosis beginning at a pre-verbal state, and are in large part a matter of upbringing and the cultural matrix in which you are raised. For a common example of an identity crisis, consider those who come to realize they are homosexual in adulthood after a childhood raised in the assumption they are heterosexual. For an even more dramatic example, consider the trans-gendered. At this point, I know four post-op male->female transsexuals, and “identity crisis” is a pale descriptor of the process they went through in realizing they wanted to be female and taking the steps to do that.
    ______
    Dennis

    • >For a common example of an identity crisis, consider those who come to realize they are homosexual in adulthood after a childhood raised in the assumption they are heterosexual.

      I question even this. Remember the difference between things seen and things unseen. It may well be that the majority of gays just shrug and cope rather than being (er) drama queens about it. And we don’t know because they don’t fuss. The gays we see having identity crises are … selected for vulnerability to identity crises.

      My experience and observations cause me to strongly question “social construction” accounts here. It seems to me that the strength of one’s self/other distinction is more innate and tied to neurology, your schizo ex-girlfriend being an example of same.

  11. Hmmmmm. Raises more questions. Supposing the existence of a qualitative distinction of “normal intelligence”, and that a normal person may recognize a genius solution as a solution without being able to have generated it, is it possible that a normal person might not even be capable of the recognition?

    Furthermore, this doesn’t necessarily imply that certain problems can only be solved by genius solutions – it could be possible for a given problem to have an extremely original solution, and also a much more mundane one – but it still suggests that certain problems might fall in the “genius solution required” category.

    So what if there are indeed problems that are relevant and require genius to solve, and moreover require genius – entertain a scale reminiscent of aleph notation for infinities, where normal is 0, genius-but-recognizable is 1, genius-but recognizable-to-1 is 2, etc. – to even recognize, such that if a normal person were to implement this solution, or a part of it, necessarily without understanding how it all works, and then fails, that it’s deemed their failure of the solution?

    What if Five Year Plans were instances of such solutions? (“ohh, now I see where Paul is going with this…”) Or even certain Five Year Plans? What if we can distinguish real solutions from madness or snake oil in certain cases, but in other cases, we’re mapping snake oil onto plans we’re too low on the genius spectrum to recognize?

    I’m not really that interested in resurrecting Fabian Socialism here, as provocative as I find doing that. The real question for me is how someone might recognize someone N levels up the genius ladder, including what that person’s obligations ought to be, and also the obligations of someone higher up, assuming they have a solution for which they want sub-genius assistance.

    • >What if Five Year Plans were instances of such solutions?

      I was with you until that. We know they can’t be. Calculation problem, and all that; intelligence isn’t enough, there’s an epstemic-inaccessibility problem.

      >The real question for me is how someone might recognize someone N levels up the genius ladder, including what that person’s obligations ought to be, and also the obligations of someone higher up, assuming they have a solution for which they want sub-genius assistance.

      An exceedingly thorny question. Which I cannot answer except to note that over a wide enough cognitive spread there is nothing much the less intelligent person can do to assist beyond providing food, shelter, and sex.

  12. I knew you were a narcissist, but I can’t believe that you are now calling yourself a genius. Incredible.

    • >I knew you were a narcissist, but I can’t believe that you are now calling yourself a genius. Incredible.

      If you read carefully, you’d notice that I didn’t actually do that. The one point at which I user the term “genius” in relation to myself is “looks like creative genius”. The equivocation there was deliberate, intended to leave open the possibility that I do not fit the readers’s definition of “genius” but merely simulate being one occasionally through scurvy and inferior tricks like working hard.

      Because I think it would be entertaining, I will now ask: are you willing to argue the proposition that I am not a genius?

  13. Me: What if Five Year Plans were instances of such solutions?

    ESR: I was with you until that. We know they can’t be. Calculation problem, and all that; intelligence isn’t enough, there’s an epistemic-inaccessibility problem.

    I agree in the cases of all the FYPs I’ve ever heard of. But mine was a sloppy introduction, that I tried to clarify later; what I probably should have said was “what if there were genius_N solutions that appeared to us as little more than Fabianist contraptions?”. You say (and I agree) that there’s an epistemic-inaccessibility problem in the known proposals. What if there were a plan somewhere in there that had solved that problem somehow, and it never got enough publicity, and whatever it did get made it look only like “and then a miracle happens”?

    If there really were such a beast, and we tried that plan and failed, the proposer would likely not claim the plan failed, but rather that “we failed the plan” – exactly what Kevin Williamson mentions in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism. How would we tell? Both cases would make the same noise to our ears… we could say we’re smart enough to know, but that’s just what a normal person would say, too.

    I sometimes get the feeling that the smartest libertarians in the room might be succeeding by simply playing the best odds known – that any plan is overwhelmingly more likely to be snake oil than too good for even them to recognize. (I personally believe enough of them are smart enough to be aware of this possibility, too; plus, I’ve been looking for a counterexample long enough to believe I would have found even a hint of one by now if it were known.)

  14. I knew you were a narcissist, but I can’t believe that you are now calling yourself a genius. Incredible.

    If you are going to troll could you at least be slightly interesting when you do it?

    Please?

  15. The point where I feel the “Ah Ha!! flash of insight” is when I *finally* see the simple solution to a problem that can replace the convoluted, laborious, opaque solution that was the best I could figure out before that moment.

    Said simple solution generally only looks obvious in retrospect.

    Jim

  16. I also have an extremely strong sense of self – even under the effect of drugs that cause dissociation or psychosis, my mind fights as hard as it can to guard my *ego*, which is probably why those drugs are so damned uncomfortable for me. And, to the degree that I’m more clever than other people, it’s probably because I have a better sense of what’s a construction inside my mind and what’s a fact about the external world. (Well, that and the strong spatial reasoning abilities I use to do math.)

  17. Einstein and Shakespeare made lasting contributions to the advancement of our scientific knowledge and culture. Regardless of whether they are accorded the accolade of “genius” their accomplishments live on and form their legacy of impact. Becoming known as a “genius” is a trivial sideshow compared to the deed.

    • >Becoming known as a “genius” is a trivial sideshow compared to the deed.

      Indeed. I know that troll-dude is, practically speaking, probably stuck with relying on software I wrote every day for the rest of his life. Given that, why on earth or in any heaven should he imagine I care whether or not he thinks I’m a “genius”? Or a narcissist?

      Ah, well. If they had any sense of perspective or irony they wouldn’t be trolls.

  18. “To the muggle this maps out as insanity.”

    Vox’s First Law: Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from insanity.

    I am heartened to see esr appears to share my distaste for what he refers to as the unsane half-bright that I refer to as “mid-wits”. The mid-wits are so proud of being smarter than the average that it never occurs to them that there are others even more intelligent than they are. So, naturally, anyone who says anything they can’t follow is either a) crazy, or b) stupid.

    Whereas the highly intelligent tend to have no problem whatsoever with the basic concept that they might not always be able to follow someone else’s thought processes, mostly because they are accustomed to so many people being unable to grok what they are saying.

    • >esr appears to share my distaste for what he refers to as the unsane half-bright that I refer to as “mid-wits”

      I don’t feel any particular distaste for them, I just recognize their limitations from experience.

  19. If you are going to troll could you at least be slightly interesting when you do it? Please?

    Indeed. I think “John” (if that is indeed his/her real name) didn’t even take the lesson from even the previous post.

    Now I’m going to have to spend some time thinking of a way to troll Eric creatively. Gotta stretch myself!

  20. “Because I think it would be entertaining, I will now ask: are you willing to argue the proposition that I am not a genius?”

    Alright, I’ll take a crack at it.

    What do we think would be the minimum required IQ to do Eric-level work while still being below the threshold for genius? “130” seems like a nice number to me; two standards of deviation above the mean, bright but not blindingly so.

    In my opinion, by far the hardest two things to explain will be Eric’s early facility with mathematics and his noted acumen for mysticism.

    Let us begin at the beginning. We know Eric was raised abroad in a variety of different cultures speaking a variety of different languages. I know from experience [1] that this gives you insights and introspective tools which prove useful in all sorts of endeavors. You will understand the map-territory distinction on a gut level and develop an appreciation for how vast and complex the human psychological apparatus truly is. You will learn to see yourself more objectively, to see the society from which you sprung more objectively, and you will develop a very keen eye for details.

    Further, we know Eric began reading science fiction around the age of five. You have to be fairly smart to appreciate SF anyway, but the causal arrow can run in the other direction as well: having access to such a fertile ground of ideas has a way of turning the mind into an engine of creative insights. Starting to read it before you enter kindergarten would no doubt bend even a non-genius mind towards the unusual thought-patterns associated with genius.

    Further, Eric has revealed before that his grandfather taught him General Semantics somewhere in the vicinity of puberty. I have no idea how deep his grandfather went into this, but at any rate, if the young Eric absorbed this insight sufficiently well to apply it, however furtively, to his thinking, then he might have avoided any number of philosophical pitfalls the rest of us had to dig our way out of.

    Our intrepid hero also had Cerebral Palsy and few social skills (his words), so he had a fuckload of time to think thoughts and to read, which he apparently did a lot of.

    Are an early exposure to unusual modes of thinking, early exposure to various ways of communicating via symbols, an appreciation for map-territory distinctions, and lots of free time enough to explain near-prodigy mathematical abilities? What if we throw in a good memory and good visual-spatial abilities?

    I’m not sure, but if you grant me that this enough, much of the rest follows. In Generative Science [2] Eric argues that some scientific fields export near-isomorphic metaphors which make the understanding of other fields far easier. I think mathematics qualifies as a generative ur-science, an opinion I can back up with the experience of having learned actual math to a fairly high level at the relatively ripe old age of 22, just a few years back. When I later took up programming, it was immediately obvious to me that the posture of mind imparted by mathematical thinking transferred over to constructing and debugging programs, even if much of the content does not [3].

    So even if Eric wasn’t a genius, computer programming would’ve come easier to him than it did to a person of equal intelligence who didn’t have his mathematical training.

    But programming and it’s mother-discipline, computer science, are also highly generative. It’s obvious when Eric points out to Eliezer Yudkowsky that computation has costs [4], and when he writes in defense of a computational mind[5], he does so as someone who learned math and programming first and then ported those insights over into economics and philosophy of mind, respectively. Other disciplines like economics, physics, and the better kinds of philosophy will also yield more readily to someone equipped with these tools.

    How, then, to explain Eric’s early acquaintance with the Gods? Well, I partially have to chalk this one up to the fact that he began experimenting early on with meditative techniques, and to the fact that he had begun cultivating the ability to stand outside of his experiences, as it were, at an early age.

    “But!” – I hear you say – “Eric is also pretty handy with history. That can’t be explained as well by referencing his exposure to math and programming!” Indeed it can’t, but he started early and read prolifically, and past a certain point memory-heavy fields like history have a tendency to snowball, with each thing you learn reinforcing other things you’ve learned in a virtuous cycle. Add to this the fact that he would’ve had a good grasp on general science and economics, and gaining breadth in history wouldn’t have been all that hard.

    [1] http://rulerstothesky.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/what-i-learned-from-two-years-in-south-korea/

    [2] http://0-esr.ibiblio.org.librus.hccs.edu/?p=4139

    [3] http://0-esr.ibiblio.org.librus.hccs.edu/?p=4727

    [4] http://0-esr.ibiblio.org.librus.hccs.edu/?p=1068

    [5] http://0-esr.ibiblio.org.librus.hccs.edu/?p=5207

    • >Alright, I’ll take a crack at it.

      It was an interesting attempt. The next question, though, is what plausible definition of “genius” you can choose that the portrait you have painted does not fulfill, especially given later “Eric-level work”.

      Understand, I don’t really care whether you think I’m a genius or not either. But it seems to me that we’re now kicking around an interesting definitional question. So let’s agree to forget that the story is supposed to be about me and examine it in a purely forensic way.

      If we use my definition – A is a genius with respect to B if B is unable to replicate or comprehend A’s methods of thinking – it seems to me your account lands us back where we started. How often do people within a standard deviation of average intelligence develop a knowledge base as broad as you are describing? And without that, how are they going to be able to replicate his methods of hypothesis generation?

      Possibly there’s another definition of “genius” that you could both defend and plausibly assert the Eric in the story doesn’t fit. Do you have one in mind?

  21. @esr
    ““Genius” is insight that is impossible for a person of normal intelligence to replicate – they can understand the result once arrived at, but they cannot understand or emulate the mental process by which it was generated. For “normal” we can say, oh, a standard deviation from the mean. The exact boundary of “normal” isn’t as significant as grasping that a qualitative difference does exist.”

    For a standard deviation from the mean, 15% of the people are genius. For two standard deviations it is 2.3% of the population.

    Furthermore, this is an odd definition: You are a genius if you can think of something others cannot. But you are the judge of it.

    The other “accepted” definitions include:

    A genius is a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of new advances in a domain of knowledge.

    Which means a genius is someone others think to be a genius.

    • >For a standard deviation from the mean, 15% of the people are genius.

      That doesn’t follow. You’re assuming that the IQ difference predicting “cannot replicate” is the same size as the “normal” range. It could be considerably larger; in fact I’m inclined to believe it is.

      >You are a genius if you can think of something others cannot. But you are the judge of it.

      What is the second part of your claim supposed to follow from? If you wonder whether normal people can’t follow the workings of a genius’s mind, you gather a statistical sample and have them try. The genius’s own evaluation is interesting but not determinitive.

      >The other “accepted” definitions include:

      The one you gave, and there’s technical one that simply goes “IQ >= 145”. Not sure what your point is here.

  22. @esr
    “You’re assuming that the IQ difference predicting “cannot replicate” is the same size as the “normal” range. It could be considerably larger; in fact I’m inclined to believe it is.”

    I do not understand you here. 1 SD above the mean (Z>1) means 15% of the population by definition. You did not specify some sub population of humanity over which you would then take 1 SD above the mean.

    @esr
    ” If you wonder whether normal people can’t follow the workings of a genius’s mind, you gather a statistical sample and have them try.”

    So, Genius is a kind of NP (Non-Deterministic Polynomial) definition: Anyone can understand the outcome of the thought process, but very few are able to understand how to get to that outcome? Still, you are a genius because others think differently and consider you a genius. A common way to get “genius” level thinking is smoking psycho-active substances. Once in a while you get deep insights, but these cannot be generated by others.

    @esr
    “The one you gave, and there’s technical one that simply goes “IQ >= 145?.”

    Mensa seems to be full of people in that category that do not strike anyone as a genius.

    • >I do not understand you here.

      I don’t understand your objection.

      >So, Genius is a kind of NP (Non-Deterministic Polynomial) definition: Anyone can understand the outcome of the thought process, but very few are able to understand how to get to that outcome?

      Yes, I think that is fair.

      >A common way to get “genius” level thinking is smoking psycho-active substances. Once in a while you get deep insights, but these cannot be generated by others.

      Don’t be silly. Those are rarely if ever deep insights; they may feel like it, but they don’t cash out to predictions.

      >Mensa seems to be full of people in that category that do not strike anyone as a genius.

      Yes. The fact that most definitions of genius seem inadequate is precisely what I am trying to address.

  23. “1 SD above the mean (Z>1) means 15% of the population by definition.”

    Sorry, this is only true if Genius follows a Normal distribution. Which we can assume.

  24. ” I can’t believe that you are now calling yourself a genius. Incredible.”

    Heh… Have you ever MET Eric?

  25. >If we use my definition – A is a genius with respect to B if B is unable to replicate or comprehend A’s methods of thinking

    I think this definition is missing something, though I’m not sure what (or I’m missing some detail). I say that, because I have occasionally been in the position of person ‘A’ wrt several friends of mine as persons ‘B’, even though the various ‘B’s matched or even slightly exceeded my level of general intelligence. (They usually had to do with observations of personal behavior that panned out as minor predictions that came true, that they say they would never have thought of. And describing my logic, which was obvious to me, just left them shaking their heads. Nothing earth shattering and I do not consider myself and my ~130-140 IQ a genius.)

  26. “If we use my definition – A is a genius with respect to B if B is unable to replicate or comprehend A’s methods of thinking – it seems to me your account lands us back where we started.”

    Not necessarily. If we stipulate that my analysis of story-Eric is correct, I will have comprehended his thinking methods, but if my IQ is 10 points lower I may not have enough horses under the hood to replicate it. I grant, of course, that below a certain point a person won’t have enough IQ to figure out what I’ve discussed here.

    Further, if story-Eric had a long-lost brother who had accomplished similar feats without any of the advantages I described in my account, I would genuinely have no idea how he did that and would only be able to compete with him by copying the methods of story-Eric what you’d done.

    I’m fine using ‘genius’ to describe only output and not methods, but I think there is an important difference between someone who gets to a certain level via a few lucky breaks and enormous amounts of hard work, and someone who gets to the same level because they are just so damn smart on a neurotrasmitter level that it wouldn’t have turned out otherwise.

  27. > “Ah Ha!! flash of insight”

    I very seldom get those. Mostly, I get the “duh” moments where, after hours or days of slogging at a problem, an entirely different and blindingly obvious solution suddenly manifests.

  28. Trent Fowler: “What do we think would be the minimum required IQ to do Eric-level work while still being below the threshold for genius? “130” seems like a nice number to me; two standards of deviation above the mean, bright but not blindingly so.”

    That seems to be assuming once again that genius is pure intelligence. My own experience suggests otherwise.

    Personally, I have the high intelligence but not the creative piece. I can often quickly and correctly replicate a solution once you strongly hint what the answer should be, or quickly pick up an explanation that is given to me. (This assumes that there is a trick to getting the answer, rather than straightfoward application of complex logic and math; I can do that very well.)

    This shows up even in my boardgame play. When I start playing a new game, it is very difficult for me to come up with optimum strategies. But if the person I am playing with demonstrates them through normal play (not through patiently walking me through his thinking), I can quickly recognize what he’s doing, why it works, and replicate the strategy (not just the exact moves, but the underlying logic) in future games

    I don’t think that this would change even if my intelligence were even higher. I live in a very big “box” because of the wide extent of my polymath reading and study (friends jokingly call me “Renaissance Woman”), but it’s still a box and I can’t break out.

    Sometimes I solve problems in a way that looks to others like a new, creative method, but what I’m really doing is applying methods from a different problem domain. (That’s the polymath thing again.)

    So, can an intelligent polymath look like a genius to others of normal intelligence even though they lack the cognitive disinhibition capability? Whether you answer “yes” or “no” appears to depend which of the definitions of “genius” discussed in this thread is used.

    • >So, can an intelligent polymath look like a genius to others of normal intelligence even though they lack the cognitive disinhibition capability?

      I think that is a very astute question. And leads to the complementary one: can a person who is good at cognitive disinhibition look like a creative genius without the very high general intelligence that “genius” is normally taken to imply?

      UPDATE: I guess I should add that I used to think I was a case like this – that people overestimated my general intelligence because I was very good at creatively seeing around corners. Unfortunately for this discussion, I then discovered indirect but strong evidence that I had been underestimating my own IQ rather substantially.

  29. VD: “Mid-wits are so proud of being smarter than the average that it never occurs to them that there are others even more intelligent than they are.”

    I don’t think I’ve met many of those. Most of the intelligent people I have known in a lifetime are too busy looking up the ladder at the people smarter than they are, and feeling stupid. This applies even to people at the 99% level and higher.

  30. @ Winter – “this is only true if Genius follows a Normal distribution. Which we can assume.”

    Not sure I buy into this assumption. If true, then the term “genius” is essentially about IQ measurement and reaching a consensus about where to draw the line of demarcation. Main flaw is that you can meet this definition without having accomplished anything of unique significance.

    I think the term should be applied rarely, and usually in hindsight after history has confirmed the extraordinary nature of some unique intellectual accomplishment. I think Eric is correct in that this uniqueness should be tied to process and the fact that others were not able to make the mental connections that led to accomplishment.

  31. >> “Ah Ha!! flash of insight”
    >I very seldom get those. Mostly, I get the “duh” moments where, after hours or days of >slogging at a problem, an entirely different and blindingly obvious solution suddenly manifests.

    They are functionally equivalent. After you have worked at it for long enough understand the problem that deeply, and the lightbulb *finally* flashes, ‘Well Duh”, or “Ah Ha”…

    Often as not, *after* I have something in place and working. I only need one, and in many cases it’s something material, not software, and not worth the cost of tearing it down and rebuilding it once more.

    Jim

  32. >Unfortunately for this discussion, I then discovered indirect but strong evidence that I had been underestimating my own IQ rather substantially.

    So what is your IQ? I know nothing about psychometrics, so I want to gain some insight on it; ultimately, I’d like to know how much I can expect from myself given my IQ, which you’ve speculated to be “in the 120-125 range” (but keep in mind that I suck at math, so it’s probably less).

    • >So what is your IQ?

      I don’t know for sure. When I was a child I was assessed as IQ 145 by a psychologist whose report I snuck a peek at later. Upon reading it I immediately decided she was incompetent at evaluating giftedness, because she had listened to me mutter while doing mental arthimetic and concluded that I was bad at it. She was wrong.

      Five or six years later, when I was about 20, a neuropsychologist became interested in me because he conjectured after talking with me about higher mathematics and mystical experiences that there might be something odd about my brain lateralization. He gave me an IQ test that was graded with one of those trellis things where you lay it over the multiple-choice form and count how many pencil-lead blots show, said in a strangled voice “It looks like you got every one of them right!”, kicked me out of his office, and avoided me for the next five years.

      Damn shame, that, because I suspect he was right about my corpus callosum being unusually active. It would have been nice to know. As it was, all I walked away with was knowing that I had steamrollered an IQ test that was probably designed for a band centered on 125 or higher (this being at an Ivy League university). Around this time I had the fundamental insight behind decoherence theory about five years ahead of the physics literature.

      For many years afterwards, I have no actual freaking clue what my IQ might be, but (a) one piece of evidence suggests that 145 was an underestimate, and (b) another establishes that it’s above the range that a test normed for gifted university students is designed to measure. It’s not something I worry about; I seem to be bright enough for all practical purposes.

      Occasionally I run across suggestions of an upper bound. One was a series of historical profiles of genises with retrospective IQ assessments based on the scope and impact of their intellectual work. Albert Einstein’s is estimated there at 175, and it is easy for me to conclude that I am probably not that bright; after all, I haven’t pulled off anything disruptively revolutionary in my field (this was before 1997). But 145 to 175 is a lot of territory. And then I do in fact pull off something revolutionary and disruptive in my field, which changes the prior probabilities on which I or anyone else might estimate my IQ. I still strongly doubt I am as bright as Einstein, but the concept no longer seems immediately preposterous.

      About five years ago I found a website that delivers IQ estimates based on SAT scores and a couple of other proxies. It estimates IQ 150. This seems pretty reasonable to me based on what I know about the reported IQs of various friends. Possibly a bit low, because I’m intellectually successful even compared to my rather elite peer group, but uncertainty of measurement is large in this range. Again, I don’t care much; I’m bright enough for all practical purposes, and whether other people think of me as a “genius” is pretty insignificant compared to what I’ve actually accomplished.

      Then there’s this comment. To which I replied here. Since neither Ken Burnside nor I think my IQ is lower than his measured 161, the plausible range looks like 161-171 and my best guess is 166. I note that this is also consistent with Garret’s evaluation above.

      Now you have all the evidence I do and can make your own guess. Alarmingly, while doing some fact-checking for this comment, I find that Einstein’s IQ is nowadays estimated as 160. It still does not seem plausible to me that I am brighter than Einstein. On the other hand they peg Darwin at 165 and it actually does seem plausible to me that I create at about Darwin’s level.

  33. @Cathy >So, can an intelligent polymath look like a genius to others of normal intelligence even though they lack the cognitive disinhibition capability? Whether you answer “yes” or “no” appears to depend which of the definitions of “genius” discussed in this thread is used.

    I suspect you’re having a reverse Dunning-Kruger moment here. You see others who seem, (or perhaps are) smarter than you and think “Well, I’m not as good as he is, I can’t be a genius”.
    Like as not, some of them are looking at you through the same lens.

    The real problem with most of the definition attempts is that they are trying to draw a sharp line. Genius or not genius. Like anything else, it is a very broad and fuzzy line. The least of the class will have one useful insight in their lives — the best will have many. For even those in the class of the Eric, there will always be those who they figure are smarter than “I” am, at least at the moment on this issue.

    Jim

  34. For reference, when I was in college and more interested in demonstrating to myself (and others, mostly) that I was indeed intelligent, I joined Mensa. On two separate intelligence tests I scored at the 93rd percentile, and “above the 99th percentile”. Other testing has evaluated my IQ to be around 160.

    That having been said, I think Eric has slightly more raw intellectual power than I do, though not much. However, the manifestation thereof is vastly different, in a qualitative fashion. In my professional life I work on software problems which are sufficiently horrible and hard that describing them to Eric has resulted in some of the most horrible sounds a human being can make. At the same time, the software Eric has written has become ubiquitous, and you’re reading his blog, neither of which apply to work I’ve done.

    Otherwise, my experience with intelligence mostly matches that of Cathy above – I’m great at understanding and re-implementing, but not very creative.

    • >That having been said, I think Eric has slightly more raw intellectual power than I do, though not much.

      For what it’s worth, both parts of this match my evaluation. As you say, the main difference between us seems to be not level of general intelligence but my ability to do the creative-polymath thing.

  35. Thanks. I really appreciate your patience for my incessant newbie questions. ;-)

    >Now you have all the evidence I do and can make your own guess.

    One thing is for certain: I’m not even in the group of lesser geniuses (140-155). And I’m both innumerate and mathematically illiterate, so… oh, well. As a consolation prize, I–like you–could read faster than most of my peers in elementary school.

    I don’t want to abuse the aforementioned patience, but I’ll ask one more question in this thread: faling nootropics and the like, is it possible to become a bit smarter? Specifically, how far can I get by, say, reading Edge.org books and/or mastering General Semantics?

    • >Specifically, how far can I get by, say, reading Edge.org books and/or mastering General Semantics

      I don’t know. I do think GS is very good for helping you make efficient use of what you have.

  36. A question regarding this topic.

    If a person has an exceptionally high intelligence quotient and the accompanying cognitive disinhibition that allows for unique creative thinking, but never accomplishes anything of note using these talents, then have they earned the appellation of “genius”?

    It seems to me that the term is devalued if it only applies to a measurement of high mental functioning.

    • >If a person has an exceptionally high intelligence quotient and the accompanying cognitive disinhibition that allows for unique creative thinking, but never accomplishes anything of note using these talents, then have they earned the appellation of “genius”?

      Perhaps not. I’d be inclined to fudge the question by tagging such a person as a failed genius, or perhaps “genius manque“.

  37. > It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I realized that “identity crisis” isn’t just a literary conceit or self-indulgent silliness. People really get those!

    This actually just cleared something up for me. I remember periodically feeling like I was having “identity crisis” problems in the past, but I haven’t felt that way for years.

    I asked myself “What changed?” and the answer is that I actually understand map/territory distinctions now. It’s kind of embarrassing to realize that I somehow made it all the way through high school and almost halfway through a mathematics undergrad before I figured that out.

    Hmm… better late than never, I suppose.

  38. @esr >Perhaps not. I’d be inclined to fudge the question by tagging such a person as a failed genius, or perhaps “genius manque“.

    Perhaps “potential genius” vs. “kinetic genius”? : )

  39. It’s my understanding that IQ scores above about 140 are meaningless, aside from the fact that you’ve scored outside of the meaningful range of useful scores.

    Comparing, say, 145 with 165 doesn’t give us the kind of predictive power you get when you compare a score of 80 with 100.

    IQ measures a thing we don’t understand, as well, which puts limits on the score itself as a predictive [i]thing[/i]. Outside of the 60-140 range, for which IQ [i]is[/i] predictive, the scores just break down. There are semi-functional people with an IQ of 40, and there are people who score 65 who are destructive unpredictable animals. There are people who score in the high 70s who seem perfectly “normal”.

    IQ just doesn’t work above a certain level, nor below a certain level.

    Genius, by definition, is results-based. The 165 IQ guy who works at a car wash and drinks a case of beer every night isn’t a genius. The 120 IQ guy who designed a more efficient and effective Wheatstone bridge is.

    • >It’s my understanding that IQ scores above about 140 are meaningless, aside from the fact that you’ve scored outside of the meaningful range of useful scores.

      It is possible this is correct – the evidence seems to me to be somewhat equivocal – but psychometricians don’t believe it.

      I phrase it that way to distinguish from the popular belief that IQ measurements closer to the median are meaningless or predict only academic performance. That is complete nonsense – it’s not just that psychometricians don’t believe it, but that the real-world evidence strongly contradicts it.

  40. @kb
    “IQ measures a thing we don’t understand, as well, which puts limits on the score itself as a predictive [i]thing[/i].”

    The one, single, aspect of human functioning that is “predicted” by IQ is academic (school) achievement. And that mostly in high-school.
    http://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/wp-content/uploads/Intelligence-and-educational-achievement.pdf
    (just a quick link)

    Outside of that, IQ has little or no predictive power on social-economic success. All the correlations run through academic achievement and diplomas/certifications.

    • >Outside of that, IQ has little or no predictive power on social-economic success.

      That is so false it’s hilarious. You need to have a long talk with a psychometrician.

  41. >IQ just dosen’t work above a certain level, nor below a certain level.

    I wonder what predicts sucsess and behaviour in those extremes of IQ, and has anything been designed to measure those things?
    Hypothesis: Plotting average sucsess on the Y-axis vs IQ on the X-axis gives an ogice curve, with maximum gradient near IQ 100.

  42. @esr
    “That is so false it’s hilarious. You need to have a long talk with a psychometrician.”

    An update of the literature shows me that my information is dated, indeed. But the predictive value of IQ seems to be “relative”. I would not use “hilarious” lightly.
    (things start to go wrong when IQ scores are raised by education)

    Intelligence and socioeconomic success: A meta-analytic review of longitudinal research (2007)
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289606001127

    The results demonstrate that intelligence is a powerful predictor of success but, on the whole, not an overwhelmingly better predictor than parental SES or grades.

    The Predictive Value of IQ (2001)
    http://www.researchgate.net/publication/228859220_The_predictive_value_of_IQ/file/79e4150d72ed6b102a.pdf
    Page 10 bottom

    In sum, cognitive ability predicts anywhere from 4% to 30% of the variance in job performance. Even researchers who are strong believers in the utility of IQ agree that it is unlikely that any more improvement in conventional tests will result in substantially higher predictive validity to quality of job performance for the tests (Schmidt, 1994). The tests also show some predictive validity in predicting other life outcomes, such as overall well-being.

    • >The tests also show some predictive validity in predicting other life outcomes, such as overall well-being.

      Yup. Now dig into the criminological end.

      You need to bear in mind that this is one of the social-science areas where there is strong political pressure distorting the published research. It is taboo to face the actual implications of the evidence about IQ, because it leads straight to the conclusion that the most important differences between SES levels and (whisper it) different ethnic groups cannot be social-engineered away by a wave of the redistributionist wand. This is doubleplus ungood wrongthink and must be suppressed.

      For various historical reasons, criminologists are less affected by this pressure (or, at least, were last I checked). So you tend to get the most honesty about the effects of IQ distribution in their studies. Go look.

  43. Not directly relevant to this topic, but perhaps a data point on popular thinking.

    The Chicago Cubs just hired a new manager, Joe Maddon, for the last nine years manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. A news story about the hiring includes a sidebar quotation headed “The Maddon Philosophy”.

    The first sentence is “You have to be crazy to be great.”

  44. I just ran across some Eliezer Yudkowsky writing on the subject of intelligence and how it affects everything the intelligent person does.

    http://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/writing/level1intelligent

    Now I am wondering if much of the mental image that the average person has of a “genius” is really what Yudkowsky calls “a social stereotype”.

    He says:
    “If you go by mainstream fiction, then ‘intelligence’ means a character who is said (not shown) to speak a dozen languages, who we are shown winning a game of chess against someone else who is told to be a grandmaster; if it’s a (bad) science-fiction book then the ‘genius’ may have invented some gadget, and may speak in technobabble. Hollywood’s concept of intelligence has nothing to do with cognitive work. Instead it’s a social stereotype.”

    I think what the average person expects of a “genius” is the ability to fix anything technological and to show a high mastery in fields considered intellectual (languages, math, chess. etc.). Actually using their intelligence to solve practical, everyday problems is not in scope. And the stereotype of the absent-minded “genius” has made the latter even less likely to be seen as an indicator of genius.

    Which raises the question of where that disconnect between reality and stereotype came from. Yudkowsky blames Hollywood, but Hollywood is not much a creator of beliefs as a reflector of them.

    • >Now I am wondering if much of the mental image that the average person has of a “genius” is really what Yudkowsky calls “a social stereotype”.

      I think Eliezer is oversimplifying here. Consider Angus MacGyver.

  45. You need to bear in mind that this is one of the social-science areas where there is strong political pressure distorting the published research.

    Feh! Is there anything that doesn’t match that description?

    Actually, I do mean that seriously…

  46. I think Cathy is on to something germane here. If the term “genius” is essentially a social descriptor that intends to confer high status, then it has marginal utility in our current culture where nerdism is frequently disdained in favor of hip hop degeneracy. Contemporary usage can often be intended as pejorative rather than complimentary. We now live in a world where the less gifted are hypersensitive about relative inadequacy and demand egalitarian mediocracy.

  47. I suspect you’re having a reverse Dunning-Kruger moment here. You see others who seem, (or perhaps are) smarter than you and think “Well, I’m not as good as he is, I can’t be a genius”.
    Like as not, some of them are looking at you through the same lens.

    It’s called “impostor syndrome”, and a lot of brilliant people do have it — particularly women and other members of disadvantaged groups.

  48. One of the ingredients that isn’t being factored in is time to “mastery” on a knowledge domain.

    It generally takes about 1,000 hours to become familiar in a wholly new knowledge domain.
    For conscious mastery, it’s about 4,000 hours.
    For unconscious mastery, it’s about 10,000 hours.

    Maintaining a skill is somewhere between 200 and 500 hours per year.

    Most people are capable of putting in at most 4,000 hours into skill development per year – remember that a full-time job is 2,900 hours, roughly. One reason why managers at low skill jobs hate employee turnover is that they lose employees between 10 and 500 hours after they’ve got that initial 1,000 hours in.

    Where the excessively smart have an advantage is two fold: One, they’re likelier to connect knew procedures and knowledge patterns to existing knowledge domains – effectively leveraging something they have unconscious mastery in to become “masters” of a new domain by using existing knowledge-chunking. Two, they’re likelier to pursue knew knowledge domains for fun, and treat skills as perishable and maintain existing skills.

  49. re: validity IQ works the same way as arithmetic. It’s hard to be intelligent and score poorly on an IQ test, for the same reasons you’re unlikely to be both highly intelligent and have serious trouble with arithmetic. But it doesn’t go the other way round – an increase in IQ doesn’t imply higher intelligence.

  50. @esr

    Indeed. I know that troll-dude is, practically speaking, probably stuck with relying on software I wrote every day for the rest of his life. Given that, why on earth or in any heaven should he imagine I care whether or not he thinks I’m a “genius”? Or a narcissist?

    You should really put this moronic “comeback” to bed. What next? The plumber flaunting others reliance on him to unclog the shit from their toilets? lol?

  51. @esr
    “For various historical reasons, criminologists are less affected by this pressure (or, at least, were last I checked). So you tend to get the most honesty about the effects of IQ distribution in their studies. Go look.”

    You are entering the realm of pathologies. Facts found in pathological cases cannot easily be extrapolated to the normal case.

    I have no idea about the USA, but in the Netherlands the criminologists are very open about it. The jails are full of people that fit the cliches: Child abuse and dysfunctional families, Psychiatric and behavioral problems, low(est) SES families, and low education. And the numbers about ethnic backgrounds are given too. After such an onslaught, IQ is just an afterthought. Obviously, those in jail are not the brightest. If they had been bright, they would have found a legal job to get rich.

  52. >It’s my understanding that IQ scores above about 140 are meaningless, aside from the fact that you’ve scored outside of the meaningful range of useful scores.

    It is possible this is correct – the evidence seems to me to be somewhat equivocal – but psychometricians don’t believe it.

    The issue is simply that the tools aren’t calibrated on the high end; it’s too difficult to get a sample that includes enough of the outliers, and it doesn’t buy you much useful information to try. An accurate assessment probably would tell you something, but developing an instrument to be accurate at that range isn’t worthwhile.

    You are entering the realm of pathologies. Facts found in pathological cases cannot easily be extrapolated to the normal case.

    Begging the question. In fact, studies routinely show that criminals respond rationally to changes in costs and benefits, indicating that, at least as far as intelligence per se is concerned, it’s being applied to the commission of crimes.

    • >The issue is simply that the tools aren’t calibrated on the high end

      There is something to this. On the other hand, I find the thought processes of someone with an IQ of 150 or 160 to be observably and consistently different than the thought processes of someone with an IQ of 140. Over an admittedly small sample, I have observed that:

      (1) Serious polymathy kicks in at around IQ 150. (This isn’t in the literature; psychometricians don’t seem to have studied polymathy much.)

      (2) The ability to originate entire new systems of thought – theory of relativity, evolution, that sort of thing – seems to kick in at around 160 (this is in the literature).

      So I believe these differences are capturing something, even if the uncertainty of measurement is significantly larger than close to the median.

      I also think there is a real cutoff around 140 of a different nature. That is about as much intelligence as you can use effectively unless you are routinely doing something in a small category of creative intellectual work. Some psychologists think IQ 120 is smart enough for all practical purposes, but I think that’s underestimating the gains from giftedness in the 120-140 range – I have seen those people be markedly more effective in teaching, law, medicine, and other cognitively demanding professions than their sub-120 peers. Above 140 the payoffs change; only research scientists, mathematicians, and various sorts of design engineers (including software engineers) seem to really have a use for that kind of brainpower.

      This cutoff can lead to some subtle kinds of frustration. I estimate my wife Cathy’s IQ to be about 145, possibly a bit higher. She is a shade too bright to be optimally fitted for her legal profession. She has coped by developing an interest in a specialized kind of historical research, in which she maintains a world-class library and corresponds on equal terms with Ph.D. specialists.

  53. @Christopher Smith
    “In fact, studies routinely show that criminals respond rationally to changes in costs and benefits, indicating that, at least as far as intelligence per se is concerned, it’s being applied to the commission of crimes.”

    It depends on the crimes. Some behave rationally, for some level of rational. Think trade in drugs and other vices. Others don’t. Those in jail tend to be the less rational ones. When the people in jail are profiled, they are predominantly in the problem categories.

    The situation in the US is different from the rest of the world because of the inordinate number of people that are jailed on all counts of pretexts.

    • >Those in jail tend to be the less rational ones.

      Of course. “Less rational” is a predictor of propensity to crime. And they’re less rational part because tecause they’re stupider – lower general intelligence. They have seriously subnormal IQs.

      In fact this is probably more true in the Netherlands than in the U.S., where we do as you say jail too many people for silly reasons like possessing drugs or firearms. This has the effect of slightly raising the average IQ of the prison population.

  54. There is something to this. On the other hand,

    I think we’re in agreement; I am responding to the claim that says that above 140 nothing matters by saying that we can’t say anything from hard data because our instruments go off scale at that point. I certainly think that there are observable differences that we could identify with more precision if we weren’t saturating the scale.

  55. I am acquainted with several geniuses (I place them in this category because of their achievements), and one thing I’ve found from discussing intelligence with them is that they place as much weight on IQ tests and scores as they place on phrenology.

    They tend to consider Mensans rather pathetic.

    • >They tend to consider Mensans rather pathetic.

      This is a common attitude among the really bright people I know. I used to be tempted to it myself – there’s something about joining a club based on your IQ that seems cheesy. But years ago I decided I was being unfair.

      OK, so maybe a lot of Mensans do strike me as only half-bright, but even the dimmest ones are different enough from people within one standard deviation of the IQ mean that wanting to hang together makes sense. Snarking at them for acting on that perfectly natural impulse is … mean-spirited. Petty. Makes me think less, nowadays, of the super-brights who do it.

  56. @Mr Incognito

    I have seen the same experience. I know a few brilliant people (confirmed by their success). I have never even heard them use the term IQ. The one I happened to ask about it did never bother to do an IQ test. The real brilliant people go for achievement, not some surrogate measure of potential.

    • >The real brilliant people go for achievement, not some surrogate measure of potential.

      Well, of course people who feel like they have really achieved something don’t have to over-invest in a number. They’ve achieved something. Duh!

      Me, I care much more about the topic of IQ in general – because I think the myths about it produce bad reasoning and bad policy – than I do about having my own IQ accurately estimated. If the latter really mattered to me, I would have found some way to have it rigorously evaluated in a controlled test long before now, rather than settling for proxies and guesses. The northeast corridor of the U.S. is, after all, not exactly short of psychometricians.

      And I’d give even less of a crap if not for the fact one of the consequences of having achieved at a level many consider “genius” is that other people would like to know what my IQ is. I think this is a quite reasonable thing for people to be curious about, on much the same level as someone might ask a star athlete how much he can dead-lift.

  57. I have never even heard them use the term IQ. The one I happened to ask about it did never bother to do an IQ test. The real brilliant people go for achievement, not some surrogate measure of potential.

    Don’t confuse academic and even practical interest with placing one’s sense of identity in a number. Very many of the highly intelligent people of my acquaintance are very interested in IQ as a subset of interest in a broader topic of human and non-human cognition and personality. IME, the more intelligent the individual, the more likely that person is to have a wide variety of curiosities, and after peering into several areas, to cultivate an interest in the mind as a common factor and prerequisite.

  58. Christopher Smith
    “Very many of the highly intelligent people of my acquaintance are very interested in IQ as a subset of interest in a broader topic of human and non-human cognition and personality. ”

    Seems to be a cultural thing too. When I hear about IQ, it is mostly from people from the USA.

    Although, there is a yearly “National IQ test” on TV here. It does not exactly give you confidence in the usefulness of IQ.
    http://iqtest.bnn.nl/

    Note, the first paragraph of the web-site can be translated as:

    Good news: IQ can be trained! Practicing figures, cubes, and word meanings can lead to a higher IQ. And we know some celebrities who desire to use this method.

  59. The historical record seems to verify that evolution has selected for higher intelligence in our species, but the flow of that impact has also been uneven during the last few millennia; possibly because of the overlay of cultural evolutionary forces. Genius-level mutations have likely occurred throughout our long evolutionary timeline, but expression/impact was likely limited by early death and a dearth of leveraging opportunities. We now live in a world where genius can be leveraged by technology in a nearly exponential fashion. An interesting question is . . .

    Is mean population intelligence rising? or

    Is the distribution spreading/skewing?

    or both?

  60. “Above 140 the payoffs change; only research scientists, mathematicians, and various sorts of design engineers (including software engineers) seem to really have a use for that kind of brainpower.”

    Some kinds of finance too. It’s a popular stereotype among people who know something about the field, it makes sense in theory, and it’s consistent with my small anecdotal experience. The student from my classes at Caltech who most deeply impressed me with his intelligence apparently went on to make quite a sizable fortune trading bonds, which would be a funny coincidence if there is no causal connection. And it’s hard for me from the fragmentary information I have (early career, and a bit of his writing) to assess Charlie Munger’s intelligence very exactly, but my impression is (1) 95+% percentile of the kind of people who go to Caltech and thus significantly above 140 IQ and (2) there is a causal connection between that and his very sizable fortune as well.

    • >Some kinds of finance too. It’s a popular stereotype among people who know something about the field, it makes sense in theory, and it’s consistent with my small anecdotal experience.

      That is interesting. I don’t have enough domain knowledge of my own to have an opinion about this, but your report seems plausible.

  61. >That is interesting. I don’t have enough domain knowledge of my own to have an opinion about this, but your report seems plausible.

    This is real. You see it much more in places like NYC, but there is (maybe not as much now, but very much so ~10 years ago) a very real brain drain from technical fields into finance. Because that’s where you make the money.

    I know of at least one NYC-based hedge fund that recruits pretty heavily from MIT, because I know a number of people who work there. :)

    From another field, when my wife was working as an aerospace engineer, a number of the brightest of her young co-workers, when they discovered just what life as a working engineer for a large Dilbert-style corporation was like (you get shit on and paid less than the union stooges on the shop floor) fled and changed careers to finance.

  62. Or another fellow I know, a very bright and enterprising MIT-trained engineer, who segued from founding an engineering startup to founding a wealth-management startup.

    Anecdotal, I know, but the anecdote to total-number-of-unusually-bright-technical-people I know ratio is pretty high. :)

  63. One of the phenomena associated with capitalism going off the rails is many of the best and brightest forsaking productive disciplines like chemistry, physics, and engineering and getting into finance. Using money to make money, widening the gap between rich and poor.

    Only when the last tree has been cut down…

  64. >One of the phenomena associated with capitalism going off the rails is many of the best and brightest forsaking productive disciplines like chemistry, physics, and engineering and getting into finance. Using money to make money, widening the gap between rich and poor.

    I believe the word of the day is ‘iatrogenic’.

    When what you’ve been taking as a cure is the cause of what’s ailing you…..

  65. >OK, so maybe a lot of Mensans do strike me as only half-bright, but even the dimmest ones are different enough from people within one standard deviation of the IQ mean that wanting to hang together makes sense. Snarking at them for acting on that perfectly natural impulse is … mean-spirited. Petty. Makes me think less, nowadays, of the super-brights who do it.

    No, they’re pathetic. And misguided.

    They’re self-outcasting, while consigning themselves to a self-made identity politics ghetto.

  66. Hey Jeff, when you stop being jealous & whinging about how much more the rich are making than the poor, and start worrying about how the poor are doing (answer: Not Bad) then I’ll stop thinking you’re mostly just envious.

    Today even the poorest of the western world have access to medical practices and medicines that the rich couldn’t get 100 years ago. Clothing, food and (outside of progressive controlled cities) housing–at least in America are about as cheap as they’ve ever been–to the point that obesity, not hunger is the major problem of the poor.

    When the Government isn’t beating up on businesses (“you didn’t build that” and “businesses don’t create jobs” there is generally enough work such that “the poor” don’t need assistance to lead lives that would have looked luxurious in the 1900s, and are still about what the middle class lived in the 1950s.

    In America a poor person is more likely than not to have Air Conditioning (and many of the “nots” live places where it’s not particularly useful. My house, a medium sized suburban home from the 80s doesn’t have it), almost all have color TVs. Most have their own car.

    So frankly I don’t give a flying f*k how much Bill Gates has, or if some bright boy wants to go into finance so he can get a silicon sister & a yacht of his own as long as someone can follow the rules and get a job that lets them live in a safer neighborhood and pay their bills.

    Which is *generally* the case in the US, except when the Social Justice Whiners, and their fellow non-travelers put in the sort of roadblocks that prevent it.

  67. To elaborate from my last post about the Mensa people….

    If they could or would actually develop interests in things other than ‘being smart’, and pursue those interests, they might not find any need to hand together in a group defined solely by a certain facet of their identity.

    In addition, one (actually nobody here should be) would be amazed how well people of different IQ levels but shared common interests can get along. That sort of thing really does build bridges. And who knows, joining/contributing to affinity groups like that is not only good for you, but it’s the essence of civil society- so by helping yourself socially and emotionally, you’re also strengthening the fabric of your community (on more than one level).

  68. >When the Government isn’t beating up on businesses (“you didn’t build that” and “businesses don’t create jobs” there is generally enough work such that “the poor” don’t need assistance to lead lives that would have looked luxurious in the 1900s, and are still about what the middle class lived in the 1950s.

    And it’s government interference in everything that makes finance so attractive. It’s the best place for the smart and ambitious to go (with one exception, which I’ll come back to) to make money, because everything else is too restricted.

    Some people have noticed that in past decades the tech sector is the only area of our economy that’s generated any real improvement and growth, and just by some small coincidence that happens to be where the sticky fingered representatives of gov’t have intruded the least. But they’ve been fixing that.

    So now, aside from finance, the best place for the talented and ambitious to go to get ahead is a law degree (it’s a pre-req) and a future in gov’t. Because that’s where the power and the opportunities are.

  69. esr: “I find the thought processes of someone with an IQ of 150 or 160 to be observably and consistently different than the thought processes of someone with an IQ of 140. Over an admittedly small sample, I have observed that:

    “(1) Serious polymathy kicks in at around IQ 150.
    “(2) The ability to originate entire new systems of thought – theory of relativity, evolution, that sort of thing – seems to kick in at around 160.”

    I find that completely plausible based on personal experience. I have never been formally evaluated for IQ (never cared, really), but mapping my multiple SAT and GRE scores taken over a period of years has consistently suggested a value around 155. And I consider myself to qualify as a polymath (see “Renaissance Woman” quote above), but I have no illusions about my lack of ability to form new systems of thought.

    “I also think there is a real cutoff around 140 of a different nature. That is about as much intelligence as you can use effectively unless you are routinely doing something in a small category of creative intellectual work.”

    Charles Murray has said research suggests that “people who can stand out in almost any profession short of theoretical physics…[need] an IQ of at least 120,” hinting that diminishing returns kick in above that level. (See his essay “Aztecs vs. Greeks”.)

    Certainly in the business world, I have not had a meaningful advantage over the people around me. I would guess most of them are in the 120 – 130 range. And it’s not due to lack of social skills, as I also have high empathy. Yet I don’t think that last 20 points of my IQ have a significant impact on my ability to do my corporate job (market research), even though I have a much better grasp of statistics than is the norm in that field.

    Yudkowsky has written about “the level above mine”, and the fact that it difficult to tell a person one level up from one two or more levels up. And I definitely believe there is a major gap between, say, 135 and 155.

    I would guess that Eric is more intelligent than I am, but not a full “level” above me. (It’s an interesting question what constitutes a “level”.) I cannot replicate his work, but can understand it readily after the fact, and I believe that I’m roughly in a conversation between equals when we chat on this blog. (Disclaimer: I have never met him in person or heard him speak.) That feels like about 15 IQ points or so, with him falling on the high end of the same level.

  70. “The historical record seems to verify that evolution has selected for higher intelligence in our species, but the flow of that impact has also been uneven during the last few millennia; possibly because of the overlay of cultural evolutionary forces. Genius-level mutations have likely occurred throughout our long evolutionary timeline, but expression/impact was likely limited by early death and a dearth of leveraging opportunities.”

    I’ve often wondered how intelligent a human can be within the reasonable range of probable mutations. Is it conceivable that someone like Poul Anderson’s “Brain Wave” humans, with IQs of 400 – 500, could exist in our world, however rare they might be? Or can the hardware simply not support that?

  71. esr:
    “OK, so maybe a lot of Mensans do strike me as only half-bright, but even the dimmest ones are different enough from people within one standard deviation of the IQ mean that wanting to hang together makes sense. Snarking at them for acting on that perfectly natural impulse is … mean-spirited. Petty. Makes me think less, nowadays, of the super-brights who do it.”

    Hmm, seems to me that the impulse that makes the super-brights not want to hang around with the half-brights is the same impulse that makes the half-brights want to find each other so they can take a break from the not-brights.

    I’ve lived much of my life in small, rural communities around ordinary, average people, often not even college graduates. This has made it very easy for me to connect with people who aren’t necessarily intellectually gifted, because I have enough common interests with them (e.g., gardening, sewing, etc.) to form a social connection.

    I pity those so isolated that they think they can only relate socially to people on their own intellectual level. But I do understand the need to find some intellectual equals occasionally, and that’s probably true of many (most?) of those hanging out on this blog.

  72. @Greg
    “In addition, one (actually nobody here should be) would be amazed how well people of different IQ levels but shared common interests can get along.”

    And it is amazing how good a person can become in a field of genuine interest, irrespective of their overall IQ. All the way to idiot savants:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savant_syndrome

  73. @ESR

    How comes being an unpopular kid is not a requirement? Basically if you don’t win any points but agree with everybody else, you are less inhibited about disagreeing and pointing out the emperor is naked.

    I mean, the problem of the hyper-sane is precisely that they don’t fit into any comfortable tribes, except for the tribe of the hyper-sane or the Yudkowskian rationalist. This has consequences. Often not very good ones.

    I mean, consider this. You are good at pissing off liberals and conservatives. This is what the hyper-sane routinely do, and not just with political tribes but all kinds of tribes. Now, the reason you get away with this is that you live in a very free country, in one of its least paranoid periods (things were more paranoid around the McCarthy era), have independent income and do not depend on job interviews, and have the kind of background and credentials that in the absolutely worst case the flak you could receive would be roughly like “yeah, that guy who is really good with open source software and is quite popular around those circles, but has a kinda fringe opinion in some other matters”. So you are exactly that kind of guy who needs the protection provided by tribal memberships then least – you can easily imagine how those who need it more would find it more difficult to be hyper-sane in matters that offend the identity of the tribe they expect protection from. (To me politics often looks like a liberal vs. conservative culture war as a soccer match with libertarians being the referee. The issue is, every worked-up fan hates the referee: they want to win, not play fair. The fans care for tribalism, the referee for reality.)

    The most extreme recent example of the other end (100% tribalism, 0% reality) was Russian politics around 1993. Basically Yeltsin was called “liberal” and supported a “presidential system” and his opponents wanted “parliamentary democracy” instead. None of those words meant ANYTHING they usually mean in that context. They simply meant the power struggle between two tribes, one having more parliamentry support and the other more support from the presidency. That was all.

    (The most extreme fictional example of tribalism vs. reality is obviously Orwell.)

    This comment is a bit too political, because it is the easiest way to demonstrate tribalism. Yet, it happens in science, it happens in technology etc. just think of the lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air tribes of flying 120 years ago.

    Most people live somewhere in between, they need various amounts of tribal protection and can afford various amounts of sanity.

    Connecting the two, the unpopular kids when grow up, have less of an emotional need for tribalism. However it can still be a wholly pragmatic need.

    Both the emotional need and the pragmatic need creates inhibitions for pointing out the emperor is naked.

    • >How comes being an unpopular kid is not a requirement?

      What, for creative genius? I think it is best understood not as a requirement but as a near-inevitable consequence – of being several sigmas off the median.

  74. About IQ: Mensa measures it as a percentage, not IQ, although it is translatable, and basically told me something along the lines of of the 36 questions asked, people may fail about 5, the last 5, as they are the hardest, if they want to be in the 2% that gets admitted to it. Now, it may just be the sour grapes talking (I failed one more), but I did not see how the complexity of the last questions related to real life problems. Real life problems can always be broken down to smaller problems. In fact I felt around question 25 that we surpassed the difficulty of real life problems and just playing brain teasers.

    OK – to be fair I never liked artificial problems, be that chess, logic games like Sokoban, or the more complex boardgames. This kind of complexity and the ability to deal with it is great for defeating human opponents, but for solving problems related with things it is unnecessary, we can always break down technical problems into smaller, easier parts.

    To be fair, the Ecological Dominance, Social Competition model of the evolution of human intelligence supports this. Humans did not need to get smart to cope with the environment, it was largely about defeating each other.

    Should we see intelligence as something necessarily competitive? Designing a good enough mousetrap is not hard, designing a mousetrap that is better than the mousetrap of some other bright fellow who tries his durndest to take your whole market, now that is hard.

    And this is why the IQ test of the Mensa was so structured, they did not want to see who could fix a problem, they wanted to see who would beat the other in chess.

    If intelligence is necessairily competitive, I am in that sense dumb, I don’t like to compete, I lack that drive, I don’t even play difficult boardgames or logical computer games, I don’t want to offer better solutions than others do, I want to find new problems that don’t have any competing solutions at all. Curiosity > competition, as far as I am concerned, but that does not fit into the EDSC model at all.

  75. @ESR my point was that people with the ability to be creative genius may have that kind of inhibition of not to be, to not rock the boat, due to group pressures. If you are looking for disinhibition instead of talent, you need to look at the inhibiting social factors.

  76. I’d say being an unpopular kid isn’t a requirement, though each has a strong causation factor in the other. Being unpopular means having more alone time, which can get spent on studying (of more concentrated information contained in books, as opposed to the more dilute form of human interaction). More genius means more original ideas, which can put off anyone used to routine.

    But geniuses are also in a position to recognize that sociability can get them places that study alone cannot reach as efficiently. So then it becomes a matter of how good they are at it, and just how much they see getting out of it.

  77. Speaking as a Mensan, I find it interesting that only about 2% of those who qualify become members.

    And no, I don’t think Mensans are unusually bright, just average or a little above in fields like computer programming.

  78. Maybe I need to make my point differently worded. The new idea is here that it is not just about ability, but the lack of an inhibition to use it, right? So, it is something like being uninhibited about your sexuality. I am just saying there is quite a social component to it, partially because of whether are you used to conforming to the norms of others just to be popular, partially because how useful is for you to belong to a “tribe” and it also means not violating their sexual norms. Same thing about thinking different from others.

  79. Regarding Mensa: many years ago, a friend called it “the club for overintelligent underachievers”. There are lots of very smart people who aren’t socially maladjusted, who are accomplishing something with their intelligence. However, there’s a subset of highly intelligent people who never get anything done, usually because of some sort of attitude problem. The perennial grad student is one instance of the type, as is the “misunderstood genius”, or the person who disdains the “compromises” required to succeed in their society.

    Mensa has always had an aura of being a club for those types to socialize. I know a number of these types, but none, as far as I know, are active members of Mensa, because, at least in the Bay Area, there are plenty of other social outlets for people like that.

  80. > Probably the best strategy would be a combination of intelligence-enhancing nootropics with training to enhance the self-other distinction, if we had any real clue how to do the latter.

    @esr, I wasn’t sure if you were tongue-in-cheek with that last quip about training to enhance the self-other distinction. Are you? Could you perhaps elaborate on this a little bit?

    • >@esr, I wasn’t sure if you were tongue-in-cheek with that last quip about training to enhance the self-other distinction.

      No, I was quite serious. One of the basics of sanity is the ability to tell what elements of the phenomenal field are caused by the world outside our minds. I the realm of psychology this is ‘self’ vs. ‘other’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *