What makes people smart?

I was reminded the other day of a wonderful 1948 story I read as a kid, ‘In Hiding’, by Wilmar Shiras (1908-1990). I read it in a 1960s-era anthology of sci-fi stories, and it left a huge impression on me.

Shiras wrote it, apparently, for her children. And the plot was straight forward: a school psychologist investigates a B-grade student who turns out to be a polymath supra-supergenius (I know what I said). He’s hidden his talents because the usual outcome of being smart at school is to be targeted for bullying.

All-round supergenius inventor Nikolai Tesla with some of his gear in action. Public domain, from http://www.sciencebuzz.org/ blog/monument-nearly-forgotten-genius-sought

In the story he was being brought up by his grandparents: his parents were nuclear scientists and there had been a reactor accident, years earlier, while his mother was carrying him – producing mutations that led to enhanced intelligence. The ‘nuclear’ origin of the intelligence was purely a plot device. Back then, although ‘atomic’ was widely used as a synonym for ‘magic’, ionising radiation was known to destroy. (Non-ionising radiation isn’t good for you either – think sunburn.)

The genius behind Shiras’ story was that it wasn’t really sci-fi: it was social commentary. The sci-fi style reason why the kid was smart was a pretext to explore what society does to people who have outstanding abilities.  The tale was the first of a series later assembled into a novel, Children of the Atom (1953). I haven’t read that – but the progenitor still resonates because of the way Shiras had, in effect, hit upon one of the fundamentals of the human condition; people who ‘think different’ are bullied for it, especially at school. And you don’t have to be a mega-genius to trigger the problem. Einstein (who was a mega-genius) struggled not just at school but at university; he was the epitome of ‘thinking different’. Winston Churchill, who had a formidable intellect, later wrote that his school days were best forgotten.

As far as I can tell it’s because the sort of thinking that defines ‘intelligence’ at school and in society (data storage and recall, like an IQ test or a TV quiz game) runs against the style of thinking of truly creative intellects (analysis, conceptual innovation, integration of ideas, identifying new shapes and patterns that nobody’s thought of before). The really creative and smart people stand out because they are cognitively different. Look at Nikolai Tesla.

It’s also possible for somebody to be very bright in the superficial sense, yet behave stupidly because their particular mind-set or character ties their sense of self-worth in to a particular idea system or set of behaviours, on which they then make analytical judgements. What it means is that ‘intelligence’ has many facets.

I’m not sure whether smart kids are still targeted and bullied at school for it today, or smart adults by society. Possibly not: after all, geeks won. These days, I think other reasons are found to beat on people. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

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11 thoughts on “What makes people smart?

  1. There will always been someone who bullies another for whatever reason sticks in their craw. On one job, a fellow nurse gave me a hard time simply for not having a BSN. Some nights I worked as a staff nurse and he was in charge; when he was off, I was in charge. He didn’t like that I was a relief supervisor and had no degree. Thankfully, I moved. A few months later a friend called to let me know he got caught stealing supplies and was fired. I think he gave me a hard time so I wouldn’t notice what was going on. His trick worked. There were times he was gone, but I was glad not to have him around harping at me.
    It seems bullying has gotten a lot worse in recent years. I guess that’s what happens when people throw God out of their lives.
    Good blog.

    1. Bullying seems to be ubiquitous – I suspect because it’s an easy way to win; and if we extend the definition to include passive-aggressive invalidation techniques (given that invalidation is a key part of bullying) I suspect it’s a lot more widespread than we might think. I agree – it’s got worse of late; and I can’t help thinking that the fact that society has been exalting self more than others is part of it. People forget to be kind.

  2. I’m not sure bullying is worse now, but it is different because most kids could escape being bullied by going home. Now, they often still get bullied via social media so it can be 24/7. I find kids these days are a lot more socially aware. Kids still get bullied for being gay, for example, but there’s a lot less of it and there are also a lot more kids who stand up for them.

    Despite all the programmes, I don’t think bullying is going anywhere either. I just think more people are better at standing up to bullies now because there are techniques that can be learned. Before, some people worked them out on their own when they were bullied, but most just suffered. At least we’re better at recognizing it now, and not accepting it as being okay.

    I haven’t noticed that having God in their lives makes a difference one way or the other though. Religious kids are sometimes the most nasty and judgmental and think they are superior in some way. I think Matthew’s right about being kind and being aware of others. It seems kindness is something that needs to be taught. Some families are better at that than others, whatever their beliefs.

    1. I think bullying is innate to the human condition – a successful strategy for living which worked in hunter-gatherer days as one of the devices for social climbing in small groups. We tend to focus attention about it on schools, where kids engage in all the expressions of it – jeering, unprovoked attacks, invalidation of responses and so forth. It’s easy to see happening, but I think it’s remarkably common as a behaviour in all walks of society: all you have to do is invalidate the other person, including anything they say to the contrary. Adults don’t stop being bullies – they just get more subtle at it. I see it all the time among academics, and every time the cause, it seems to me, is the same; personal insecurity and a sense of powerlessness, which is assuaged by taking power off others.

      1. Oh, I agree. I think it’s innate too. I didn’t mean to indicate otherwise. I still see it everywhere too. I don’t think some people are even aware they’re doing it, and others seem to think they have a right to do it. (That one’s common in academia!)

        However, I also like to think (probably naïvely) that we can do better. It’s obviously not necessary nowadays, and society does better when we cooperate without bullying. I think the skills to handle situations so we don’t revert to the bullying that comes naturally can be taught. Unfortunately, that’s not going to work on the grown up a$$ho£€$ who go around treating others like $hit. They’re going to keep doing it, and they’re unlikely to realize how others see them when they do it (and it probably wouldn’t stop them anyway).

  3. I’m wondering if at least some bullying is rooted in fear. People feel threatened by someone they don’t understand, and some resort to violence and intimidation. It’s hard to be kind if you’re afraid, and there’s a lot of insecurity, uneasiness and anxiety these days.

    1. I agree. On my experience I am pretty sure bullying is a reflection of precisely that on the part of those doing it – insecurity, fear of being found out, even unease. I suspect it’s a default human behaviour, and a very successful one; the elements of it seem to turn up in all sorts of ways.

    1. Too true! It seems to be innate in humanity to uphold ‘us’ and viciously attack ‘them’, however ‘us’ and ‘them’ may be defined. I suspect it’s an outcome of old-style hunter-gatherer days, when ‘us’ was the immediate kin-related group and ‘them’ became ‘everybody else’. The problem, I suspect, is that in today’s complex society it’s all too easy to find ‘them’ in just about any form of difference – physical, behavioural, ideological, cultural, intellectual and so forth. It seems to end up tied in to personal self-worth, which makes it emotional, and I’ve even seen it in an online forums over points of trivia – people getting absolutely personally abusive at each other to the point where, if they were in the same room, I expect a brawl would have broken out. The classic I saw was over the question ‘was HMS Hood a battleship or a battlecruiser’? And yes, members of an online forum were engaging in online screaming, bullying, personal abuse, and insults over it. I mean… really, who cares?

      I think that these issues extend to social status – and that sense of being ‘in the higher group’ is also something consciously exploited by marketers. It’s how Apple worked, elevating the iPhone as a symbol of superior social identity (and, again, provoking online abuse in forums over what is ‘better’, as if this was some absolute).

      Apologies for the late response – it’s been an adventurous week, I am only just getting on to my blog correspondence this weekend!

      1. Yes, to everything. 😦
        I believe Society and Culture arose out of a need to band together to fight a greater enemy – i.e. stronger animals and nature itself.
        Now that we’ve become the apex predator there’s nothing left to ‘fight’ so we fight each other.
        Simplistic, I know, but we certainly seem to be going through a period of extreme divisiveness. Hope the pendulum starts swinging back the other way soon.

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