Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Intelligence and creativity

"The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination." (Albert Einstein)

Intelligence is a virtue -- believe me I know. I was one of those front bench kids who always did extremely well at school and were poster boys/girls for neighbors and relatives (at least as far as the societal notion of intelligence goes).  The reason I turned out (semi-)normal and without a bloated head, was because my parents had their own stellar academic records. So, at least within the confines of our home, there was nothing special about me, nor did I receive the expected glory talks or pats-on-the-back. I, therefore, clearly remember how the first real recognition from my parents came about.

In Indian schools, once we finish our tenth grade one has the liberty to choose subjects for further studies broadly categorized into three streams -- Science, Commerce and Humanities. This so-called liberty, unfortunately, is more of a hierarchy of intelligence itself with top students choosing science, followed by those studying Commerce, and a steep fall from prestige if you go and take up humanities.* Our school, being one of the more progressive ones at the time, had decided to not follow this hierarchy (at least not strictly!) and evaluate the 'aptitude' of students instead.** The idea was that this would help the students to make better informed choices and not just rely on their grades. For this purpose, all tenth grade students in my batch took IQ tests and aptitude tests at the end of school year, and parents of each student were invited to discuss the results with the school counselor.*** I still remember my mother being genuinely (and, to my annoyance, surprisingly!) pleased when she learnt that I had an IQ in the +2\sigma range of the average human IQ. Another thing which I remember was the aptitude chart which showed the student's interest in various lines of work. I squinted at the sheets lying in a pile and saw charts that looked like a doodle of Himalayan peaks. When the counselor pulled up my aptitude chart, it looked like an ECG of a dying man! --- a straight line with a tiny lonely blip near "administration", which immediately triggered the image of a gray-haired, middle-aged me fussing over office filing system in my mind.**** I quickly shoved it out of my sight as I did not want any unhappy distractions while I basked in my IQ glory.

Any way, I did take science in high school as I genuinely liked it by then. Plus, I was assured by my IQ tests that I was a natural at almost all the subjects, except for a little trouble with physics. I was still bothered by my non-existent aptitude for any occupation, but my counselor consoled me that maybe if I found something even mildly interesting, my aptitude-less brain would do well given my killer IQ! As it turned out, I ended up pursuing physics in college. It was more a process of elimination rather than selection at the time (just like most of my life-altering decisions!). Taxonomy had killed biology for me and I was at the end of my tether with organic chemistry (alkanes, alkenes, alkynes...seriously!). Also my mother, who has been a maths wizard since the age of three, thought pure maths would be too abstract for my lateral mind and I listened.

In spite of not having enough natural flair in the subject I chose, and being acutely aware of this conflict between aptitude and interest, I topped the university exams. And the more I learnt physics, the more I liked it and the better I got at it. This made me realize that the mysterious 'aptitude', after all, is not an inherent fixed quality, but a dynamic one that can be cultivated through interest. I eventually pursued research in quantum physics and currently I'm a university professor in the US. The reason for sharing this long-winded history, is the realization it has afforded me about the concept of intelligence. Even in the fields such as academic research that, by construction, seem most cerebral, the really successful and happy scientists are the ones who are the most creative. In fact, pursuing research is the single most important activity that has demolished the usual beliefs about intelligence I grew up with. Confronted by an unsolved problem, it does not really matter how fast can you solve equations or multiply numbers in your head, it is all about how much you enjoy thinking about different things or thinking things differently! And more often than not it is sheer doggedness of this creative pursuit, rather than photographic memory, that leads to interesting results!

This also ties in to a recent podcast I heard about 'Complexity and stupidity'. It was a conversation where one of my favorite commentators and authors Sam Harris talks to biologist David Krakauer about nature of human intelligence and stupidity. Krakauer, who was himself included among 50 smartest minds by Wired magazine, expounds on the concept of intelligence (or, lack of it = stupidity) and I quote from his interview below:

"...The example I like to give is Rubik’s cube, because it’s a beautiful little mental model, a metaphor. If I gave you a cube and asked you to solve it, and you just randomly manipulated it, since it has on the order of 10 quintillion solutions, which is a very large number, if you were immortal, you would eventually solve it. But it would take a lifetime of several universes to do so. That is random performance. Stupid performance is if you took just one face of the cube and manipulated that one face and rotated it forever. As everyone knows, if you did that, you would never solve the cube. It would be an infinite process that would never be resolved. That, in my definition, would be stupid. It is significantly worse than chance.
Now let’s take someone who has learned how to manipulate a cube and is familiar with various rules that allow you, from any initial configuration, to solve the cube in 20 minutes or less. That is intelligent behavior, significantly better than chance. This sounds a little counterintuitive, perhaps, until you realize that’s how we use the word in our daily lives. If I sat down with an extraordinary mathematician and I said, “I can’t solve that equation,” and he said, “Well, no, it’s easy. Here, this is what you do,” I’d look at it and I’d say, “Oh, yes, it is easy. You made that look easy.” That’s what we mean when we say someone is smart. They make things look easy. 

If, on the other hand, I sat down with someone who was incapable, and he just kept dividing by two, for whatever reason, I would say, “What on earth are you doing? What a stupid thing to do. You’ll never solve the problem that way.”
So that is what we mean by intelligence. It’s the thing we do that ensures that the problem is efficiently solved and in a way that makes it appear effortless. And stupidity is a set of rules that we use to ensure that the problem will be solved in longer than chance or never and is nevertheless pursued with alacrity and enthusiasm. ..."
I find Krakauer's definition illuminating for more than one reasons:
- First, it makes the elusive concept of intelligence, usually quantified by an absolute scaleless number called IQ, more concrete and accessible.
- Second, it shows that intelligence is something dynamic and diverse. It may involve ruminating about physics of the universe or solving a rubik's cube.
- Third, and most importantly, it really challenges the conventional view of intellectualism and makes intelligence indistinguishable from creativity. Because it is creativity which helps us solve problems in unforeseen and new ways.

So the next time you want to feel intelligent, go paint something, or dance to your favorite song. Who knew being intelligent could be so much fun!


* 99.9% of the times people, including you and your parents, would believe that you did not have the grades to 'get science' (pun intended). If you are one of the arty types and choose to inflict the ultimate misery of pursuing fine arts upon yourself, be assured to get ample solitude to brush up your doodling skills, when you would be hiding under the bed trying to ignore all the sympathetic "tcha-tchas" at family dinners.
** Not progressive enough to offer humanities though, since the administrators feared it would bring down the average performance of the school!
*** One of our favorite English teachers had volunteered to double up as a counselor. She must have had a degree in psychology or something because she was really good with students.
**** My parents had a more optimistic outlook and thought that I may want to become an IAS officer (powerful bureaucrats in Indian government).