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What is Intelligence?

Intelligence has been a remarkably difficult concept to pin down in any kind of robust and reliable way.  It often falls into that elusive category of ‘things we know exactly what they are until someone asks us for a definition’. Because of this there are many competing conceptions. The definition below is a synthesis of many of these different ideas.

Intelligence is our set of general problem solving skills. It includes cognitive abilities such as reasoning, identifying patterns and relationships, judgement, calculation, evaluation, and an ability to acquire new knowledge and skills.

An important aspect of most definitions seems to be that intelligence is not something related to our existing knowledge or particular skills we have developed but rather a general problem solving trait for novel situations. Perhaps this idea is best captured in the phrase; “Intelligence is what you do when you don’t know what to do”

Part of the problem in attempting to find a consensus on the definition of intelligence is there is no universally accepted theory of intelligence.  

Single or Multiple Intelligences?
One of the key questions in the search for a theory of intelligence is; ‘Do we possess a single attribute that could be defined as our intelligence, or are there in fact many entirely different types of intelligence?

If our intelligence can be expressed as a single attribute, can that attribute be divided into different aspects of intelligence? If so how are these different aspects related, and do they overlap? If, alternatively there are many different intelligences, how do we account for the high degree of correlation we find on many test scores that measure supposedly different cognitive skills?

Theories of Intelligence

There have been many different theories of intelligence put forward over the last century, but three in particular have been widely accepted within society and academic communities. 

General Intelligence
First proposed by Charles Spearman in 1904, was the theory of a General Intelligence factor (g). Accepting that there are different types of intelligence, Dr Spearman suggested they are all correlated, so if you score well on a test of one, you will likely score well on all the others too. This was because these different types were all related to the single General Intelligence factor (g).

This model as subsequently developed by Raymond Cattell who split the ‘g’ factor into two components Fluid Intelligence (Gf) and Crystalised Intelligence (Gc).

Fluid intelligence is identified as the ability to solve problems in novel situations, independent of any acquired knowledge. Key Gf skills are logical analysis, pattern and relationship recognition and adaptability.

Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand is the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience. Key Gc skills are accessing memories, a wide general knowledge base and articulate vocabulary. 

Theory of Multiple intelligencesMultiple Intelligences
Howard Gardner a Harvard Psychologist, proposed this alternative model in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Rather than a single general ‘intelligence’ there are eight distinct types of intelligence with no necessary correlation between them. 

This means just because an individual might perform well on a one test; say analytical intelligence for example, they could also perform badly on another, such as displaying poor emotional intelligence.

The eight types of intelligence under Gardner’s theory are: Spatial, Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.

Since the original publication three further types have been suggested; existential, spiritual and moral intelligence. 

Triarchic Theory of Intelligence
Developed by Robert Sternberg in 1985, the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence takes a much broader view of intelligence. The starting point is that intelligence is defined as how well an individual deals with the environmental changes they experience throughout their lifespan.

Under the Triarchic model, intelligence are broken down into three subsets; analytical , creative and practical. These components are also known as; componential, experiential, and contextual

Analytical intelligence, refers to problem-solving abilities, Creative intelligence reflects the ability to deal with new situations using past experiences and current skills, and Practical intelligence is the ability to adapt to a changing environment. 

At present these and other competing theories of intelligence have yet to be reconciled into a single accepted theory. There is promise from some Neurobiological approaches such as P-Fit (Parieto-Frontal Integration Theory) proposed by Haier and Jung, that these different ideas may ultimately be shown to be complimentary descriptions.

Haier and Jung’s analysis of imaging studies attempting to locate brain regions involved in intelligence showed results are very similar regardless of the definition of intelligence used.

Even without a fully agreed theory, there are several features that all seem to share. These features equally cut to the heart of our intuitive idea of intelligence. Intelligence is a foundation for a wide variety of cognitive functions, skills and attributes. It is also the essence of problem solving, particularly where no prior knowledge or experience of the problem is available.