Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

Who Is the Mental Equivalent of Usain Bolt?

What does it really mean to be the fastest man in the world?

Usain Bolt captured our imaginations at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when he beat his chest in triumph as he crossed the finish line well ahead of the competition. Since that time, he has been heralded by many as the "world's fastest man."

The 100 meter dash is viewed as a fantastic display of raw physical speed. And even though we cannot really understand what it is like to run that fast, it is something that we can all be amazed by simply because we can see it with our own eyes.

Physical speed is something we can all understand, but what about mental speed? We can't really watch a brain sprint across the finish line.

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Perhaps one example of a mental sprint is the countdown round in the MATHCOUNTS national mathematics competition program. In the countdown round, mathletesTM who have performed highly on the written portion of the competition are put to the test.

Chad Qian is in the middle with the red shirt
8th grader Chad Qian recently won the competition when he was able to answer the following question in just seconds faster than his competitor:

"A bag of coins contains only pennies, nickels and dimes with at least five of each.  How many different combined values are possible if five coins are selected at random?"

The answer? 21.

The ability to solve mathematical puzzles at breakneck speed is in many ways the mental equivalent of the 100 meter dash. It is one way to clock the mind.

Intelligence is often assessed using an IQ or standardized test. This is either given by a licensed psychologist or is a test that can be administered in paper format or on a computer. However, a new measurement device has been developed that some intelligence researchers think will revolutionize the way we are able to measure mental speed.

Arthur R. Jensen, in his book Clocking The Mind: Mental Chronometry And Individual Differences, provides a wonderful history and explanation of the science of mental chronometry. I have written a short review of the book which can be found here.

A "Jensen Box"
Using a device known as a "Jensen Box," researchers have demonstrated that speed of performance on elementary cognitive tasks (ECTs) is highly correlated with performance on traditional IQ and standardized tests. The high correlation between IQ and chronometric tasks means that one could use these tasks as measures of IQ. Many culture-based arguments that dismiss IQ tests as favoring one group or another would be completely irrelevant if the test included a "nonverbal" task such as an ECT. Culture fair would become a plausible term that would hold meaning.

So how would Chad Qian perform on mental chronometric tasks? My guess is that if we had a mental Olympics and there was an event equivalent to the 100 meter dash, Chad Qian might fly across the finish line in blazing glory.

Some might even begin to think of him as the mental counterpart of Usain Bolt, perhaps also the "world's fastest man," but in a different sense.

Yet taking a look at Qian's demeanor, I somehow doubt he would cross the finish line beating his chest.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

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