What puts Homo Sapiens at the top of the animal heap? Bears are stronger. Horses are faster. Dogs have a better sense of smell. Birds can take off without a ticket. Of course, it's our brains that set us apart. And, as everyone knows, some brains are brighter than others. But here's the tricky part: How do you know which ones?

The truth is, very few people know exactly what makes one person smarter and another less so. We may credit the difference to "Intelligence" or "IQ," but what does that mean? In general, a person who is smart, or maybe even a genius, typically has two things going for them—words and numbers.

Consider the following test:

Farmer Gray and Farmer Brown were neighbors. One day, Farmer Brown bought Farmer Gray's horse for $60. Soon thereafter, Farmer Gray began complaining that the horse had been worth more. Farmer Brown then offered to sell the horse back and, since it was now supposedly worth more, demanded $70. Farmer Gray went along with this and paid the price. The next day, Farmer Brown claimed to have developed a fondness for the animal and bought it back—for $80. This business came to an end a month later when Farmer Gray, with harvest time approaching, paid Farmer Brown $90 and took the horse home.

Now here are the two questions:

  1. Was any money made or lost during these transactions?
  2. If so, who made (or lost) money, and how much?

I'll give you the answers in a bit, but first let's consider those all-important words and numbers.

Words are important because they represent ideas: Just try to think a thought without using language. You're really quite limited aren't you? Maybe you can picture a friend's face or the room behind you but that's about it. It's also hard to remember anything prior to the time you first began to use language, around the age of two. This is why humans grow to be smarter than apes—we have an inherent aptitude for language and they don't. In fact, thought has been described as little more than rapid sub-vocal speech; indeed, your vocal cords do vibrate slightly when you think. People with large vocabularies have a distinct advantage on I.Q. tests.

Numbers are important because they represent relationships. People who are good with numbers are usually good at relating things one to another. They can predict in advance how some new idea will impact an old one. This is really the essence of mathematics. Algebra, calculus, differential equations, and all those other techniques are really nothing more than formalized ways of dealing with relationships.

So think about it: The more words you know, the more ideas you can handle—and the better you are with numbers, the better you can relate those ideas to a meaningful whole. That's what "smart" (as we typically define it) is all about—and it's exactly what you needed to solve the above brainteaser. Coming up with the right answer involves being able to convert all the words of the puzzle into meaningful pictures. You had to be able to see that horse being sold back and forth. And you then had to be able to take all the numbers involved and convert them into relationships. How did each new transaction relate to all the previous transactions?

Solving the problem necessitated condensing all those words and numbers into two simple statements:

  1. Brown bought a horse for $60 and sold it for $70.
  2. Then, Brown bought a horse for $80 and sold it for $90.

Therefore, the correct solution is that Farmer Brown made $20 (while Farmer Gray lost $20).

It always surprises me when university students say something like Brown made $20 and Gray lost just $10. . . But if you got the correct answer, and the question seemed easy, you may be a candidate for MENSA, the international high-I.Q. society.

Look at it this way: The value of a high I.Q. is that it helps you make complicated things simple. And when you reduce intelligence itself to its simplest components, you find nothing more than a superior ability with words and numbers; two skills that can be sharpened and improved at any stage of life.

About the Author

Stephen Mason

Stephen B. Mason is a psychologist, a former university professor, syndicated newspaper columnist and radio talk-show host.

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