Who Is Intelligent?

Reading a road map upside-down, excelling at chess, and generating synonyms for the word "brilliant" may seem like three very different skills. But each is thought to be a measurable indicator of general intelligence, a construct that includes problem-solving abilities, spatial manipulation, and language acquisition. Intelligence, in the abstract, is typically considered a desirable trait for someone to possess, but how (and how much) it actually impacts our chances of career or relationship success has yet to be fully determined through research.

Though there is some debate among researchers on the best way to measure intelligence, those who study it generally agree that it can be captured by psychometric tests. But while the field has made significant strides over the past few centuries, it is still dogged by complicated questions—ranging from just how much IQ actually contributes to an individual's success and well-being, to how genes and the environment interact to generate intelligence, to why the average IQ score appeared to rise throughout the world during the twentieth century.

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Can someone’s intelligence change over time, or is IQ a fixed characteristic assigned at birth? Even though humans are constantly learning new things as their brains develop, most people still assume that barring a traumatic brain injury, IQ stays relatively constant throughout one’s lifetime. Psychological research, however, has consistently found that this isn’t the case. Several large studies have shown that IQ can change dramatically, over both the short- and long-term. The biggest fluctuations tend to appear during childhood and adolescence; the measure does become increasingly stable as someone grows older. Still, since IQ primarily measures how someone compares to other people of the same age, psychologists are less certain how real-world intelligence changes over the course of a person’s life.


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