Conversations on Creativity with Daniel Tammet- Part IV, IQ and Human Intelligence

Daniel Tammet on the limits of IQ testing

Posted Dec 24, 2009

Daniel TammetAlthough their unusual abilities compel considerable attention, there are fewer than 100 known prodigious savants living at the present time. Over 30 years, the London-born mathematical and language whiz has transformed from an awkward, reclusive boy into a confident adult. His quiet, private life of strict routines gave way in 2006, when his memoir Born on a Blue Day became a best-seller, necessitating travel, self-promotion, and talk show appearances. His latest book, Embracing the Wide Sky, is a scientific exploration of his extraordinary abilities (reciting pi to 22,514 places, learning to speak Icelandic in a week) and a tour of autism.

On August 18th and August 19th, 2009, Daniel was gracious enough to let me peer into his world. I was aware of the great number of interviews with Daniel that already exist, but as a psychologist, I still had many lingering questions, which Daniel was very patient in answering for me. These two days, I left my prior expectations, biases, and ways of thinking at the door and transported myself into Daniel's mind. As a result, I was fortunate enough to be able to share his unique way of seeing the world. 

Daniel's insights changed my own way of thinking, not only with regards to Autism and Asperger's syndrome, but also in terms of the full extent to which personal change is possible, the nature and nurture of individual differences, intelligence, creativity, genius, fiction, art, poetry, math, love, relationships, the mind, brain, the future of humanity, and the appreciation of many different kinds of minds. A portion of my interview can be found in the November/December issue of Psychology Today (Numbers Guy: An autistic savant joins the wider world). 

Over the coming days I will reveal my complete interview with Daniel, laid out in six parts. I hope you find Daniel's reflections, insights, and ongoing journey just as fascinating and thought-provoking as I have.

In this fourth part (see parts III, and IIIV, VI, postscript), Daniel talks about IQ testing, intelligence, gifted education, labeling, Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, and definitions of savantism.

S. I found it fascinating that you did report having a high IQ, about 150. How much do you think your IQ has contributed to your extraordinary talents? Are you suggesting that your IQ didn't contribute at all?

Richard FeynmanD. I'm saying that the number itself tells me almost nothing about myself and about the things that I've been able to do and the things I've been able to achieve. Richard Feynman, who I quote a lot in my book because I love a lot of what he wrote and said, I think I read somewhere, is reputed to have had IQ of 130. Which is, for those who consider themselves specialists in this rather arcane subject, is not very impressive and yet he went on to win the Nobel Prize.

And for myself, I have much to say about the subject of IQ. The test itself is really banal and so bizarre where you're asked questions like 'what is the thing in common between a lion and a tree'? And you can imagine all kinds of wonderfully poetic, interesting, creative responses to that kind of question but if it's not simply and bluntly that they're both living things, something that is so trivially true that most people wouldn't even think of it because it almost isn't even worth their breath in saying it, it's just so trivial, they would be marked down if they didn't say it as the answer. And the other answer, which is more interesting and creative than the actual response expected, gets zero marks.

So just from the experience itself going through it for the book, it was very eye opening, just very banal and bizarre, that it very much persuaded me that IQ as this kind of very precise figure is very silly.

S. So do you see any use for IQ tests then?

D. As I mention in the book, there are obviously situations where you need to be able to measure somebody's ability. For example, after a head injury it's useful to be able to say ‘okay before this head injury he was able to design seven digits backwards and forwards and now he can only recite five or four or three' and that obviously is useful information.

And there may be other situations where it's useful for people in education to compare progress in different areas, in different ways. But I'm pretty pessimistic I have to say only because it just seems so banal to me and I find it very difficult to imagine that it would be possible to come up with a test that ends up with a very precise figure, you know a figure as precise as 119, or 118. That's an incredible amount of precision implied in that kind of figure. I have no idea if we really can say that somebody is less than one percent more intelligent or less intelligence than this other person. I don't know if we can make those kinds of very fine judgments about something that is so abstract and so complex and so difficult to know as intelligence.

S. What do you think of gifted education programs?

D. Well I'm not very familiar with them. I have no personal experience of them.

S. They're big in America.

D. I certainly don't think hot-housing children is a good idea. I have read research that indicates that there isn't any significant payoff and that it can actually be harmful to the child as well to simply cram them with historical facts and so-on.

Akrit Jaswal with OprahThere is a curious appetite, and I do have some small personal experience, where the public are so intrigued by a mind so utterly different from their own way of seeing the world or understanding something that they want to almost make a performing act of it. A very young child who is able to recite the Gettysburg Address word by word at the age of three is put on the Oprah Winfrey show to do exactly that and then gets applauded by the audience. I'm not really sure that this tells us anything about the Gettysburg Address, much less about the girl herself or her potential or her mind or her intelligence but I think it does tell us a great about our culture and how people behave in the face of unusual talent or ability, and the way that we can sometimes take people who are vulnerable and exploit them.

There is a history of savants in many cases where people like Oliver Sacks, for example, will go into a hospital and write up a study, which is almost certainly a gross misrepresentation of what actually happened. This is going way back to things that are much worse such as the Victorian age circus freak acts and I'm sure there were savants in those circuses. But I fear that mentality is still with us today. It may just be part of human nature and I think we need to guard against it, this impulse to push children that show the slightest talent. To celebrate what people find weird and wacky is a gross distortion of the richness of the human mind and human talent in these people.

S. You're probably not a fan of labeling.

D. No. For the reasons I just pretty much laid down. I don't think it serves very much to label someone. IQ is a very good example of that and the example that I explore and critique in Embracing the Wide Sky, this idea that we can take the population and according to the Bell Curve say ‘well look you are 119, he is 85, she is 107'. I'm not really sure that it tells us very much.

It's very hard to know what intelligence is (again, I make that point very clearly in Embracing the Wide Sky) and we don't really know what it is. It's one of those big abstracts and everyone has an opinion but it's difficult to narrow down so let's look at that, and let's look at ways of teaching children methods that work, the real essentials, literacy, numeracy, and so on. Rather than dividing children according to a kind of astrological division, saying look you're Aquarius, you're smarter than he is because you're a Leo. That doesn't make any sense at all.

Look at height as another example. You want to look at the nature of height and how people grow and so-on rather than looking at creating a bell curve of people and saying ‘well look, he's a dwarf, he's a giant, and you're somewhere in between'. I don't know if differences in height are much less interesting from a scientific point of view than the phenomena of height itself, of how people grow, and so on. I think intelligence is effectively the same principle.

S. You say in your book that as a child you had difficulties with abstract thought, but that you now lead a successful life with relationship, friends and intellectual pursuits. In light the fact that in your childhood you report having difficulties with abstract thought, do you think your IQ has increased over the years? Especially considering you now have a high IQ and doing well on an IQ test does require high levels of abstract thinking.

D. I'm sure it has. I didn't have an IQ test as a child, but if I had had one done, I'm sure it would have been lower. I'm sure it would have been above average and depending on the particular test- of course they vary quite a lot- if it focused on vocabulary for example, and on memory and on numerical ability and less on abstract thinking, then it would still have been a high score but there's no doubt that that score would have gone up over the years.

I think a large part of that has to do with life experience-- disability to live in the real world, to interact with people, to undergo experiences that are sometimes not particularly pleasant.

You know, life isn't always pleasant. You're standing in a queue, or if you're shouted at by a stranger because he's in a very irate mood for reasons that you can't possibly know or if someone dies suddenly and they seem to be in the prime of their life. Life is going to be complex and the only way we're able navigate our way through it at all is by living as best we can and absorbing those experiences and somehow making intuitive responses in future situations that resemble them in some way. And I'm high functioning enough to be able to do that in a way that or very similar to how normal people do this.

S. If you had just an average IQ or even a low IQ, how different do you think you'd be?

D. I'm not sure how important the test is for certain forms of creativity. I can well imagine that certain writers, even writers that we'd consider today very great writers, may not necessarily have tested highly on IQ just because of their numerical skills, or maybe they may not be very good at memory, and are not particularly good at these kinds of tests. But they had a love of language, they had a love of human experience, they were able to meld the two together and create great works of art that will stand the test of time for centuries. So it's very difficult to say. While we're on this topic, before I forget, I just wanted to mention as well in passing, there was recently a book by Malcolm Gladwell.

S. You're talking about Outliers?

Malcolm GladwellD. That's right, yes. On these kinds of topics, intelligence and so-on and arguing pretty robustly that opportunity is the principle determining factor, that if someone is born at a particular point then he's just going to have much more likelihood to succeed than others. And education. For example, the Chinese are much better at mathematics than Westerners because their history is one of rice paddies and that he then associates with the drudgery as he considers it of mathematical thought.

And I was disappointed because I think it's a very shallow and clichéd way of thinking about these incredibly complex and incredibly fascinating subjects and does a lot to distort them in the way that is often done. It's very easy to take a complex subject and simplify it in order to describe it and talk about it and what we need to try to do more of in public discourse, scientific as well as any other, but especially scientific, is to talk about it in a way that captures that complexity whilst still retaining a certain amount of fluency of course in order to make it interesting, in order to make it communicable. But I think in those examples that he gives he doesn't pass muster at all and it's very disappointing.

S. As you've noted prior, there are certain definitions in the field of what a savant is and one of the technical definitions in the field is low IQ but with these other abilities. You technically don't fit that definition. So I think we may have to reconsider the definition of what a savant is.

D. I am of course aware that the definition of savant and autism is one that is evolving. That not very long ago, Asperger's syndrome, as recently as 1990 in fact, just wasn't diagnosable and the concept of high functioning autism just wasn't known. But it's very common today of course. Maybe one in three hundred people, one statistic I read, would be diagnosed as having Asperger's or high functioning autism.

I'm not sure that they would have an IQ that would be below average, I'm pretty sure that they would test above average. I think again that says more about the deficiencies in assigning a figure, a number like IQ, then it does about the kind of mind that a savant has. There are other cases of people who may or may not be considered savants but are certainly autistic like Temple Grandin, who has written books. She was one of the first in fact twenty odd years ago to write a first-hand account of a life with autism in her autobiography and who is a Professor of animal science and a very important figure in her field, very respected. And I'm quite certain that that her peers would consider her actually an intelligent person. So her autism clearly isn't something that impedes her reputation or her intelligence. So I would be a little wary of stating that savants necessarily have to have a low IQ although I'm aware of the historical perceptions.

© 2009 by Scott Barry Kaufman

Photo Credit for picture of Daniel Tammet: Rex USA

[Interviewer's note: While I certainly appreciate Daniel's point regarding Richard Feynman, an IQ of 130 is two standard deviations above the mean, which actually is quite impressive. That's higher than 98% of the general population and in many school districts in the United States would qualify for gifted education, although in many schools it would be the minimal score to qualify.] 


Other parts of the series:

Part I, Embracing the Wide Sky

Part II, How a Prodigious Savant's Mind Works

Part III, Nature and Nurture

Part V, Creativity, Mind, and the Brain

Part VI, Personal Transformation

Postscript, My Candid Reflections