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Five Ways to Make Brighter Choices

Understanding intelligence without judging yourself and others.

Key points

  • Intelligence for Jeff Hawkins is tied to the quality of reference frames generated by 150,000 cortical columns.
  • According to Howard Gardner, there is not a single definition for intelligence but multiple categories to which people may fit.
  • Relating to intelligence in a more accurate and grounded way reduces unnecessary suffering and invites happiness.

If we define intelligence as a capacity, force, sense, and resultant, we are destined to be baffled by people's failures and repeated mistakes. We may find ourselves wondering, "How could she or he have done this? S/he is so bright…." To explain ongoing lapses of judgment, we might pull the insanity card ("He must have gone mad") or consider a lack of morality ("She knows better but seeks power above all else").

While some of us are seriously troubled by cognitive dissonance that an intelligent person can act unintelligently, most of us go straight to dismissal or –thanks to social media–hatred. Either way, understanding intelligence as a monolithic quality is a mistake that might increase unnecessary suffering. As we misunderstand, judge, and distance ourselves from others who behave seemingly inconsistent, we get further away from happiness, as in "feeling engaged and interrelated" (see Definition of Happiness1).

When it comes to physical beauty, we do not seem to have this problem, at least not to the same degree. We do not expect someone who has striking eyes to have beautiful hair. A physically attractive person can still have a blemish, a bad hair day, a morning-after-a-party face.

Once we have declared a person intelligent, it seems shocking that s/he can do or say dumb things, such as believing in weird conspiracy theories or a superior race or sex. When people learn that Albert Einstein was quite bad at learning languages, walked around without socks, or ate eggs that still had chicken poop on their shells, they are usually in disbelief. Maybe he was bored with learning languages? Too busy concocting theories to get the dirt off his eggs? Maybe very intelligent people do not bother with socks? Hmm. Excuses, I say. Reasons we do not make for more ordinary folk.

It is more likely that there are different forms of what is considered intelligent, as suggested by Howard Gardner.2 He proposed at least eight specific kinds of intelligence instead of just a single ability: musical, spatial, linguistic, logical/mathematical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist (added later), and maybe existential intelligence. Gardner's categories allow actual people–as opposed to people we put on a pedestal or push off from one–to begin to make more sense.

When we allow for more complexity, we become more appreciative of diverse contributions and possibly abstain from harsh judgment, including self-judgment. It becomes more acceptable that a person can be very intelligent here and not so intelligent there. We make peace with reality when we realize that nobody knows it all. More grounded, we might just learn to relate, forgive, and let go. All of this makes stumbling into happiness more likely.

Furthermore, Jeff Hawkins, with the neuroscience research company Numenta, has recently shared a new theory of intelligence called A Thousand Brains.3 He believes that intelligence has three broad components: 1) reference frames (neurological mechanisms with which we build models/maps of the world), 2) neurological capacity (amount of neurons, synapsis, cortical columns), and 3) training. We would be more or less intelligent depending on all three components. For example, if we had great capacity but lacked practice, our reference frames would not help us make accurate future predictions.

Hawkins explains further what reference frames (models of the world) are and how intelligence is tied to the quality of our reference frames. In a nutshell, we build reference frames that help us navigate our physical environment and objects and abstract objects in humans. We then have 150,000 cortical columns –like little pieces of thin spaghetti4–stacked side by side in our neocortex, which create reference frames.

The scientist explains that "the brain arranges all knowledge using reference frames, and that thinking is a form of moving. Thinking occurs when we activate successive locations in reference frames."5

Each cortical column would have thousands of reference frames (maps of the world) and overlap with thousands of other columns. All relevant reference frames would be activated and vote together to reach a consensus to determine if a cup is really a cup.

What might this mean for us thinking about intelligence and how to relate to intelligence? An intelligent move in life, be it concrete or abstract, depends on many factors. As said, we need some raw material (neurological capacity) and an opportunity to practice (training). Still, we also need to build millions of maps of the world with the help of our 150,000 cortical columns.

There is much room for error. We can be misguided by emotions and drives, but such intrusions are by far not the only reason for making seemingly ridiculous mistakes. If we have created wrong models of the world, we can get lost in bad ideas. An otherwise trusted expert could suggest dumb things, not only in an area outside her expertise–where an Einstein becomes a cook–but even in her area. She could have acquired a few bad models, or omitted to test her models (think social media where people only surround themselves with people who concur), or failed to integrate models of critical importance.

For example, suppose a man holds several doctoral degrees and usually knows best per many people's experience. In that case, he is likely to learn that he is usually right when others struggle to understand. He might become overly confident and not be alarmed by others pointing out his errors. In fact, in his past, controversy usually followed when he shared the uncomfortable truths that resulted from his superior, critical thinking. (The models we make of the world include where we place ourselves in the social hierarchy.)

Furthermore, some doctors' models of the world might follow rigid heuristics (the government can never be trusted; women cannot think abstractly; rich people have only their interests in mind). Then add a bit urgency to the equation–think pandemic–and suddenly, the man who usually knows best might give the worst advice ever. He still has models of the world that accurately predict very complex things with the help of his 150,000 cortical columns, but on some matters, he takes a wrong turn, just as you and me.

Here are five ways to reduce mistakes and relate positively to intelligence:

1) Keep Cool.

Your emotions, ambitions, obsessions, and sex drive can lead you astray from intelligent moves at any time. We cannot and should not even try to shut off our more primitive side because it provides all-important first impressions in split seconds and blesses us with zest and motivation (See Your Brain is Like a Liver). Instead, we should know our primitive side well. Learn from it. Be curious about it. Decipher its messages. Be still with it. If our passions run the show, we might benefit from a form of contemplation or psychotherapy.

2) Keep Learning.

Others are constantly generating new and better ideas you do not yet know. Stay curious and improve your models of the world.

3) Avoid Black and White Thinking.

Do not judge people as if they were either "intelligent" or "not intelligent." Consider different kinds of intelligence and individual contributions. Become nuanced about your intelligence. Give yourself and others credit for your strengths and be kind to your weaknesses. Remember: we are all limited and belong to the glorious mess of existence.

4) Abstain From Idealization.

Learn from experts and respect knowledge, but do not put a person on a pedestal. Even the best of us can have mistaken models of the world.

5) Stay Flexible, Stay Humble.

Be open to changing your models of the world. There are many false beliefs out there and in us. Consider that you might be mistaken, or someone you idealize could be wrong. If you think you are the wisest person you know, you might be quite unwise. Surround yourself with people who contradict you and allow yourself to be challenged. Resist dismissing others. Take other's perspectives as if they are your own to test the quality of your models of the world.

© 2021 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.


1) Andrea F. Polard (2012). A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life.Sounds True: Boulder. Chapter One.

2) Howard Gardner (2006). Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons. Basic Books: New York.

3) Jeff Hawkins (2021). A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence. Basic Books: New York.

4) Ibid., p. 25.

5) Ibid, p. 71.