What is smart?

I have a friend who’s a sales manager for a technology company. They have a small staff that designs technologically complex products that only geeks understand. But those products get sold to ordinary humans – small business owners mostly – so they have her to sell them.

She says, “They’re all smarter than me!”

They say, “She’s kind of slow.”

I guess you can be a top sales person even if you're slow.

I have another friend who coaches college basketball. He says, “Some of these kids are really talented. We may even make the tournament this season!”

But you’ve all heard what some of the other college people say, “They’re dumb jocks. It’s the science guys who are smart!”

Conversations like that lead me to wonder . . . what attributes does one need in our society to be called smart?

If you have an exceptional command of language, and you’re a gifted speaker, people will listen and say . . . “You know, that fellow is really smart!”

If your mathematical abilities far exceed the abilities of those around you, they will say, “What a geek! But he’s smart.” They’ll also say that if you have an aptitude for computer programming, electronics, particle physics, or biology.

In Western society, those are the attributes that get you called smart.

Aren’t we missing something here? I’ve been hanging around with neuroscientists for a while now, on this TMS project, and I’ve gotten a better understanding of what smart means, and the truth is quite different from the popular perception. This is how most people define smart in America: A smart person is someone who has remarkable command of language, or above average speaking ability, or really exceptional and cerebral mathematical, engineering, or scientific ability.

There is a fundamental flaw in that thinking, which I’ll begin to illustrate by a few attributes that do not get you called smart in our society.

A biologist who works to develop a vaccine is smart. The person who knows how to see into the mind of a frightened animal to soothe it and administer the vaccine isn't smart, though. He's just kind of strange, talking to animals like that.

Artists are not generally described as smart, despite the fact that their creations come entirely from the mind. Photographers are not smart, either, and they’re actually dismissed entirely with the comment, “If I spent $10,000 on a camera like yours, I’m sure my pictures would be just as good or better!”

The top real estate salesperson in your city isn’t smart either. She’s just good looking, or she has a great ability to schmooze people and she’s pushy.

The financial analyst who makes millions by finding and betting on subtle patterns in the securities market isn’t smart. He’s greedy and avaricious.

And we can’t forget book authors. They aren’t generally described as smart either, because after all . . . we just write down what happened. Anyone can do that.

And popular musicians must be dumb . . . look at the stuff they do. It’s in People and EW every week!

The most amazing thing is . . . every one of these kids was above average, and really bright and cute and funny as a kid. How do I know? Just look at today's toddlers, and talk to their parents.

With all the bragging I have seen and heard from parents, I have yet to hear . . . He's a wonderful boy, and just a little bit subnormal! Nope, I've never heard that boast, and I doubt if you have, either.

Maybe intelligence diminshes with age or the people who aren't related to you are just dumber.

So what wisdom can we draw from that?

Every one of those things is really a kind of smart. For each of those people, it is brain power that makes them the successes they are. The brain is what gives Larry Bird or Michael Jordan the coordination to be the best in the world. It’s the brain that gives the real estate champ the emotional intelligence to connect with all those people and make a favorable impression. And it’s raw mathematical insight – reasoning power - that makes the stock analyst a success. All different kinds of brainpower.

You could almost say . . . if it’s esoteric or entertaining, we’ll call it smart. But if it makes millions, or wins public acclaim, it’s something less. Sometimes "smart" isn't visible at all, unless you look really close.

This definition of smart is really worth thinking about. Everything we do is controlled by the brain. Countless brain parts, controlling countless functions. Even something as basic as our digestion may be “smart.”

You and I may have exactly the same guts. But you can’t tolerate milk, and I can. You get sick all the time, and I don’t. Why? Perhaps the part of the brain that runs the intestines is smarter in me than it is in you. I know . . . that sounds nutty. But science is proving it true.

So what kinds of smart do you see in the people around you?

Can a person be smart in one way and not others? Certainly . . . that, in essence, is what autism is about. What will happen if we learn to rebalance or change these different intelligences?


What a thought-provoking post...(as she hesitates to write a comment - since that post was so 'smart' and she's afraid any comment she leaves won't be as 'smart' - thus being a part of the very subject of said post!)
Polly Kahl said…
Smart doesn't do any good unless you know how to channel it productively. Manson was smart. So what. Smart doesn't do any good unless you have compassion and treat others well. Hitler was smart. So what. Smart doesn't do any good unless you use it to better your life and the lives of others. Jim Jones was smart. So what.
IMO a smart person who isn't emotional or connected to others on some feeling level is not living a full life. We are human beings, and being human, at its best, means having personalities that are both intellectually and emotionally developed.
I think it's important to recognize that we each have unique gifts and none are less or more valuable than others, even though some are more rewarded financially than others. Money doesn't necessarily make something more valuable. Without respect for ourselves and others, and the use of good conscience, money has no value, and neither does high intelligence.
The Anti-Wife said…
Smart is subjective and depends on the observer. If you look at someone and think they're smart and I look at the same person and think they're stupid, we're probably both right. We're just coming from a different perspective.
John Robison said…
Anti-Wife, you may be correct. There are no doubt smart and stupid components to most people.

Polly, what you say is true, too. One has to learn how to channel one's smart side to a productive end of some kind.

And Kathryn, you should not be afraid to respond. We're mostly friendly
Polly Kahl said…
We don't bite. We just woof and meow.
Stephen Parrish said…
I once got into an argument with a physicist who claimed physicists were smarter than primitive people (like Pygmies) because they had accrued much more knowledge. I argued that so-called primitive people knew a myriad things physicists didn't know, about nature, for example.

I don't really think any one person is smarter than another, they just have different experiences and perspectives. I do agree, though, that articulate people appear smarter.
Anonymous said…
John, what you're describing is essentially the theory of multiple intelligences, which is what the elementary school teachers I've met are being taught these days as the way to educate youngsters. Surprisingly, historical knowledge didn't make it into your list of "smart" skills; in my experience, people with a lot of historical knowledge are dismissed as being eccentric and obsessive, but not "smart". I was talking with an Aspergian friend about the labels "high functioning" and "low functioning", and he answered, "'High functioning' is how parents describe their children. 'Low functioning' is how parents describe others who can not do what their children can do" (such as speak, write, use a picture board, bowel control, etc.) Although in my field I often hear the words "low functioning," or "profound" applied in limiting ways to describe people who are oriented toward very focused behaviors (such as staring, or spitting, or doing repetitive tasks). Yet also, in my field, people can be highly valued as role models for skills that are not generally valued, such as the ability to abstain from drugs and alcohol, the ability to empathetically express peer support, or the ability to maintain interpersonal connection to avoid escalating a "crisis" (another subjectively defined word). Personally, I'm often called "smart," because I can pick languages apart easily, even though I'm actually quite "low-functioning" when it comes to many of the skills that others would consider basic and intuitive.
She said…
Maybe intelligence is an amalgam of us all. Maybe we all have something to contribute. Your technical friends are obviously very adept in developing their products, but that would not have any social use had they not hired a person with social and communicative intelligence.

Perhaps the techno guys come up with solutions in the flash of an eye. They need someone who knows that ordinary understanding is gradual and who can work tirelessly at getting messages across through her 'social intelligence'.

As it happens, I was thought to be hopelessly 'retarded' as a child. There had been traumas and I already had Asperger's as I believe my Dad had had.

I learned nothing during the time I pondered complications. Suddenly I learned to read and did well at some things. Those thoughts of why and how led to my studies of Psychology later. Some of us develop at different rates and if there is more going on than school can provide, it may take years to manifest.

Then forever afterwards it may be 'If you can do this, why can't you do that?'

I've even been in court because of dyslexia with dates and an inability to fill out forms and certain folk feel virtuous about destroying what was my work back then.

I do write reasonably well and have learned about netting from my daughter who gave me a copy of your book.

My daughter isn't just 'normal', she has had to be more than normal to contrast her life with mine.

She also finds enormous relief from the knowledge of my Asperger's condition.

She's very smart in terms of Maths, Literature, Science, General Knowledge and Social Interaction.

She refuses to divulge her IQ.

Of course when she told me that, I had to ask,

'Well what is it? Mensa?'

She nodded. Then she reminded me of a Conflict Resolution Course I'd attended in the eighties.

During that course we were taught to comprehend different forms of intelligence.

We'd been told about an insightful teacher whose class was mostly comprised of Aboriginal children. As a teacher she was puzzled that some children she regarded as intelligent did badly in the IQ tests.

She decided that the concepts in the test were out of the range of experience of most of her classes.

She devised her own test.

Place a large number of different objects in a sand tray. Allow the children to memorise the placements. Give them a new sand tray and the said objects and tell them to replace all the objects in correct relation to the first tray.

5% of the European kids managed this task. More than 90% of the Aboriginal kids were able to do so. My daughter said, 'I couldn't do that.'

So despite the fact that I told everyone everywhere how smart she was when she was a kid, she knows that there's one way she's not smart.

I think she's smarter for being humble and open minded, quite frankly.
Samantha said…
Great post. http://www.subconscious-mind.org has great tips and guides on improving your brain power. You can give your brain power a boost just by follwing the tips that http://www.subconscious-mind.org has got to offer.
I hate the standardized tests used on my girls - I had a psych hint in a not so subtle way that one of my girls wasn't as smart as she "should" be considering she has autism. I wanted to bash him in the head with the ream of paper that is her IEP (not smart.) The tests are death to a child who processes slowly, has speech difficulty and anxiety. And yet, she amazes me every day with her observations, utterances, and general knowledge. I think smart begins in the heart. That said, stupid people really annoy me..... Go figure.
Melody Platz said…
I'm going to tell a small boo-hoo story, but it has a happy ending. I had a teacher in second grade that told my parents I would never do better than a "B" in school. I didn't have a great handle on math and didn't read much. She didn't see any potential in me.

For about twelve years I thought I was stupid, limited. Then one day I was helping a "smart" friend with her chemistry homework. It was like the cobwebs blew off my perception. If I could help her, I had to be smart too.

John, thanks for bringing up this topic. I think everyone has something amazing to offer. I wish we would stop labeling people smart and not smart. I wish we spent more time seeing everyone as a treasure to be cherished and encouraged. Most people would be much happier that way.

Melody Platz
Bethany said…
You hit the nail on the head, John. It's "popular perception."

It's a cumbersome topic, but a good one, with lots of different variables and components to it.

But basically, smarts = popular perception.
v-ness said…
i'll take a 'stupid is as stupid does' forrest gump type over an arrogant 'smart' person any day, personally. or a 'dumb' animal for that matter. sometimes it seems the heart is more pure when the brain is less cluttered.
v-ness said…
after i read your "smart" post i then read my work email. there i found probably my 6th message from a professor. professors are supposed to be 'smart'. we all know that. they teach us, after all. and yet in my line of work they cause me to pull massive amounts of hair out. thank god i have alot. i have found that far too often they simply cannot follow written instructions and use software designed so that a trained monkey could practically use it. a faculty member from the Psychology department, interestingly enough my most savvy bunch of users, wrote "JOBX for Dummies" for his peers. i changed the name to "JOBX for Faculty" and posted it. but do you think the majority of them can read and follow instructions? since my father was a college professor i am already familiar with the faculty syndrome. very 'smart' in their field. very 'dumb' when it comes to anything requiring common sense. yes, i am making a broad generalization concerning faculty, but if the shoe fits.....
Unknown said…
In popular culture there appears to be a dichotomy of smarts, there is Street Smarts and Book Smarts. Book Smarts include A students, geeks, nerds, and those that appear to accel in the field of academia.

Street Smarts are those that can fend for themselves in the real world. Drug Dealers, car salesmen, people who can really interact with people to get what they want and need.

And I was reading your post, I was thinking that in addition to having some balance of Street vs Book Smart, also present "talent" both raw and processed.

I would be primarily Book Smart. However, because I was having to use my book smart to try to comprehend the world around me and how to interact with it, I developed some street smart, however this was learned over a great period of time. It helped that I had a natural raw talent of being athletic and that I had processed my atheltic prowlness in soccer. But since other sports weren't as honed, I knew enough of my world, that I couldn't attempt those sports among my peers as that would too stressful and would be back at the bottom of the social foodchain.

Now since I had some "street smarts" with the athelticism, in my circle of Geek/Nerd friends, I was deemed as the Street Savvy One and thus dubbed to do those things that involved Street Smart people. Sometime I pulled it off, sometimes not. If you got me on my special interest, my cover was blown...

Smart is as Smart does... but smart is relative and thus open for eternal debate. Smart at the basic level is someone who can interact in their environment and solve problems efficiently... or something like that.
R said…
I have had the same exact thoughts before. I just have never been able to articulate them! Sure, we all may have places where we are more "smart" than others.

I think a person that is exceptionally smart is a person that can retain knowledge. We has humans forget things constantly (I being one of the worst) and a battle I see is retention. And, if knowledge can be retained, it can be articulated.

But then that can come down to personality as well---I can retain knowledge about music or Victorian Lit all because it interests me. It could boil down to interest?

My Aspergian son can read text books for pleasure and spout out how to set a broken arm when a broken arm is before him, or he can figure out how to use a program from just reading the manual itself. He has an unusual capability to retain the knowledge. And believe me, it is helpful to a forgetful person like me!!!
ssas said…
Kids are smart. I really have never met a dumb one. Being smart is being OPEN to the world.

The Aspergian kid who lives next door was sitting on his front lawn, spreading the clippings over his legs and then sweeping them off again. As I walked by, I said, "Someone's gonna need a bath tonight."

He looked up, totally distracted, and grinned at me. "Yeah, I guess so." Then he went back to what he was doing. And I thought, Wow. Wonder what he's learning from that.

To him it wasn't "weird" behavior, or messy, or anything. He's not a dumb kid by any stretch of the imagination. He was definitely learning something.

I just wasn't smart enough to see it.

Hopefully his mom and I will be coming to see you at the Boulder Book Store. :)
... said…
If only we could get society as a whole to embrace this truth....

It's happening though, slowly but surely it is!!
Nope. said…
Absolutely. I have been described as "genius" in some situations- computers, writing, meaningless factoids, dogs, and socially retarded in others.

Smart is relative. I may never be able to hold a telephone conversation, a skill that many, many people can do. But those people may never be able to write like I can. Who is smarter? Who will rise up in the world because their skills enable them to succeed? Mine may be astute, but are they useful? If the biologist developed foot elongators or eliminated the need for socks, people wouldn't find him smart, they'd find him absurd. He'd be on digg.com, with comments like, Look at this weirdo!!11111, and such.
Trilogy said…
Hello John

I think the perception is that knowledge = smart

But, knowledge and intellect are two completely different things.

I agree with anti wife also.

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