Limits of ordinary intelligence

Hello all,

I was watching a show a few nights ago about dolphins and how they can recognize themselves in a mirror and that means they are significantly more intelligent than most animals that think the mirror image is another animal. I started wondering if that’s how people really are; there are folks out there that can just see things in a way that is beyond the capabilities of most.

Perhaps IQ tests don’t necessarily measure this level of intellect but can only hint at the greater possibility of it existing in certain individuals; a correlation rather than a causation kind of thing. Ultimately the question is are people of certain ability level existing in a significantly different reality; let’s sat the dolphin lives among sea otters that are convinced that the mirror is not a reflection of themselves but a different sea otter. Socially the dolphin would have a difficult time, it would have to live an existence where it pretends to see reality the same way the otters do or try to convince them of seeing things in a way they may not be capable of doing.

Any thoughts? Anyone aware of any research from the fields of neuroscience or psychology that tackle this sort of question?

I’ve always had the impression that “intelligent” people are the ones who actually see what’s in front of their faces. They are more perceptive.

I was once in a car with a bunch of people. One guy had everyone (other than me!) persuaded that his eyesight was VASTLY better than normal. He proved this by reading the license plate of the car ahead of us – when to everyone else in the car, the license plate was no more than a small white spot on the other car’s bumper.

But with me, he had overplayed the prank. Sorry, but no one has eyesight that good!

I said, “Nice try, but I think you must have memorized that license plate number at some other point, when we were closer to that car in traffic.”

I’m blowing my own horn here, but I was “more intelligent” than the others in the car, because I saw through the trick, and figured out how it was done.

Are there limits to this? Possibly, but I think the primary limit is that such skills don’t increase in a linear fashion, but fall of, somewhat logarithmically. In “everyday life” there simply aren’t all that many things that we can productively compare to each other.

Instead, I think the effective equivalent of “intelligence” could better be produced by much better memory. If we could memorize much more data, and compare data points to each other more quickly, we would appear much more intelligent. We’d have the benefits of higher intelligence.

(Smart phones and Wikipedia has made super-geniuses of us all!)

ETA: Or…“have made.” Sigh. I may be smart…but I’m still dumb!

Dolphins and sea otters are two entirely different species. All humans belong to the same species. I don’t think there is a relevant analogy to be drawn between Dolphin and Sea Otter vs John Smith and Bob Jones.

Could you give an example of what one person may see that others don’t which parallels the dolphin seeing the reflection? Without it, the question is a bit abstract.

I agree that human biological cognition is grossly limited. Richard Feynman once said ’ I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics’. Our brains just aren’t designed for things like that. We are designed to understand newtonian physics because that is the environment we evolved in.

The problem is, because we are all limited by this biological brain none of us can see all the other aspects of the universe. Perhaps there is not only a multiverse and endless alternate dimensions, maybe there are other aspects we can’t even fathom. But right now we lack the ability to figure that out the same way most animals can’t recognize their own reflection in a mirror.

Also, social animals tend to be the most intelligent. Birds, elephants, primates (including us), dolphins, etc. The reason is social animals need to build coalitions, avoid getting screwed, try to screw others, etc and it creates an intelligence arms race. That is what Steven Pinker said about the subject.

Overall I don’t agree with the OP because a dolphin and a sea otter are totally different animals. Humans are 99.9% genetically identical. There isn’t enough variation IMO for someone to be so outside the box as what you are describing. Our brains are mostly the same.

Trinopus, I think you make a couple good points. I think that what you are describing is greater intelligence is a matter of having a greater degree of certain abilities; a greater ability to perceive things or a greater ability to memorize. The thing that was different to me when I saw this dolphin show was what if there is an ability to perceive and understand things in such a way that is completely different than those without the ability. In my example, the otters can’t comprehend the concept of a reflective surface, and the ability to do so can never be obtained by them. A reflective surface is reality, the dolphin understands the reflective surface - and understands what it is and that it is a reflected image of itself. The otter believes that what it is seeing is another otter and not itself; this otter is convinced of the reality of its perception even though that perception is not accurate in regards to physical reality.

My analogy is a bit obtuse, I can agree with Mr. Mace on that. The thought I had in regards to this was is there such a range in perceptual differences in one species (humans) that it could be as different as these two species are. It is a weak analogy, and implies all sorts of things which are not meant to be implied such as intelligent people are some sort of superior beings or what have you - I don’t believe any of that sort of thing.

I recently read about this: Colorblind man sees colors after head knock

Combined with the OP, it makes me wonder about the limitations of our senses (which isn’t the same as intelligence…or is it?) If an individual was born with an extra sense that no one else around them has, how would they know? It would be like seeing a color that no one can see, or perhaps hearing a pitch that no one else can hear. Only under special circumstances would such an ability be discernable.

Humans have magnetic bones in their noses. No one knows exactly what function they provide; they appear to be vestigial structures linked to animal navigation. It is not impossible that in some people, these structures could actually make them experience the world differently from everyone else. They just don’t stand out.

Well, it’s an interesting idea, but it’s still just that-- an idea. Do you have any data to offer for us to judge?

There are people with synesthesia who certainly perceive the world differently, although I don’t know if that is “better”. And there are people with perfect pitch, but again, is that in some way “better”?

The idea that I’ve often wrestled with is that if we compare ourselves with our ancestors of, say, 500K years ago, what cognitive ability might some mutant human have that would stand him or or her apart from the rest of the species. I know this is probably wrong, but one idea I’ve had is that imagine wrt to our ancestors is a species quite similar to us, with language ability almost the same except for one thing-- they could not express a future thought. The could say “I hunt now” or “I hunted yesterday” but not “I will hunt tomorrow”.

Or, as one anthropologist conjectured, imagine another type of primitive member of the genus Homo who could say: “This flower is beautiful” and “My daughter is beautiful”, but who did not have the cognitive ability to integrate the thoughts so as to say: “My daughter is as beautiful as a flower”.

Now, take what we consider to be “normal” intellectual ability and conjecture what would be, not just a better ability at some particular thing, but some ability completely apart from what anyone is able to do. I’m not talking telekinesis or some type of woo, but just some cognitive ability that is a quantum step beyond what we see in all humans today.

I recall reading about speculation that a small number of women may be tetrachromats; with four types of cone cells in the eye instead of three, and therefore capable of seeing far more colors than a normal person. I remember the comment by one such suspected tetrachromatic woman that she was always rearranging decorative knickknacks at home so that the colors matched, while her husband and others expressed confusion because they already matched.

And actually, there is a connection between our senses and intelligence; we use the same areas of our brain to imagine things as we do to sense them. So, if we’d never evolved sight we’d be unable to visualize things as we do. On the other hand, a sapient dog could probably think in ways we can’t because of their far superior sense of smell.

Yes, that is exactly the point I was going to make – that intelligence in some abstract sense is one measure of our ability to understand the physical world, but that our biological heritage places extreme limits not just on our ability to directly perceive it, but on our ability to conceptualize and theorize about it.

With one exception. Just as we are bright enough to develop tools like telescopes and particle accelerators to allow us to see the otherwise unseeable, we’ve crossed another threshold absolutely unique to humanity in developing intellectual tools that let us describe the undescribable – and the generic name for that set of tools is mathematics. It is mathematics that led to the conclusions of relativity theory, to descriptions of the paradoxes of quantum mechanics (how appropriate that you should mentioned Feynman!), and to emerging hypotheses about the Big Bang and black hole singularities. Mathematics gives us a handle on things that we can’t otherwise possibly even conceptualize or understand in any intuitive way, and that is indeed one giant step for man.

Quantum mechanics came about because of physical observations that undermined the standard notions of how the world works. The genius there was to make the leap to say, what if? What if certain attributes can only take on discrete values? The math came later.

Same with Relativity. Einstein used thought experiments to lay the foundations, and then developed the mathematical formalism afterwards.

It’s a mistake to think that math somehow led us to these breakthroughs.

Excellent point. Mathematics is not just a tool like a microscope or telescope, but a whole new way of thinking. A true “tool of the mind.” Like the microscope, it lets us see (so to speak) things we couldn’t see before, but not visually. Instead, it opens of conceptual vistas.

I would say that our human imagination is also one of the things that puts us so far “above” all other earthly minds. Cats and dogs can probably imagine the outcome of hypothetical events. “If I get any closer to that skunk…” But we’re the only ones who can build bridges, skyscrapers, calculators, and automobiles…in our minds.

I partly concede the point about relativity, which was probably not a great example for me to use because it’s one of those rare areas in non-classical physics where one can have a fair intuitive understanding of some of its key principles. But even there, Einstein’s first-ever paper – and the one that earned him the Nobel prize and was the precursor to the other three remarkable papers the same year – was an entirely mathematical description of the photoelectric effect as being a consequence of the absorption of light quanta. And of course, without mathematics, Einstein’s “thought experiments” would have been more philosophy than science, and would never have had practical applications.

Of course observations were the basis for many early and present theories in quantum physics, but mathematics not only gave the theories legs but often did have prescient qualities. When Max Planck was developing his theory of black-body radiation, he was forced with great reluctance and annoyance to have to embrace both statistical mechanics and the concept of quantization of electromagnetic energy. The interesting part to me is that he loathed the idea of quanta – he was reported to have thought of it as “a purely formal assumption … actually I did not think much about it…” just something to make the math work. This “kludge” to make the math work turned out to have a physical basis in reality and to be a fundamentally accurate representation of electromagnetic energy; it became known as Planck’s constant, won Planck the Nobel Prize and was regarded as the greatest accomplishment of his life and the birth of quantum physics. It was perhaps one of the first times that a mathematical construct predicted and predated a scientific theory, but it would not be the last.

I would argue that since then mathematics has been front and center of quantum physics and cosmology. String theory is entirely mathematics; math predicted the Higgs boson and the possible range of its mass so we knew what to look for, just as the math behind the Standard Model predicted the existence of other particles before they were discovered; and math is central to much of cosmology.

When Stephen Hawking talks about “imaginary time” where the paradox of the Big Bang can be eliminated by regarding the universe as a Euclidian spacetime in all four dimensions, he isn’t idly speculating but describing the output of a particular mathematical model, and in the mathematical world this is every bit as real and tangible and subject – in that context – to testing as our everyday world is to us. That’s kind of what I was getting at by saying that math gives us a handle on things that we can’t otherwise possibly even conceptualize or understand in any intuitive way.

Piaget shows that perception itself is influenced by one’s view on reality. One’s view on reality is ultimately a construct, largely determined by one’s intelligence. Of course, IQ measurements only reveal part of the brain’s capabilities, among which imagination and creativity play a chief role, and not only in the artistic sense. Novel hypotheses or theories are originally the fruit of this function of the human brain.

With brain imagining technology becoming more precise and more people (hopefully) having access to medical care and making use of said technology, I wonder if we will be able to detect rare anomalies in perception and cognition that we previously didn’t know existed. Phenomena that are 1 in a million, or 1 in 100 million.

“In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” (August Wilson, Gem of the Ocean)

Of course there is the risk that the blind people may see the one-eyed one as an aberration and kill him.

Well, now that you mention Einstein, I did a little looking. It turns out there is a whole wikipedia page on Einstein’s brain(imagine that, a man so smart they made a whole wikipedia page on his brain).

According to wikipedia:

"… his parietal operculum region in the inferior frontal gyrus in the frontal lobe of the brain was vacant. Also absent was part of a bordering region called the lateral sulcus (Sylvian fissure). Researchers at McMaster University speculated that the vacancy may have enabled neurons in this part of his brain to communicate better. “This unusual brain anatomy…[missing part of the Sylvian fissure]… may explain why Einstein thought the way he did,” The wikipedia article also goes on to mention the his brain had significantly more glia cells than is common.

In light of this I think it is interesting to look at some quotes commonly attributed to Einstein.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

“Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value.”

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

“The best way to cheer yourself is to cheer somebody else up.”

“A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?”

I guess all sorts of inferences can be drawn from this. The thought that comes to my mind in regards to this is that that greater ability and functioning of his brain due to anomalies lead to abilities of perception and understanding that perhaps effected his understanding and core values. Perhaps personal values follow from abilities of perception? I could elaborate further, but for now I
'll stop before I just start rambling

We can already fairly accurately pinpoint the physical differences in cognitive make up between person A and person B, at least at a general level (I’m not sure if passive technology is yet sensitive enough to look at axons/dendrons) . The problem is that the brain is a complex dance between multiple puppet masters.

You have the physical, which are principally the neurons (linked via axons and dendrites). Note that there are a LOT of support cells that make these work properly, but we consider these the principle operators of the neural network. These control how things are processed, and they tend to be pruned for efficiency. For instance, the view of “it’s second nature to me” is a learned behavior that has become automatic. You can find this automation in every walk of life where someone performs a repetitive task. This is a tightening of neural bonds so that when a signal travels the path of behavior (e.g. life one leg up, set down, left other leg up), it automagically fires the neurons that follow in the sequence.

In addition to the physical aspect, you have both ionic and protein regulators. If you have a certain ion compound in large quantities, the neural network won’t fire as effectively and can block even “Second nature” level bonds. The ionic compounds also interact with proteins - if you have too much calcium ion, for instance, some proteins will come along and either ferry them away or react with them to change them into a compound that doesn’t stop your brain cold.

The proteins themselves are regulated both by ionic compounds and genetic signals. In the case of ionic compounds, this release can be something like an adrenaline rush, where the new protein (in the form of a hormone) is used to help neural signals move down the path of aggression, along with signalling the heart to beat faster, the muscles to tense, and so forth.

The genetic regulation is built into our makeup and consists of a “default game plan”. If nothing else happens, the proteins will be made at a certain interval forever. This expression can be blocked by proteins.

Thus, even if you have a completely different neural network, you may react absolutely the same as the other person scanned to a particular external stimulus. You may both confront a threat or flee like gazelles. This complex dance of insidey parts makes the information we can see on a high resolution CT scan or similar useless in identifying what makes us cognitively different.


I don’t buy this assertion, at least, as stated, simply because cats and dogs usually take only a little while to realize that the animal on the other side is them, and therefore, boring.

Some primates are different in that they not only recognize themselves, they have fun with it. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that some cetaceans have similar reactions.

It’s beside the point, I know.

Regarding intelligence, I’m convinced that we have a number of different areas of intelligent, and it’s possible to be brilliant at one and poor at another. There may be a “global gain factor” too, who knows. Some people are brilliant at linguistic things but poor at abstractions or mathematics; others can be the other way around. Other apparently unrelated areas seem to be spatial relationships, interpersonal relationships, and I think even a large part of athletic ability is not just physical but also cognitive. There’s some research to back this up but I don’t know whether it’s the mainstream belief.

Not just intelligence, but also experience and interest. What one sees when one looks at any real and nontrivial scene depends on what one knows and has experience about. When I see a couple cars, I see a couple cars and might remember whether they’re late model or older and what color they are, plus generalizations about color and body type (coupe, sedan, van, pickup). A car guy in the same glance would be able to identify makes, models, years, and accessories. He probably even has a good clue what types of people drive each of these cars.

Now take a look at a stage where a blues or rock group is playing. The car guy sees a bunch of guys playing music. Two of them look like they’re playing guitars, one is on keyboards, and there’s a drummer and a singer. I see a guitarist who favors single-coil pickups but one of his 4 guitars on stage is a Les Paul, a bass player with a 5-string fretless, a keyboard player who favors vintage instruments but is using modern digital imitations, a drummer with a 9-piece kit with hihat on the “wrong” side, and a vocalist who also plays percussion and is a lot better at it than most vocalists, who do it de-rigueur rather than as a passion. Plus, I hear who is playing what and in what mélange of styles and influences.

The differences are not ones of intelligence but of what we’re interested in and have spent years learning about. Our experiences of the same situations are remarkably different.