Digital Tonto: What makes you so smart?

Today at 21:50 | Greg Satell

Are you smart? Really? How smart?

Socrates famously said that “the only true knowledge lies in knowing that you know nothing.” More recently, G. H. Hardy wrote that “For any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.” Einstein himself said that his gift for “fantasy” was more important than his ability to retain facts.

Those are some pretty smart guys, they would know. That some of history’s most brilliant people hold such opinions about what it means to be smart should give the rest of us pause. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “smart is as smart does.” So the question is, what does smart do?

Innate genius

We’re all familiar with the concept of innate genius, those who were simply born with incredible intellectual aptitude. They make intriguing fictional characters, like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting or Dr. Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds, but are there really such people?

It appears that there are. History has documented prodigies such as Leonhard Euler, Carl Friedrich Gauss and John von Neumann, all of whom had seemingly superhuman faculties in computation, memory and languages.

There are stories of Gauss doing complex computations in his head at the age of three. It was said that von Neumann could read a book in one language and recite it from memory in another. As a child in Budapest, his parents would entertain guests by having him memorize pages of the phonebook at a glance.

… What smart people do

Chess Grand Masters are able to remember where every piece on a chessboard sits, even if they are playing 20 games at once. Jack Welch was legendary for his ability to digest complicated financial statements at a glance. Aren’t these signs of unusual ability?

Hardly. In memory tests unrelated to chess, Grand Masters don’t perform any better than anyone else. Jack Welch’s amazing feats of financial cognition were conspicuously absent in his early career. What they are actually doing is chunking. In other words, they are recognizing familiar patterns, not memorizing atomic facts.

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Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
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