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A couple weeks ago, my fiancee and I went to watch the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG. I didn’t expect to like it.
I left the theater in awe.
Ginsburg’s story got me thinking quite a bit about what intelligence really is. Here are some preliminary thoughts.
Old Uncles’ Tales
“They say you should drink lemon juice first thing in the morning.”
“They say you shouldn’t cut your toenails at night.”
“I heard that Kashi cereal is really good for weight loss.”
I come from a family of doctors, and yet I heard claims like the ones above too often to count. Most of these “old wives’ tales” (in my case, predominantly uncles’) were flat-out wrong. The few that happened to be right seemed to prove the validity of this entire superstitious enterprise. And so the folk wisdom continued to spread.
It really pissed me off.
My entire family would become religious one month out of the year for Ramadan. “Fasting is very good for your health. It detoxifies your system.” And then everyone ate more every day than they typically would (usually egg rolls, cookies, fried chicken, and sugary milky tea), sleep late, wake up late, and “fast” for about 6-8 hours. It wasn’t rare for people to gain weight during Ramadan.
“They say God answers your prayers in mysterious ways.” Oblivious to the 2008 housing crisis, I found myself in Spain while we had trouble refinancing the house. When I returned, my parents eagerly showed me a winning lottery ticket for several million dollars. The agency would wire the funds as soon as my dad shared his account information (which he did). And of course, a Google search revealed it to be a scam.
Countless experiences like these, big and small, taught me a valuable lesson fairly early in life: grades, credentials, and accolades are terrible approximations for intelligence. Some of the most conventionally smart and accomplished people I know have done some of the most hare-brained and ill-advised things imaginable. A second, related lesson: be forgiving of small mistakes, be wary of big ones.
Intelligence: Curiosity About How Things Work
“I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success.”
- Nikola Tesla
We lazily assess intelligence as mastery over the categorizations and jargon of a particular domain. Legendary physicist Richard Feynman called this a fundamental confusion between naming and understanding:
“See that bird? It's a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it's called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people; what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.”
I entered high school with aspirations of becoming a doctor, but I grew quite disillusioned with the observation that many of the doctors I knew were the most likely to make the error Feynman described. Today I would update that to include not just doctors, but generally the entire credentialed professional class. The curse of knowledge is that it lulls you into thinking you’ve captured it by being able to give it a name. I experience this nearly daily as I work with software and the people who write it.
So what’s a better description of intelligence? Pursuing knowledge of how things work.
It isn’t enough to memorize and regurgitate static textbook descriptions. Intelligence (and by extension, survival), depends on a deep curiosity about how ideas, abstractions, and systems connect and interact.
Symptoms of curiosity include: tinkering, experimenting, poking, prodding, questioning, deconstructing, reconstructing, explaining, reformulating, rearranging. It’s messy. Over time, it may give way to order.
Intelligence is not a fixed trait; it can be trained and developed. How? Just be curious. Follow your curiosity. It is nature’s Adderall. On the flipside, to quote curmudgeon Nassim Taleb, “Boredom is a biological wristwatch.”
An almost universal observation of the most prolific “geniuses” of human history: their curiosity often approached obsession. Darwin, Franklin, Tesla, Jung, Mozart, Da Vinci, Cage, the list goes on and on.
How to Get Smart: Reduce Curiosity-Numbing Activity
“At first we cannot see beyond the path that leads downward to dark and hateful things but no light or beauty will ever come from the man who cannot bear this sight. Light is always born of darkness, and the sun never yet stood still in heaven to satisfy man's longing or to still his fears.”
- Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul
As it turns out, fasting might actually be good for you (if done right). Caloric restriction has lifespan-extending properties. One healthy, organic meal per day keeps us from our modern habit of grazing on processed grains and our addiction to sugar. Anecdotally, it has done wonders for my blood pressure, heart rate, energy levels, metabolism, mental clarity, and many other markers of health. I’m optimistic that our ancestors understood this, hence it made its way into Muslim folklore.
But the “fasting” I see practiced in some parts of the Muslim world during Ramadan is nothing short of ignorant. Few bother to look into why and how fasting is good for you. Few bother to inspect how it works. Few bother to see if they’re doing it wrong. Their curiosity (and thus their intelligence) lacks.
This same grab-bag approach is pervasive in our current iteration of social media. Facebook echo chambers encourage fuzzy, imprecise, reactive understandings of complex systems such as identity, politics, economics, and technology. Instagram feeds encourage snack-sized knowledge about cooking, dieting, fitness, relationships, and everything else in between.
All that novelty delivers short dopamine hits to the monkey brain. Upon reaching a critical threshold, they begin to kill our curiosity (and hence our intelligence). These bursty, infinite streams reduce our ability to view things as belonging to large systems. So we confuse the forest for the trees, the naming for the understanding. And as we fiend for more and more, we are satiated less and less. It is the McDonald's of the mind.
We could be using these incredible tools to deepen our curiosity, but our constant, scattered usage patterns seem to erode it little by little.
In my estimation, there is nothing more earnest than figuring out how things work. At many points during this process, you’ll hit a crisis, as what you thought you knew begins to crumble to make way for a deeper understanding of things.
Many of us prefer blind faith over crisis, following prescriptions over pursuing understanding. It is natural, but it’s a reflex we must resist. Protect your curiousity.
Anyways, this is a little advertisement for RBG. Go watch it!
Hope you enjoyed reading! Happy Tuesday and until next time. Happy Ramadan to those observing.