Intuitive Intelligence

Intuitive intelligence - image for article by Greg Alder

About twenty years ago, on the morning after a company Christmas party, I did an online Mensa IQ test. I had been seriously overserved the preceding night. I was in far from sparkling form. Not ideal circumstances in which to test my mental acuity.

All I could really think about was the lunchtime laksa that experience had taught me would magically restore my wellbeing. However, it was only 11 am and I had a bit of time before I could self-administer my chilli-infused medication.

I have no idea why I thought an IQ test would be a good idea under the circumstances.

Anyway, I scored 133. Apparently 133 is quite good, good enough to earn me membership of the International High IQ Society and Mensa itself.

But here’s what I was thinking after doing that test:

First, I was wondering how much better my score might have been had I been sober.

Second, I started thinking that I was somehow a fraud. I have certainly never felt Mensa-smart. I felt that I had fluked many of the answers. I recall looking at certain questions and thinking that there is serious logic and mathematics involved in deducing the correct answer. However, in my post party state, I didn’t feel up to the mental challenge. I seemed to arrive at some of my answers without due diligence, with insufficient mathematical torture. My answers were guesses.

It was another twenty years before I thought to have another go at the test. This time I was sober. This time I scored 130.

So now I had different thoughts:

First, I was thinking that maybe I’m smarter drunk than I am sober.

Second, I started worrying that if my IQ is falling with time, by the time I reach 121, my IQ will be lower than my age – that’s assuming that the decline is steady. And that I live to 121.

Along with these two new thoughts, I had that same uneasy feeling I’d experienced twenty years earlier – that I’d fluked many of the answers. I started to think that if I have intelligence, it is intuitive. I started feeling that maybe I’m just above average at somehow sensing the right answers, rather than reaching them through logic.

The more I thought about this, the more it troubled me.

If I was so gifted with intuition, how come my intuition didn’t prevent me from making numerous poor decisions? For example, I can think of several business partnerships and investments that really, if I’d followed my instinct, I would have avoided. Maybe my intelligence is academic, not practical.

I have one theory, completely untested and not supported by any research. That is that we repeat past mistakes because our brains switch off our natural warning systems. Just as our brain’s dorsal posterior insula plays tricks with our pain perception (so mothers forget just how much childbirth hurts), my theory is that we cannot recall the pain of past mistakes, so that we make them again and again.

Maybe that’s what is supposed to happen, so that those of us who are trusting go on being trusting even after that trust has been betrayed. Maybe we’ll go on making the same poor business decisions until we either run out of money or others stop taking advantage of us.

If I am so poor at learning some of life’s lessons, can I be considered intelligent? Is it better to be rat-cunning with an IQ of 90 than to be intelligent but not street smart?


  • You raise some interesting questions about intelligence, so much so that I wonder if you’re not flirting with a new direction in your career. Since acquiring a very painful neurological disorder two years ago, my life radically changed as my experience plummeted me into the world of neuroscience and the workings of the brain — if you haven’t already indulged, you’d be fascinated by the books of Norman Doidge and possibly even Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

    I opened your post because I have long regarded (and described myself) as having keen intuitive intelligence, but I do not associate that with judiciousness or not repeating mistakes. I see it as a sharp (and often quite accurate) intuitive sense about people and environments, among other things….that is, my ability to “read” them, and pick up on things that enable me to excel as a writer. But it’s much more than that.

    Your theory on why we repeat mistakes is certainly food for thought, but I also wonder if there is a connection to the old saying “nerves that fire together, wire together” — in other words, the neuroplastic nature of our brains. If we repeat certain habits often enough the connections get stronger and stronger so it takes more work to weaken those connections and create new ones — using neuroplastic concepts for our benefit.

    Also, I’m no neuroscientist but from what I’ve read, judiciousness is another aspect of our brain entirely — or as some might consider it, it’s own unique form of intelligence. I think of some of my favorite actors, for example, who make really bad calls on the movie roles they accept repeatedly….and then there are those who ace it every time. Certainly part of that ability comes with experience, and priorities or values influence choices, but good judgment is no doubt part of it as well — the capacity for foresight.


    • Jessica, A really insightful and thought-provoking comment. Thank you. (And apologies for my edit – I hope I have kept the essence of your comments.) Greg

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