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How is it some people are SO smart, while others are not?

  1. Mar 27, 2012 #1
    I've been thinking recently, I'm not really very smart, infact I think I'm below average intelligence even though I'm at uni I find a lot of the things I'm learning difficult to understand, while some just instantly get it....

    I read a story earlier about something with Aspergers Ayndrome and they took 8 A-Levels and got A* in all of them, he went on to Cambridge and got a first time maths, then took a masters in maths and physics.....

    I just don't understand how intelligence between humans can vary so greatly... I'd like to believe that everyone who does not have a server disablity can go on to be extremely smart but it just isn't the case.

    I think there are limitations to what people can learn, I think you could explain math to me forever and I'd remember it temporarily but never remember it truely. I envy people with such awesome brains.

    I just suck at retaining information :/ There must be a way of improving the part of your brain that deals with memory or something
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 27, 2012 #2
  4. Mar 27, 2012 #3


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    Why are some people so much taller than others? Why are some people so much stronger than others? Why can Drew Brees throw a football so much better than me? Human traits vary because of both genetics and upbringing. Intelligence depends on a large number of genes, which vary from individual to individual, and also depends on things such as nutrition and disease while the brain is developing, and the environment people are exposed to while they are growing. I don't think intelligence varies more than many other traits. Rather than lament that other people are smarter, try to learn to make the most of what you have.
  5. Mar 27, 2012 #4
    I think a lot of it has to do with how much you've battled with your mind to try to understand concepts-- which makes you a better thinker later on.

    As a child, I was always the dumb kid-- now some praise me as being "SO smart" regularly. But it is all relative anyways, there will always be someone else smarter than you in one way or another.

    And math doesn't have to do with retaining information, but understanding information. You just have to try really hard to conceptualize everything. Sit down for an hour on one page if it you have to-- just make sure your understanding. Once you understand and make connections, it is much more likely to be a part of your long-term memory. But most important of all, you will be able to apply what you've learned to solving other problems.
  6. Mar 27, 2012 #5
    Retention is not that hard to improve. It has more to do with how you use your brain than trying to improve your brain's actual hardware. You just have to learn how to put things in long-term memory.

    Here's one strategy. Review something you just learned after 1 minute, 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 year.

    I don't know that that is the optimal thing, but you can try it. Also, try reviewing it every day--that's definitely too much, but you can start with that and then experiment with reviewing stuff at more spaced out time intervals. Play around with different time intervals. But don't try to remember everything. Remember the most important things.

    Struggling with concepts often makes you go through a process like this. But if you want to hang on to it, don't leave it to chance.

    I sometimes spend a lot of time trying to understand something, and then, all I have left is just traces of it when I need it again. So, if it's important, try not to forget it. Usually, if it's that important, you end up reviewing it, anyway, but not always. And you never know when stuff will come in handy, sometimes.

    You can become a lot smarter by learning to use your brain correctly. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

    Also, if you play chess (and a lot of other games, too, I would expect), learn languages, or play music, all of these seem to have some intelligence-boosting effects.

    As far as chess goes, I will say that a major element of being a creative thinker is having flexibility. Chess is great for that.
  7. Mar 27, 2012 #6
    Everyone has different genetics. It's part of what makes us unique and who we are. There are lots of ways to help improve your intelligence, but sometimes some people are just born way smarter than everyone else, just as some people excel at sports, or others have innate musical talent, etc.
  8. Mar 28, 2012 #7
    Yeah, but how do you really know that? How do you know it wasn't upbringing?

    I'm actually fairly agnostic on this.

    It's clear from an evolutionary perspective that there is genetic variation in intelligence, otherwise we wouldn't have evolved to be as smart as we are. But how much variation, I don't know. We observe a huge range of abilities, yes, but it's not clear why and what role genes play in that. You could create a huge range of abilities among people with the same DNA that were just clones of each other. In fact, it would be pretty easy to do if you were some kind of mad scientist with cloning at your disposal and no ethical considerations. If your one DNA same had bad genes, it might be interesting what the limits you could reach are. But, again, you'd see a huge range, just in terms of upbringing, learning strategies, mental exercise, and so on.
  9. Mar 28, 2012 #8
    I guess the way you compared people being good at sport and others not that's a pretty accurate statement, although it's strange because hardly ever, infact I can't think of any professional sportsman (not including chess) who is extremely good at math.

    The same as a musician isn't very good at math or sports etc...

    It's just annoying because I'm average at most things really but I never become really good at anything.

    I have exams coming up in the summer and I really need to start fully understanding the subjects I'm learning because I struggled in the assignments so I can only imagine how hard the tests will be
  10. Mar 28, 2012 #9
    I will share a quick story about the people who seem to "get it" quickly. This happened in my Calculus I class. The Professor went through all the rules regarding derivatives and then went on to give us problems. At first they were simple, then they got harder and harder where you needed to put together the multiplication rule, power rule, chain rule etc. There was one kid who would just bang out the answer almost instantaneously. I felt pretty dumb sitting there writing the original function while he was already telling the professor the answer.

    Long story short, by the time we got to using derivatives to sketch functions, this kid was completely lost. He even asked me for help because he was having a tough time. As I was using some stupid football flying in the air analogy to explain where local max's/min's occurred, it finally hit me. The kid didn't even know what a derivative truly was! He was just fairly quick with taking up algorithms. He could differentiate complicated stuff in his head, but truly had no idea what he was doing. He was just following some procedure. Whereas I sat in front of my book and drew curves with secants and tangents until it finally dawned on me what exactly a derivative is and why they are so important (ITS JUST A SLOPE!). Now I'm sure I make stupid algebra and arithmetic mistakes on exams, and don't score the highest grade; but I have a pretty deep understanding of the material that I learned. The procedure is not as important as the idea. Life isn't an exam or a practice question. You can take your time to double check everything in real life (like algebra/arithmetic mistakes) or ask someone to double check that stuff. The important part is actually understanding what you are doing.

    I see this type of thing a lot with students who usually beat me in terms of grades but had no idea what they were actually doing. I had to sit down with them and explain pretty much from the beginning what they were doing. I tutored this girl who tried to actually memorize all the different forms Physics equations took under different conditions! That was preposterous to me because I never memorize anything, especially in the Physical Sciences/Mathematics. Its about understanding, not procedural problem solving.
  11. Mar 28, 2012 #10


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    ...and a different developmental history and a different weekly and daily history of environmental stimuli... all of which can override genetic tendencies in many (but not all) cases.
  12. Mar 28, 2012 #11
    Yeah, I totally agree, and I also totally forgot to mention them. Sorry about that xD.
  13. Mar 29, 2012 #12
    I’ve always wondered this question, myself, from the other perspective. I’m the kid with all A’s always, even when getting my masters at MIT. I’m not on the asperger’s/autism spectrum, which is a different phenomenon entirely.

    In general it seems that academically successful people seem to be very efficient at abstract thinking (a learnable skill). This ability is often praised as though its somehow ideal (no pun intended). But the fact that abstract thinking is praised doesn’t actually mean it’s physically harder. It takes MUCH more memory to remember non-abstract information, because abstract thinking is the stripping away of any data not useful in making a prediction. that means it requires less information.

    As an example, let’s think of prosopagnosiacs, people who can’t recognize faces as such. For them remembering a face is nearly impossible, because they have no model of a face in their brain. To recognize a given face they basically have to remember every pixel of the face, whereas you and I keep an ‘average face’ model within our head, and remember people by how they differ from that ‘average face’. You’d say “they have a big nose” or “there’s a mole on their left cheek.” But for the prosopagnosiac remembering a face is akin to being asked to remember one specific rock in a field of rocks. How would you remember what a rock looked like?

    The answer is that you’d need a model of ‘rockness’; you need to know what about your rock is rare compared to all of the other rocks. Once you know that, you only need to remember that one little bit of information (like “has tiny fleck of granite”). I guess my point is that if you want to do better in the academic world, don’t stress ‘retaining information’. Focus on finding the models that tell you which information is important to retain.

    In the meantime, though, don’t tell yourself you ‘suck at retaining information.’ Any time you think that, remember a very familiar room. What color are the walls? What is the texture of the carpet? Now imagine just how much information has to be encoded to know every tiny little fact that you know about that room. You would notice if anything was moved, which means you’ve memorized the 3 dimensional coordinates of every single object in the room. You know textures, smells, colors, weights, sounds, etc. etc. etc. Inside your head is much more information than any textbook contains.

    Humans were hunters before we were thinkers; our spatial memory is incredible. So if you still are having trouble memorizing what you need/want to, try to convert some of your spatial memory into academic memory by using the “Roman Room” method. There was a great article about it in the new york times, but you can find the info anywhere on the internets.
  14. Apr 17, 2012 #13


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    Yay Drew Brees !! I followed him at my alma mater (Purdue),
    when he brought us to the Rose Bowl. What an awesome athlete..
    For those not familiar, i submit a small sampling.
    Here is Drew's throw being analyzed by sports science..
  15. Apr 17, 2012 #14
    The Dunning-Kruger may indicate that you feel dumb actually means that you're not that dumb at all.
  16. Apr 17, 2012 #15
    ... and a different pharmaceutical cocktail from the medical profession. Try an infancy on cortisone for flexing your latent inhibition pathways.
  17. Apr 26, 2012 #16
    Why couldn't scientists study John Von Nuemann's brain and find out what makes it able to work at such a high level?

    I just read this on wikipedia about him:

  18. Apr 26, 2012 #17
    I'm baffled.
  19. Apr 27, 2012 #18


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    Dead brains aren't very useful to study. On the other hand we do have a slew of extant people with exceptional memory.
  20. Apr 27, 2012 #19
    Why is there so much diversity in the world? Surely if we answered that then the diversity of intelligence might be explainable too right? Do you know what the Lorenz attractor is? It's that owl-eye icon of Chaos Theory. You know what I mean. But that involves some complicated math and Biologist don't like math. Too bad. It opens up a window of understanding that could explain all that diversity. The Lorenz attractor is infinitely-divisible; no matter how close you look, there is always more structure. It's infinitely-diverse. And the Lorenz attractor is only a very simple example of a non-linear system. But the whole world is much more non-linear and complicated and that includes the human brain with it's billions of non-linear dynamos. It's not surprising to me at all that there is so much diversity in human intelligence.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 28, 2012
  21. Apr 28, 2012 #20
    Hi. Being average isn't a bad thing. Now, after reading what you have written on this topic and the other topic you started today in the "Biology" forum, I was wondering if perhaps this article from 4/15/12 entitled International team uncovers new genes that shape brain size, intelligence might interest you. Tell me what you think about the article. Here is a quote that I found to be very impressive, but encourage you to read the entire document. I've highlighted in red what I think is really awesome:

    This is what you said, "I believe it's something in your genes that determines how smart one will become."

    Do you think you have a bad gene? Has a doctor told you that you have a disease?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
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