What makes humans intelligent? | 20 interesting facts about intelligence

Some curious facts about intelligence and psychological skills behind it; common myths and misconceptions about intelligence dispelled. 

Traditionally attributed only to animal species, today intelligence is attributed, to a lesser extent, also to plants, while the field of artificial intelligence research tries to create machines that are able to reproduce or simulate human intelligence.

Although researchers in the field have not yet given an official definition of intelligence, some identify intelligence as the ability of an agent to successfully face and solve new or unknown situations and problems.

Intelligence is a great gift for human beings, and not all of us know how to use it as we should. Everyone is more or less intelligent, unless they suffer from some kind of disorder that involves a significant decrease in intelligence.

Be that as it may, here we list several interesting facts about intelligence, besides explaining some theories and introducing people who, in one way or another, have been known to have great cognitive abilities.

20 interesting facts about human intelligence

1. Tests do not measure intelligence in absolute terms

Contrary to what many people believe, intelligence questionnaires are not an unequivocal indication of a person's intelligence. They measure intelligence in relative terms.

When answering them, there may be influences from factors such as mood, nutrition or tiredness that may impair performance when answering the items that make up the questionnaire.

2. Intelligence may not be one-dimensionaAccording to Howard Gardner's theory about intelligence, it would not be one, but several types of intelligence that human beings possess.

This concept, called the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, assumes that there are several areas of intelligence according to different types of problems that one has to face.

Gardner defined eight abilities that correspond to types of intelligence:
1. verbal-linguistic
2. logical-mathematical
3. visual-spatial
4. musical-rhythmic
5. bodily-kinesthetic
6. Intrapersonal
7. Interpersonal
8. naturalistic

Since its formulation, this theory has been highly questioned, but there are other explanatory models of intelligence that distinguish between various groups of cognitive abilities, while not denying the existence of a basic form of unitary intelligence.

3. Intelligence tends to be somewhat stable over time

Practicing always helps to improve and master a certain skill, such as playing chess, or knowing a lot about a subject as complex as quantum physics. However, this does not mean that the person's IQ is increased.

We can develop skills and acquire new knowledge throughout our lives, but what we cannot do is modify our intelligence much and quickly, which tends to remain stable.

4. There is no single gene behind intelligence

It is not uncommon to believe that intelligence is something that is due to one or more genes. But this assertion corresponds to a very unitary view of intelligence. Intelligence, however, is a social construct and therefore it is not possible to find a single biological factor behind it.

It would rather be the result of a set of processes, related to the development of the different brain areas, their efficiency when working, exposure to environmental elements that influence the IQ, and other factors.

5. The most intelligent person alive

The most reliable record-high IQ score - IQ of 230, belongs to Terence Tao.
Terence Tao is a mathematician. When he was 24, he was appointed to a full professor position at UCLA, making him the youngest person ever appointed to that position by the university.

6. The most intelligent person of all time

To date, the person who has been attributed the highest IQ score in all of history is William Sidis (1898-1944), who would be the smartest person of all time.

In 1933 he was given an intelligence test and, based on later estimates, has been attributed an IQ of between 250 and 300 points.

7. The are no racial differences in relation to intelligence 

From very racist perspectives, pseudoscience tried to show that white people were significantly smarter than those of African, Asian, or Native American races. These pseudo claims were based on the anatomy of the skull, racial and cultural differences.

During the last century, intelligence questionnaires showed that black people had, on average, 10 to 15 points lower IQs than white people, giving strength to the above claims.

However, later reviews of the questionnaires used showed that they were markedly culturally biased, making them invalid for people raised in significantly different environments than white respondents.

After correcting these errors and reapplying these same questionnaires, no differences between races have been found in relation to intelligence.

8. Left-handed people are not more intelligent than right-handed people

Given that great figures of history, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and others were left-handed, it has always been believed that having the left hand as the preferred hand could be related to genius-level intellect.

However, when the question was addressed scientifically, it has been observed that this is not the case. A study carried out at the University of Adelaide, with a sample of 5,000 people, analysed the academic development of school students to see if there were differences between left-handed and right-handed children.

No significant differences were found to show that left-handed people were more intelligent. Moreover, it was noted that there was a belief that left-handed people were less successful in studies, although this was not true either.

9. There are no gender differences in relation to intelligence

Over the last 100 years, women's IQ scores have increased significantly when answering intelligence questionnaires.

This is not because there has been a real increase in their cognitive ability, but rather, similar to the case of race differences, the questionnaires were made by men who developed them with a marked gender bias.

Women did not receive the same type of education as men, and if we consider that the questionnaires incorporated aspects traditionally taught to men, such as mathematics, it is logical to understand this.

As less gender-biased tests have been developed, performance on these tests between men and women seems to have become progressively more equal.

10. Mind games do not increase intelligence

There is a general idea that clever entertainment, such as sudoku, crossword puzzles or similar games, increases intelligence.

This is not really the case. Not by doing 20 sudokus in a row you will magically increase your IQ by 10 points.

However, this kind of games are quite useful for people who want to spend their time testing their intelligence, and it's especially recommended for those who suffer from some kind of dementia or brain damage.

11. Breast-feeding slightly improves intelligence

Differences in IQ have been found among people who were breastfed, that is, fed their own mother's breast milk, compared to those who were given a bottle.

According to several studies, in some cases, breastfeeding and not breastfeeding would result in differences of about 4 IQ points.

12. Processed food diets

Diet, as an environmental factor, seems to influence IQ.

It has been shown that diets that include foods that have been processed and include artificial flavors make you perform less well when answering intelligence questionnaires.

13. Albert Einstein's brain

While this is not a curious fact about intelligence per se, it does have to do with one of the most intelligent people in history, as well as having a great influence during the first half of the last century.

When he died, Einstein's brain was kept in a jar by a pathologist to see anatomical features of this organ and relate them to the genius-level intelligence of the living scientist.

Albert Einstein's brain weighed 1,230 grams, about 10% less than the usual weight of a human brain, about 1,400 grams. However, the neural density of the scientist's organ was higher than the average.

14. Savant syndrome

The Savant syndrome, is a condition in which a person, according to Darold Treffert, the psychiatrist who coined it, has a remarkable intellectual talent but, sometimes, it does not have to have a real practical application.

Among these skills one can find photographic memory, an extremely effortless acquisition of languages, or remembering all the tiles that make up a street.

15. Are savants born savants?

Many savants are from birth, however, others may be due to having suffered some kind of head trauma which, fortunately, gave them outstanding intellectual ability rather than having a serious clinical symptom.

16. Brain plasticity and intelligence

Although it is true that intelligence is a construct that remains more or less stable throughout life, this does not mean that the brain cannot modify its structure throughout development or that new neurons cannot be generated.

This clashes with what was believed until relatively recently, since it was argued that the neurons could no longer reproduce up to a certain point.

The human brain possesses neural plasticity, which allows it to acquire new skills and knowledge throughout the subject's life, through changes at the neuronal level - neurogenesis, and structural level.

17. The myth of the Mozart effect

If you do a quick search on platforms such as YouTube and put in the search engine classical music, such as Mozart, Beethoven or Vivaldi, you will see that many videos will ensure the viewers that listening to them will increase intelligence.

This is because, according to the Mozart effect, listening to classical music, especially that of this 18th century Viennese artist, improves memory and concentration, and if a woman listens to it while pregnant it might increase the IQ of her future child.

This is all terribly false. Mozart, without taking away what a great musician he was, did not create symphonies that had the magic power to change aspects on a cognitive level, although it is advisable to listen to it.

18. We don't use 10% of our brain

In films such as Luc Besson's 'Lucy' (2014), it is said that, normally, human beings only use 10% of their brain and that, if they increased this percentage, they would achieve a much higher intellectual capacity.

This is not true. If brain scans are analysed, using neuroimaging techniques, it is possible to see that brain activity is clearly higher than a simple 10%, even when sleeping.

19. Flynn effect

The Flynn effect is the substantial and continuous, year-on-year increase in IQ seen in most countries of the world, especially those who have jumped on the bandwagon of socio-economic development.

Since the 1930s, there has been an increase in the UK population IQ of between 2 and 3 points every ten years. This increase is associated with better nutrition, accompanied by smaller families, as well as improved education systems and healthier environments.

20. Dehydration affects intelligence

It is not that being dehydrated diminishes intelligence in any strict sense of the word, but it does make us less efficient at solving problems of any kind.

Just 2% dehydration is enough to make it difficult to perform tasks that require attention, psychomotor skills and working memory.


Laskowski, K. y Henneberg, M. (2013). Writing with non-dominant hand: left-handers perform better with the right hand than right handers with the left. Anthropological Review, 75(2): 129-136.

Gardner, H. (1998). A Reply to Perry D. Klein's Multiplying the problems of intelligence by eight. Canadian Journal of Education 23 (1): 96–102. doi:10.2307/1585968. JSTOR 1585790.

Horta, B. L., Loret de Mola, C. & Victora, C. G. (2015). Breastfeeding and intelligence: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Paediatrica, 104: 14–19.

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