Smart, or just Good Memory?

Posted on Mar 21, 2019
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I think the Rubik’s cube is the perfect metaphor/analogy for the point of this blog post.

You see, the Rubik’s cube is a puzzle that was invented by [insert boring nonessential backstory here] and since then it has been assumed that anyone who could solve it was smart.

I hate to burst everyone’s bubble, but I can solve a Rubik’s cube. Myth = Busted.

Seriously though, solving a Rubik’s cube is really simple, once you learn the patterns. You can just look up a tutorial online and within about 20 minutes you know the steps to solve the cube. Here, I’ll even save you the trouble of the search: learn the secrets

The key is simply remembering the sequence and all of the specific moves. And getting good at solving them fast is just about practice. It’s like running the 100 meter sprint or doing this insane rock-climbing event (that is apparently coming to the Olympics):

All of those things require a certain amount of skill, sure, but they rely most heavily memory (muscle memory, but memory all the same). They are things that you get better at by practicing.

Intelligence is not the same thing as a good memory. The two aren’t mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination, but you don’t have to have one to have the other.

Perhaps part of the problem is our general lack of patience. We need some sort of immediate proof of someone’s intelligence, so we resort to parlor tricks and trivia. Think about it - how often have you congratulated someone’s dog for being “just the smartest boy” because he knew how to respond correctly to the command that he’d been taught months before and had been practicing every day so that the public showing would be successful.

This is, of course, not to say that dogs can’t be intelligent; the point is that being able to regurgitate facts at will is no more a sign of intelligence than a well-rehearsed performance of canine Jenga:

We do the same thing with humans though. Whenever someone can answer a question quickly and at least marginally correctly, we immediately label them SMART, and if someone isn’t as quick to respond or takes time to come up with the right answer (even though the answer is right), they are labeled SLOW.

When I was a kid, we measured intelligence by how fast we were able to complete our times tables quizzes. I remember it clearly, the Huang twins were always the first to finish, and it was like everyone was just trying to beat them in order to be the “smartest” in the class.

But we had those quizzes like 3 times per week, so it was like you could be the smartest in the class for 3 days and then you had to “defend your title” at the next one.

In reality, we were all pretty smart (except me, I’m still not exactly sure how I made it through school), and our rankings in the times table completions had absolutely no bearing on that whatsoever.

At the end of the day, being SMART is about one’s ability to solve problems, and most importantly the ability to see connections that weren’t already there. Just knowing how everyone else has tried to solve the problem doesn’t help it get solved at all, and it definitely doesn’t point to your intelligence.

Like with the Rubik’s cube - imagine being the first person to buy one, before they came with solution instructions, and before there were a million YouTube tutorials on how to solve them. Imagine having to actually solve one.

And remember, people thought the cube was IMPOSSIBLE to solve.

And yet, someone solved it.

That’s real intelligence. Solving problems that haven’t already been solved in ways that haven’t already been tried.

So really it’s not grades, speed, or even IQ that indicate true intelligence.

It’s actually innovation. (provided it actually solves the problem, of course)

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