Have you ever hoped that your serial procrastination, your ability to lose hours of time to sitting idly as your mind travels great distances, your inability to concentrate except in total silence, and your tendency to become overwhelmed by small everyday tasks like doing laundry or keeping your workspace clutter-free were, rather than handicaps, indicative of some kind of wacky creative genius?
Well, congrats! Your hopes may be more than just self-serving delusions that allow you to continue erratic, self-sabotaging behavior. They may actually be because your mind is a superior machine. (Take that, ex-boss who called you a special snowflake for being unable to write with the constant chatter in an open office!) Read on to learn what some research has told us about the quirks of the exceptionally intelligent…
They have different “sensory gating.”
You know your friend who has to plug his ears while trying to write on deadline in a coffee shop, and your other friend who could probably miss the natural disaster going on around her as long as she was concentrated on a specific task? These friends and others like them may have higher intelligence or creativity, according to some research.
One study from Northwestern University, “Creativity and sensory gating indexed by the P50: Selective versus leaky sensory gating in divergent thinkers and creative achievers,” found that a lower ability to filter out “irrelevant” sensory information may be an indicator of greater creativity, as measured by “real-world creative achievements.” It’s possible that their “leaky sensory gating” led to more surprising connections.
Divergent thinking—also known as lateral thinking—is, on the other hand, correlated with “selective sensory gating,” or more ability to filter out extraneous sensory information. That may explain why there is some research suggesting that those with high intelligence find it difficult to concentrate, and other research suggesting just the opposite, that high intelligence means greater capacity for singular focus.
(Of course, there’s some debate about the relationship between increased creativity and high intelligence, and one doesn’t necessarily imply the other, but that’s an article in itself.)
They understand that they don’t understand.
I know that I know nothing is a phrase attributed to Socrates, who broadcasted his ignorance, despite being one of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy. (See also: Socratic paradox. Socratic ignorance.)
He was famous—and eventually put to death—for exposing know-it-alls, who he characterized as being doubly ignorant for both their ignorance and their lack of awareness of their ignorance.
A 1999 Cornell study authored by social psychologist David Dunning and his student Justin Kruger would call this double ignorance the Dunning-Kruger effect—a phenomenon that’s gained fresh popularity in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. The study, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” says:
“People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” Ouch.
The summary points out that, “[p]aradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.”
Their minds wander.
Did you ever panic during class because a teacher called on you and you had absolutely no idea what they were talking about? Are you frequently called an airhead? Do people tell you you have your head in the clouds? (Replace “airhead” and “head in the clouds” with the 2017 equivalents, since these strike us as insults from the 1990s and, like, a Humphrey Bogart movie, respectively.)
If so, you may be a daydreamer, and you’re probably used to these subtle jabs at your intelligence/competence.
While there is evidence that a wandering mind can take a toll on your performance in certain tasks involving reading comprehension and model building, and tests that measure working memory and intelligence, research from recent years suggests that mind-wandering is functional and, in fact, may even be indicative of a better working memory, which has been linked to higher IQ.
Joseph Stromberg, for Smithsonian, reported on a 2012 study published in Psychological Science by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science. Stromberg, paraphrasing one of the study’s authors, writes that their findings suggest that “daydreamers’ minds wander because they have too much extra capacity to merely concentrate on the task at hand.”
Some people work at desks where all of the pencils are in the containers where pencils are supposed to go, papers are in orderly stacks and color-coded, and there’s not a wad of trash in sight.
Other people work at desks where the pencils are in containers mixed in with a bunch of other stuff, like paper clips and dried-out markers and three Lisa Frank erasers from 1992, and the top of the workspace is littered with little scraps of paper and receipts from Dunkin’ Donuts. Different strokes for different folks, right?
That’s right, according to studies conducted by psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs and co-researchers Joseph Redden and Ryan Rahinel at the University of Minnesota published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Vohs says:
“Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: Not engage in crime, not litter, and show more generosity. We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting. … Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”
They talk to themselves.
People may look at you funny on the streets and move to the other side of the subway car if you’re talking to yourself. (Or they may just assume you’re having an impassioned phone conversation while wearing earbuds.) But talking aloud to yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you’re mentally unwell; in fact, some research shows that it may help you think better.
According to a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Pennsylvania, talking to yourself can aid in memory recall and focus. The study, “Self-directed speech affects visual search performance,” asked participants to remember and find objects. One experiment had volunteers look at pictures of various objects before being asked to find a specific item, like a banana. Some were told to repeatedly say the name of the item as they looked, and some were told to remain silent during their searches.
Those who talked to themselves were able to find the objects about 50 to 100 milliseconds faster than those who did not.
The study was apparently inspired by the personal experiences of one of the researchers, cognitive psychologist Gary Lupyan, who said, “I’ll often mutter to myself when searching for something in the refrigerator or supermarket shelves.”
We’re not exactly sure when and how the entire internet decided to use this study as evidence of an explicit correlation between high intelligence and talking to yourself, and we are giving major side eye to those who have used it to perpetuate the even bolder claim that people who talk to themselves are “actually geniuses.” (Where are these people’s sources?)
It seems plausible, though, that those with high intelligence might intuitively gravitate toward behavioral adaptations that improve thought and performance—like saying “banana, banana, banana” while looking for a banana.
They curse more.
Just because your square fourth-grade English teacher whose husband was probably a Baptist preacher told you that only unintelligent people cussed often doesn’t make it so.
In fact, you can tell Mrs. Brown that her didactic tirades were a reductive load of s***, at least according to a study by psychologists Kristin Jay of Marist College and Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts published in the journal Language Sciences in 2015. As the study’s abstract reads:
“A folk assumption about colloquial speech is that taboo words are used because speakers cannot find better words with which to express themselves: because speakers lack vocabulary.
A competing possibility is that fluency is fluency regardless of subject matter—that there is no reason to propose a difference in lexicon size and ease of access for taboo as opposed to emotionally-neutral words. … Overall the findings suggest that … the ability to generate taboo language is not an index of overall language poverty.”
They stay up late.
As one report published in 2009 from the London School of Economics argues, daytime schedules are conventional and, since those with high intelligence are increasingly likely to bypass tradition, night owls probably possess more intelligence, among other beneficial traits.
It’s also possible that the staying up late is less about personal taste and more about the desperate attempt to work around other quirks often found in highly intelligent and creative folks, like the trouble some of them encounter with concentrating in the face of distractions. (Remember our first section that talked about “leaky sensory gating”?)
In his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey describes the working habits of Franz Kafka, author of the short story “The Metamorphosis.” Currey writes that Kafka “felt stymied … living with his family in a cramped apartment, where he could muster the concentration to write only late at night, when everyone else was asleep.”
As Kafka wrote in a letter in 1912, “time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”
Their moms had morning sickness.
Also in 2009, Reuters reported on a small study linking high IQ children and mothers who suffered from morning sickness while pregnant with them. The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, looked at 121 Canadian children between the ages of 3 and 7.
Researchers found that the mothers who had suffered from morning sickness scored higher, on average, on certain tests measuring IQ, memory, and language skills.
As Amy Norton wrote: “Nausea and vomiting during pregnancy is very common, particularly in the first trimester. Because it is related to changes in particular hormones that are needed for the placenta’s development, one theory is that morning sickness is a sign of a healthy pregnancy. Past studies have linked morning sickness to lower rates of miscarriage, stillbirth and preterm delivery. Whether it is related to any long-term benefits had been unclear.”
Most people don’t actively enjoy throwing up—but we bet they would be willing to toss up a few meals for the sake of their children’s intelligence. Moms really are the best.