Stories tagged intelligence


Karina has some competition: This baby is WAY smarter than other babies.
Karina has some competition: This baby is WAY smarter than other babies.Courtesy quinn.anya
Silver bells are ringing across Britain as the nation celebrates the discovery of its lil’est genius. Two year old Karina Oakley has scored a 160 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, administered to her by the professor her mother hired.

An IQ scored of 160 places little Karina on the lower edge of the “exceptionally gifted” intelligence classification. The high IQ society Mensa only requires an IQ score of 132 to enter, so Karina’s evaluation places her solidly in the ranks of such official geniuses as Cutthroat Island star and V8 juice fan, Geena Davis, as well as Playboy Playmate Julie Peterson and General “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf.

Despite all of the “Raising Your Gifted Child”-type books that are no doubt currently filling the padded horizontal surfaces of the Oakley household, raising this little genius will be difficult work. This is surely why Karina’s mother allowed the story to be printed in the respected British periodical The Daily Telegraph; she’s looking for support. So let’s help out.

What does an IQ of 160 really mean? Beyond “exceptionally gifted” or “Geena Davis-smart,” I mean. Let’s explore. For Karina’s sake.

The Stanford-Binet test administered to Karina had its beginnings more than a hundred years ago, when the French psychologist Alfred Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon were studying mental disabilities in school children. They devised a test of increasingly difficult questions and activities (ranging from touching one’s own nose to explaining abstract concepts) and determined the age at which a typical child could answer or perform them correctly. How well a kid tested would determine his or her “mental age,” or their level of development relative to others. But even a hundred years ago, Binet cautioned that the results of these tests should not be interpreted literally, because there’s a margin of error inherent in such testing, and because intelligence is plastic, or changeable, anyway.

Ten years later, researchers at Stanford University expanded on the Binet-Simon test, removing some items, and adding some new ones. The resulting Stanford-Binet test has been revised several times, and it’s now one of the standard IQ or “intelligence quotient” tests. The “mental age” concept from the original test, however, is still the key idea. It’s basically the same concept as an “intelligence quotient”—both are measurements of an individual’s intelligence (or mental age) compared to a standard or average intelligence.

So an IQ score near 100 is about average. That doesn’t mean that if you have an IQ of 100 you’re just okay, while most people might be smarter than you. Necessarily, most people should fall right around 100. With IQ tests, what you end up knowing is whether you test below, about the same, or above most people.

Now, little 2-year-old Karina has an IQ of 160. Does that mean she’s tossing around quantum mechanical problems, fixing the refrigerator, and deconstructing Proust in her spare time? Probably not. The test is going to be relative to her group; two-year-olds. So most of Karina’s colleagues will have an IQ of about 100, but Karina herself, well, she’s notably more intelligent than most two-year-olds. But, then again, so is my golden retriever.

It seems like administering an IQ test to a tiny kid like that is kind of silly. Their weird child-brains are all growing and developing, and all at different rates (which is normal). So does this just mean that Karina is as smart as a 3-year-old? The dog certainly aspires to that.

Karina will probably continue to be a clever little dude for the rest of her life, but what’s important is that she now has an official test, taken when she had been alive for just two years, to prove it. That test will be like the North Star, guiding her through life, and, like the star, perhaps just out of reach. It will be the trump card in shrill arguments with school councilors. And it will, above all else, make Karina friends, especially if she’s placed in a gifted and talented program early in her education. It’s the first stepping-stone on a glorious path to a nervous breakdown as a 16-year-old college freshman. Cheers, Mr. and Mrs. Oakley.

PS— Really, what it boils down to is that I’m insanely jealous of this little girl.

PPS—A fun little bonus story regarding child geniuses:
My young cousin: The doctor tested me to see how smart I am. He said I’m a genie!
My brother: You mean “genius.”


Zoological counterstategists are working around the clock: If they discover what would happen if they wrapped themselves around our faces... The war would be over.
Zoological counterstategists are working around the clock: If they discover what would happen if they wrapped themselves around our faces... The war would be over.Courtesy ccaviness
Breaking news from the field of science: mollusks remain strange, unnerving. Chief among their many unsettling attributes are tentacles, highly developed brains, and an inborn desire to mess up the world of men.

A German octopus, name of Otto, has been conducting small-scale trial runs of what is no doubt a plan to disrupt that county’s entire electric infrastructure.

The staff of the Sea Star Aquarium in Colburg, Germany, had been baffled by the facility’s frequent short circuits and subsequent aquarium-wide power failures, until they began taking turns sleeping on the floor to discover the source of the problem. They found that two-foot seven-inch Otto the octopus, apparently irritated by the bright light over his tank, was climbing to the rim of his aquarium to shoot jets of water at the 2000-watt spotlight above him. The electrical havoc that followed allowed Otto to get his beauty sleep (and shut off the pumps in all the other tanks, slowly suffocating the aquarium’s other animals).

Aquarium officials refuse to acknowledge the threatening situation in front of their faces, instead making excuses for the octopus. When the aquarium closes for the winter, they claim, Otto gets bored and causes mischief for attention and stimulation. In addition to the dangerous act of vandalism above, Otto has been seen juggling the hermit crabs that he lives with, damaging the glass of his tank by throwing stones at it, and obsessively rearranging the items in his tank, to “the distress of his fellow tank inhabitants.”

This is a dangerous situation. What’s to be done here?

Tongues of flame lick the
Meat which will power our brains:
Cooking made us smart
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Sci-ku ™ -- haiku in the service of science!


Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the brainiest of them all?: A yellowbilled magpie involved in some self-reflection.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the brainiest of them all?: A yellowbilled magpie involved in some self-reflection.Courtesy Vicki and Chuck Rogers
Magpies can recognize their own reflections in a mirror, according to a new study just out in the PloS Biology journal.

The magpie is member of the Corvidae family of birds, a group that includes crows, ravens and jays, and one that’s regarded as highly intelligent.

The research involved placing colored stickers on a magpie’s body in a place not viewable by the bird. When a mirror was provided, the bird was able to see the sticker and attempted to remove it with its beak or claws.

When a black mark matching the magpie’s dark feathers was used, the bird took no notice, confirming the bird wasn’t just investigating what researchers were doing to it. And when the mirror itself was removed even the colored marks were ignored.

The study raises questions about brain development. Before this study, only mammals such as chimpanzees, orangutans - and to some extent dolphins and elephants - have shown signs of self-awareness. But unlike a mammalian brain, a bird’s brain doesn’t possess a neocortex, an area thought necessary for self-recognition.

"After finding this kind of intelligence in apes, many people thought it had developed once in one evolutionary line with humans at the end. The bird studies show it has developed at least twice,” said Dr Helmut Prior, a psychologist from the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He and his colleagues used 5 magpies in the study.


Science News website
New Scientist site with video
More about the neocortex


Chill out kid: You're in the presence of great minds.
Chill out kid: You're in the presence of great minds.Courtesy Mario Sepulveda
Get your lists out, Buzzketeers.

No, get ‘em out!

Or, you know, just sit there with your lists put away. Good job. You’re good at that.

Those of you who care about science, and have your lists out, thank you. And you may now add pigeons>babies to your “What is smarter that what” list. About time, huh?

I understand that intelligence is a tricky thing to measure, and we should acknowledge that there are several things that babies can do better than pigeons. Crying, throwing up, and pooping, for instance, babies are clearly more skilled at. But when it comes to self-cognitive abilities—something long considered exclusive to primates and large-brained animals like dolphins and elephants—pigeons take the cake. They take it away from babies.

Researchers in Japan have shown that pigeons can discriminate video images of themselves with as much as a 5-7 second delay, while 3 year old children have difficulty recognizing themselves after only a 2 second delay. Pretty embarrassing for the earth’s toddlers, if you ask me—3 years is pretty old to have trouble recognizing Number One.

I don’t totally understand the methodology behind telling whether a pigeon (or a baby, for that matter) can recognize itself, but the article gave some other interesting/hilarious examples of self-cognition tests.

Similar test have been performed on chimps by drawing on their faces when they were sleeping (drugged). Upon waking, the chimps were given mirrors to see how they felt about their new decorations. This experiment is frequently carried out on drunk humans as well (I tried to find a good picture of this, but they all seem to include a drawing of…a particular body part).

Researchers at Harvard University have shown that pigeons can discriminate pictures of people, and a laboratory in Japan claims that they can even distinguish between the works of certain painters.

Pigeons were also shown to be able to tell the difference between birds given stimulant drugs and sober pigeons. No word as to whether they’ll be trying that particular experiment on babies.

new study finds that talking to someone helps keep the mind sharp and, in lab experiments, boosts test scores. My apologies to teenage girls everywhere.

A European study finds that men score lower on a general intelligence test after being shown a picture of a blonde woman. The researchers say the men were responding to social stereotypes that portray blondes as less intelligent. My own field research has found that attractive women of any hair color will reduce a man to a babbling idiot.

And speaking of whales, researchers in Australia are trying to decode whale talk. Eavesdropping on thousands of hours of humpback whale sounds, they have found certain calls occur only in certain social situations.

(Liza had a post on research into humpback whale speech last year.)


A natural poker face: Chimps prove to be more rational players than humans. Photo by belgianchocolate at

Are chimpanzees smarter than people? Only if you’re a Vulcan who believes that rationality and intelligence are the same thing.

Researchers taught chimps how to play a sharing game. A chip was given a prize, but could only keep it if he offered to share it with the other player, and the other player agreed to take what was offered. If the offer was refused, neither player got anything.

They then taught humans how to play the same game. The researchers found that the chimps always accepted any offer, while the humans often rejected offers that they felt were too low. At the end of the game, the chimps ended up with more prizes than the human players.

According to the article,

The researchers concluded chimpanzees do not show a willingness to make fair offers and reject unfair ones. In this way, they protect their self interest and are unwilling to pay a cost to punish someone they perceive as unfair.

An equally valid interpretation would be that the chimps didn’t understand the meaning of “fair” or “unfair.” Another interpretation would be that the chimps figured out this was a stupid game, and accepted every offer just to end it quickly, while the humans tried to figure out how to win.

Perhaps chimps ain’t so dumb after all.

* (With apologies to Abe Simpson)

Alex, an African Gray parrot who was the subject of many groundbreaking studies on bird intelligence, learning, and communication, as well as the subject of many, many documentaries and educational TV programs, has died in Massachusetts at the age of 31. (The title of this post isn't meant to be flip: I had the distinct privilege of meeting Alex a few years ago, on a trip through MIT's Media Lab, and I can honestly say I've never met a smarter and more charismatic bird.)

*All due credit to Monty Python