My friend John recently published a pretty thoughtful review of Flowers for Algernon. I really liked his multiple interpretations of intelligence and wanted to add one of my own.
It’s been a long time since I last read Flowers, but the story has stuck with me. Briefly, it’s about a low IQ man who goes through a medical experiment which raises his IQ to astronomical levels, only to have it eventually regress to his original baseline.
In my mind, it’s a great story because it starkly questions so much of what we understand about ‘intelligence’ — what does it mean to have a high IQ, or a low one for that matter? Is intelligence itself life-making? Culturally, Americans are pretty obsessed with intelligence qua intelligence, both in the negative fearful sense and awe-struck aspects. We love and fear our geniuses, our cultural panthenon of modern gods is almost entirely devoted to them.
John’s review highlights a good number of different ways of understanding or interpreting the story. I’d like to add another, more personalized interpretation of why “IQ” can be isolating.
What is IQ?
Let’s start off by saying that I don’t think I really understand what IQ measures. It seems to measure something real and tangible and descriptive about a capability of a mind, but the exact what isn’t something I feel qualified to opine on. Intelligence is something that we Americans use to bludgeon each other with, both in the has too much and doesn’t have enough sense. Given the propensity for abuse, it feels safest to talk from personal experience, as that’s both personally trustworthy (I trust my experiences) and also hard to generalize.
I’d like to conjecture that IQ is roughly a measure of someone’s ability to grasp and draw conclusions about reality based systems. Under this definition, there’s a few things that become important. The first, is your ability to notice and understand the nature of the reality that you exist in. This includes the ability to notice and appreciate deep details. Venkat retweeted a great article a few days back, about how being successful at systems building required this almost maniacal attention to details, how even beautifully simple constructions such as a set of stairs require a niche and complete understanding of the realities of angles and the nature of how wood bends.
It’s been a while since I’ve taken an IQ test, so I went to look one up online to test my theory about the ability to notice and appreciate the depth of detail about reality. I ended up doing this ‘might you be qualified to apply to Mensa’ test that doesn’t actually give you an IQ score. Instead it tells me that I got 28 out of 33 answers correct, or 84%, using an unlimited amount of time — if I had to guess, I probably didn’t spend any longer than 30 minutes on it. The whole thing is minute pattern matching. I never do very well on the number pattern ones but exposure to computer science has made it easier to spot certain patterns; my visual pattern matching skills have definitely improved in the last decade or so.
More interesting, in my mind is that I could probably tell you which of the 5 questions I got wrong. Tests like this don’t give you credit for knowing when you’re wrong or need more information — chalk that up as at least one concrete aspect of ‘intelligence’ that this IQ test is under counting. Being certain about what I know and why is relatively new ground for me, so maybe most people wouldn’t notice it.
But I noticed. And that’s the whole point of these tests. They’re all reasoning from patterns, drawing conclusions based on scant yet important information. It’s literally a rough measurement of what you notice about the reality aka pattern that they’re presenting to you. One nice thing about such encapsulated puzzles is that they’re guaranteed to provide at least enough signal to draw conclusions from — that level of guarantee is a rare thing for real world observations.
Noticing, then, is a large component of what IQ is a measure of. In fact, I think that I can strongly say that the skill this test is judging for is noticing and the consequent ability to draw a conclusion from the set of observations. IQ then, is a measure of what you notice and can predict from those observations.
The Nature of Alienation
Charlie, in his ascent up the notice-patterning ability scale, finds himself increasingly unable to communicate with the woman character who fills the role of teacher, friend, and lover. At the pinnacle of his observation/pattern-matching performance, he’s as alienated from her as he was at the lower end of the IQ spectrum.
Why would the ability to notice things about reality make it difficult for you to interact with others?
One way of interpreting this is to say that a higher IQ means that what you notice about reality is far different from most people. Your shared context for what there is to see about the world and what that leads you to know about reality are so radically different that you are, in all practical ways, living in a different reality. Alienation, then, is the diverging of contexts such that communication loses a lot of its ability to be compressed. You have to send more signal to get ideas across, as the contexts break down.
In some ways, this is not unlike the struggle that Americans are having with the divergence of news outlets view and presentation on reality. An IQ-observation gap is one based, presumably, on the ability to pick out greater detail or signal from the same set of images. Modern ‘social’ media in the US is taking the secondary tack of presenting two different images of events — each that lend to a differing interpretation such that the reality you experience as a consumer of political news can be entirely skewed by who you follow. It’s hard to know ‘what to believe’ when multiple images are presented. It’s even harder to communicate between these two realities, because the details that you’ve observed and picked up from the images presented to you are so incredibly disjoint as to have robbed us of the common context needed to have more compressible communication. In this reading, the political alienation across the aisle is real and quantifiable.
Charlie eventually loses both his ability to notice detail, as well his memory of what it was even like. Eventually he falls back into a state where he’d like to know what it’s like to be able to see the details of reality that other, ‘normal IQ’ people see.
Kind of puts that old aphorism “the devil is in the details” in an entirely new light.
 Memory definitely plays a part of intelligence, but given the test that I took and the points that followed from those observations, I think this post can stand independent of a discussion on the importance and influence of memory. It’s definitely important and plays a large role, but there’s a nuance to observing details that doesn’t rely on memory.