How is intelligence defined in living beings? | Science

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A priori it seems that intelligence was something easy to define because everyone finds a definition, but it is really difficult to find an adequate and adjusted one and, above all, that takes into account all the variables. For example, the definition of the RAE says that it is the ability to understand or understand, to solve problems; that is, he is talking about abilities and skills, but he is not saying that in order to develop those skills, experience is required. For you to compare if when you do something you do it well you need to start from an experience, a memory and a learning. And that definition of the RAE does not take into account these factors.

If we think about the whole range of living beings, how he asks the question, we consider that a living being is intelligent, first, if he is able to use tools to modify his environment. This is very good in chimpanzees who use sticks to put them in ant nests and eat termites, although not only chimpanzees use tools. Second, if he uses language to communicate with other beings of the same species, such as humans; but it has been seen that this communication capacity also occurs in dolphins and other animal species. In addition, it would be necessary to be aware of oneself. Why? Because you have to ask yourself if what you are going to do is useful for what you want to achieve. In other words, one has to be able to reflect and search through their experience.

The fundamental problem when defining intelligence is that we are considering it as an entity, something with its own entity. People who don’t work in neuroscience usually ask you: And where in the brain is the intelligence? And that question comes from intelligence being considered as something tangible. But that is not so: intelligence is not something with entity characteristics and, of course, it is not located in a specific place in the brain. In fact, intelligence is very difficult to quantify even using so-called intelligence tests. These tests only quantify a certain part of the intelligence.

Now we have the theory of multiple intelligences, of which I am a partisan because, for example, a person can be a total failure in social matters but he can be an excellent musician. And thanks also to diseases such as autism, we ask ourselves more and more questions about intelligence. Many people on the autism spectrum do not consider themselves to have an intellectual ability or a high IQ, but there are many who are very good at calculus, geometry or other mathematical skills and also at art. They have certain facets in which they excel in terms of their abilities. But intelligence is considered as a set of everything. I believe that intelligence must be defined from another question: what is it for?

The fundamental problem when defining intelligence is that we are considering it as an entity, something with its own entity

The purpose of every living being is survival and not the individual but the survival of the species. So what is it that allows you to survive? That you are able to adapt to a changing environment. And how can you adapt to a changing environment? Certainly not from a physical point of view, because physical changes require many millions of years for them to take place, so it has to be a change of intellectual power, of mental power. And there is a little more defined intelligence, which would be what allows you to move in a changing environment and generate skills and attitudes that make it possible to survive in that environment.

Multiple intelligences are those aptitudes that one has for certain abilities: if you are very good at mathematics, or if you are very good at memorizing, planning or socializing, etc. That would be the different aptitudes that one presents. And then there would be what is general intelligence, which is how each one uses these abilities to adapt to multiple circumstances.

Rocío Leal Campanario She is a doctor in neuroscience, professor and researcher at the Pablo de Olavide University.

Question sent via email by José María de Azcárate Bang

We respond is a weekly scientific office, sponsored by the Dr. Antoni Esteve Foundation, that answers readers’ doubts about science and technology. They are scientists and technologists, members of AMIT (Association of Women Researchers and Technologists), who answer these questions. Send your questions to or on Twitter #nosotrasrespondemos.

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