Intellectual Ability Defined

Any talk of intellectual ability must start with a definition, but intellectual ability is a rather broad term, is it not? How about we start with a very broad definition and narrow it down as we work, focusing on the different aspects comprising intelligence.

First, we can broadly define intellectual ability as the capacity to take in, compare, and recall data. We are all constantly engaging in these three tasks. As you read these words, you are taking in the data, comparing it to previous things you’ve learned (the alphabet and how to read, for one) and then either recalling that data to make the words and concepts make sense or recognizing new information.

As you can see, any discussion of intellectual ability relies on a few different concepts. The first of these is perception, or the ability to take input from our senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste). Assuming you aren’t impaired in one of these senses, you are constantly taking in data from all five of these senses, comparing it to previous experiences, and then either storing or forgetting what you have perceived. Thankfully, much of this task is handled without our conscious thought or else we might go mad. Can you imagine having to systematically sort through every sound you ever heard? We’d never get anything done!

Once you have perceived this data, you can compare it to previously-stored information known as memory. There are a few types of memory: short-term memory stores what you have immediately taken in and can last for up to a few minutes and long-term memory is where you store information to be recalled much later. Short-term memory is quite limited in humans, with the average person being able to hold roughly 7 pieces of information at a given time. A chimpanzee, however, has been studied retaining 19 pieces of information! Long-term memory is where we really shine, having essentially, an unlimited capacity for storing data for as long as we remain lucid.

The final step is to take the data and either realize it as new data or find a match in your memory and develop a comparison. Psychologists use the terms ‘fluid’ and ‘crystallized’ intelligence to compare these two processes. Fluid intelligence is the ability to look at new concepts and, without accessing memory, understand them. This is the type of intelligence used to understand puzzles and patterns. 


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