The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What good is a high IQ?

Everyone in the developed world is aware of the term IQ. There is a certain mystique attached to the concept. Somehow, in a single number, is embodied a substance known as "intelligence". I use the word "substance" deliberately, for the way people speak of it, it is as if it is some concretely measurable, verifiable thing that is present in a person in varying quantities. At least, that is the common view of this magic number.

Yet what, practically speaking, does IQ mean? I intend not to look at the common way of regarding it, which is a measure of rarity in the population, but in a practical sense. What real life difference does IQ make to a person?

There are two practical facets I wish to look at, two which are relatively little known. Firstly, when given a problem to solve and the time taken to complete the problem is measured, research has shown that a 10 point drop in IQ corresponds to a DOUBLING of the time taken to complete the problem. That fact needs some consideration before we move on.

What does a doubling in the time to solve a problem mean for an IQ drop of 10 points? Well, think of it this way: with a 10 point drop, the time taken is double; with a 20 point difference, the time taken is four times; with a 30 point drop it is eight times; and so on. This difference can become truly huge for large differences in IQ. If there is a 100 point drop, the difference in time is 1,024 times. (This assumes, of course, that the relationship holds across all levels of human IQ - but that is the only assumption being made for this to be true.)

It is easy to understand how this is so if we compare the problem solving skills of a person with "genius IQ" and someone who is subnormal, say comparing an IQ of 150 with an IQ of 50. It would be no surprise at all if it took a 1,000 times longer for the person of 50 IQ to solve a problem which challenged the genius.

This has very real practical implications and allows us to better understand the meaning of IQs in a real way. Someone with a higher IQ than someone else will, generally, solve a particular problem more quickly. If the IQ difference is huge, the time to solve can be very different indeed. In the real world, given our finite lifetimes and shortage of time in general, this can mean that, practically speaking, even if the person of lower IQ would eventually solve the problem, that they won't: there simply won't be the time. In a time critical job, like air traffic controller, or stock trader, or surgeon, a higher IQ can be the difference between success and failure, profit and loss, life and death.

I want you to think about this again: a person of IQ 200, can solve problems a thousand times faster than the average person. (Obviously we would have to use a hard enough problem to see the difference, at work: something easy for both levels of intelligence would not distinguish them.)

There is another difference in problem solving revealed by IQ. Any given problem of fixed difficulty will be open to solution by a spread of IQs. What differs is the chance of the problem being solved. At the lower IQs the chance of a solution is correspondingly less, until at a certain fixed IQ, NO-ONE below that IQ can solve the problem. At the other end, there is an IQ above which EVERYONE solves the problem.

This again has real world applications. If you have a hard problem to solve, there will be a minimum IQ required to solve it, below which no-one can do so, no matter how much time they have to do so. It should also be noted that for very high IQs almost all real world problems will be susceptible to their intelligence, and readily solved.

I think this way of looking at IQ is much more valuable for understanding what they mean, than the conventional one of looking at rarity. It tells us in a very real way, what can be expected of people of different IQ levels, in practical terms.

(If you would like to learn about Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and two months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, three, and Tiarnan, twelve months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, baby genius, savant, the creatively gifted, savant, gifted adults, and gifted children in general. Thanks)


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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 4:52 PM 


Anonymous Olive said...

Thank you, that is really fascniating to know about, and it explains a lot for me! I have a gifted-level IQ (although not highly gifted) and I am often VERY FRUSTRATED with how slowly most people seem to think. Not only do they seem to think slowly, but they also don't seem to think very much. And they don't seem to have very good memories.

I think this new information about the speed of solving problems is going to help me understand. If I can solve a problem 30 times faster than an average person, I am then going to move on to thinking about other things, and maybe thinking about how the various things are related and what it all means. Meanwhile, the other person is just finishing up the problem.
People frequently tell me I am "always thinking", and I have never really understood that they meant- aren't we all always thinking? Now I think I understand. I maybe be thinking more, and about more things than the average person.
It's still frustrating, but on the other hand I suppose my own slowness would be very frustrating to someone with a 160 iQ!

6:52 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am happy to have opened your eyes, to the practical meaning of IQ.

I agree that it really helps to understand where people are coming from to realize the huge disparities in problem solving time, that come with differences in IQ.

It would be a better world if TEACHERS understood this, too. However, most don't.

Imagine how lonesome it can be for the few with IQs of 200 or thereabouts. How plodding must the world seem to them?

Best wishes on understanding your fellow man or woman.

12:36 AM  
Anonymous Marc said...

200 IQ must be more than lonesome; it must be near solitary - interlectualy speaking, or perhaps not!?

Im not sure how valid this may be, but the founder of a popular matchmaking website seems to hold the view that IQ is also a sub-concious desiding factor in choise of mate; and indeed this suggests its measured by minds intuitively.

Perhaps some widescale statistical reasearch of long term partners and their IQ's would give this idea some weight but according to Mr.Cupid they will be somewhere close.

Thanks for the article its a nice, practical way of looking at IQ and the number work illustrated this immensely.

2:37 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am glad, Marc, that you appreciated the article.

Regarding Cupid...yes, people do tend to find people of similar intelligence, in my observation. It is called assortative mating: people are naturally drawn to those who are on "their level". So, it would be unsurprising to find people of similar intelligence marrying.

Thanks for your comment.

10:44 AM  

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