The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
*** With IQS falling, Tom Ough finds out if he’s smart enough for Mensa – and asks a few of the brightest two per cent how they stay sharp
We are getting stupider. Last year, a study by Norwegian researchers found that IQS are falling, with those born in 1991 scoring an average of five points less than those born in 1975. This sounds worrying, but then again, I was born in 1992, so don’t come to me for further analysis.
We probably shouldn’t panic. The disparity may have arisen through changes in education and technology, which encourage different mental skill sets to those demanded of human brains in the Seventies and earlier. It might just be, the argument goes, that IQ tests are failing to capture these changes. Having recently failed to make the grade for Mensa, the high-iq society, I now agree. More on that shortly.
Whatever the reasons for it, the putative drop in IQ ought to make us more conscious of what it means to stay sharp. So should the improvement in our life expectancies, which in many cases boils down to an extended dotage. It seems ever more important that we know how to increase and maintain our mental horsepower. I don’t fancy spending my old age trying to remember how to open doors and count change, so I sought the help of several experts. How, I asked, do we keep our minds sharp?
I split my experts into two categories: people who appear to be intelligent, and people who study intelligence. Fortunately for the cause of university funding, there was some overlap. As for the first category, where better to start than a society that discriminates on IQ?
I ruled out Donald Trump’s cabinet, whose discrimination on IQ seems to be an upper bar of 80, and turned to Mensa. Since 1946, Mensa has been the self-appointed home of people with high IQS, and admits only those who rank in the top 2 per cent of the population. Its public image, it’s fair to say, is somewhat short of School-of-athens-level veneration – the American branch has recently endured mockery for its predilection for board games and for the stickers its members wear to indicate whether or not they like to be hugged, and, in this country, the mention of Mensa provokes sneering and snippiness – but it seems pretty unarguable that the society’s membership is clever, obviously, but also, just as interestingly, concerned by cleverness.
Setting myself up for an almighty fall, I sat the test and duly failed to make the cut. This taught me a couple of things, the first being that I will now have to anchor my self-esteem in something other than my brain, such as my immune system or my tolerance of cold. The other thing I learnt is that there must have been some kind of clerical error in the marking of my paper, and that, when you think about it, IQ is a fairly primitive way of measuring someone’s brainpower.
Isn’t that right? I asked Dr Stuart Ritchie. Dr Ritchie is a lecturer in the department of social genetic and developmental psychiatry at King’s College, London, and is the author of Intelligence: All That Matters. Both of these things make him an authority on intelligence, which meant that, to my dismay, I was unable to argue with his assertion that, on the contrary, IQ tests such as those deployed by Mensa are reliable and useful measures of intelligence. Ugh.
Dr Ritchie told me about the distinction between crystallised intelligence, which is based on knowledge and skills we’ve acquired over the course of our lives, and fluid intelligence, which involves memory, speed and reasoning. An experienced cook will draw on crystallised intelligence when making a meal; when you’re trying to solve a riddle, you’ll be using your fluid intelligence. In these cases, as with pretty much every imaginable task, you’ll be using elements of both, but the Mensa test seeks to focus on fluid intelligence.
Our success at fluid tasks, Dr Ritchie explained, tends to “go up and up until the late 20s and early 30s, and then start to decline through the rest of that lifespan.” It is speed, he says, that particularly suffers, and if someone’s fluid intelligence starts to decline, then they might start having more trouble with everyday tasks, such as reading medicine labels and working out the correct change at a checkout. Our crystallised intelligence, he said, doesn’t go down until we’re 80 or 90, which means that, if we’re to stay sharp, we need to focus on our fluid intelligence.
Several caveats later – there’s no silver bullet; an individual’s IQ doesn’t change much; intelligence is not the only thing that matters in life – Dr Ritchie told me that there were widespread misconceptions about honing and maintaining brainpower. I’d hung out with some Mensans who thought board games kept them sharp; Dr Ritchie was sceptical, as he was of brain training. “The general finding,” he said, “is that with brain training you get a specific rather than a general improvement. Train yourself to do crosswords and you’ll get better at them, but you won’t necessarily get better at all fluid cognitive abilities.”
He explained that longitudinal test- ing, in which people are examined over time, shows that there’s not much you can do to make yourself any smarter than you were to begin with. Reading? Won’t do much for your fluid intelligence. Puzzles? Nope – people who do them tend to be clever to begin with.
The things that Dr Ritchie said might help were having a cognitively demanding job and being in good physical fitness. There’s a lot of evidence, he said, that brain decline is due to vascular factors, and that having good heart health is linked to this.
I also spoke to Dr Hamira Riaz, a chartered clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience. She added that, for optimal cognitive agility, we should find a good balance between stress and recovery, avoid loneliness, and eat well. “Diverse nutrition,” she said, “feeds gut flora, which in turn supports brain health.”
By then, I’d discussed with several Mensans what they do to keep their minds sharp – see below. It seems clear – to my suboptimal mind at least – that they have each found their own most effective combination of fluid and crystallised intelligence. What’s yours?
but you have to hone your skills too. In school exams, I find I’m better at coping under pressure and can manage my time better.
Outside chess, I really enjoy music, and I find playing the piano to be quite a relaxing thing to do. Music helps keep your brain sharp because keeping the rhythm is quite mathematical and you need to use your memory as well.
It takes a lot of imagination to play piano – your interpretation of the piece will be different to someone else’s – and this is applicable to other areas of life where you have to think outside the box.
I’d recommend both piano and chess, but chess has a special camaraderie. We play in silence but after the game we’re all friends. If I had to pick one of my hobbies it would be chess.