Part 22: Think Different Part I: On the Nature of Intelligence

Can We Become Smarter?

We are now in a special 49-day period, recreating the journey of the Jewish people over 3000 years ago, as they left Egypt on their way to Sinai. At Sinai – the greatest event in history – we received the Torah: A blueprint for life, which manifests the Divine wisdom and will, teaching us how to broaden our horizons and unite our lives with the immortal.

In the coming weeks, as we prepare to relive Sinai on the holiday of Shavuot (less than three weeks from now), this column will focus on the nature of intelligence, the nature of the human experience as a whole, and how we can expand its boundaries. This week’s column is the first of a two-part series[This was originally published as part 22 of a series of essays on the classic discourse called Samach-Vav].


What is the secret to intelligence? Is it smart genes, hard work, experience, literacy, maturity or something else?

Wisdom is obviously shaped by many factors. It’s not enough, for instance, to be born with a good mind if the mind is not used. Laziness can undermine the benefits of brain power. A weaker mind that exerts itself can surpass a languid brilliant mind.

A mind must also be cultivated and nourished through education and scholarship; sharpened through challenges. Finally, experience is the ultimate teacher.

But, what is the true nature of intelligence? How much is hereditary and how much is acquired? How, exactly, does education and experience affect the mind? And above all: Is there a way to become more intelligent? Can wisdom be nurtured? Study and scholarship broaden your knowledge base quantitatively. But is there a way to qualitatively enhance brain power, to sharpen your mind and think differently, to open the mind’s creative channels?

In discussing the nature of intelligence we also must define what “smart” means. “Book smart” is not the same thing as “street smart.” We find geniuses with the highest IQ’s but no common sense. Conversely, some people are very intuitive and have, what author Daniel Goleman has coined, “emotional intelligence,” though they may be academically challenged. Intelligence, some argue, is also related to language. A great mind will be compromised without adequate tools to express itself. Some people may be highly intelligent yet, due to shyness or even a handicap, their abilities can be severely limited.

Our discussion today concerns balanced intelligence: not extreme in one way or another, but a synthesis of knowledge, methodology and common sense.  We refer to the overall wise man or woman who has a good mix of all the features of intelligence: Information, intuition, brainpower and practicality.

Is there anything we can do to become more intelligent? Not more knowledgeable, which is aquired through reading and scholarship, but the intelligence that tells us how to use our knowledge in productive ways?

To answer to this question requires a review of how the mind works. Where do ideas come from? You’re standing in the shower or strolling down the street, and suddenly an idea pops into your mind. From where did this idea originate?

Try to trace an idea to its source. You’ll come to a dead end. You can never remember the moment before you became conscious of the idea. Why? Because memory can only recall conscious thoughts, not the unconscious state that precedes it.

No wonder ideas are compared to flashing light bulbs. Seemingly out of nowhere, a new idea flashes into your mind like a light bulb bursting on when you flick the switch.

So, where do new ideas come from? What creates these flashes?

Kabbalah maps out the mind in the following fashion: The conscious mind, which consists of three stages: first an idea (chochma), then its development (binah), finally its conclusion (daat), originates from an unconscious state of hidden wisdom. This hidden state – the collective unconscious – is like a reservoir of water, a quantum-like state which contains the potential, and has the power to generate, an infinite amount of wisdom.

The cognitive process, thus, works likes this: The unconscious mind releases, drop by drop, ideas into the conscious mind. An idea, therefore, feels like a flash – a spark released from a larger flame. Our conscious mind feels as though the idea came from nowhere – from “thin air.” In truth, it is being released from a body of unconscious wisdom that contains the potential for infinite ideas, allowing us mere drops from its wide ocean.

In between the unconscious “reservoir” and the “conscious” thoughts a “valve-like” force – a type of filter – regulates the flow from the unlimited source to the limited containers. Should the “faucet” break down and stop controlling the flow of thoughts from the unconscious to the conscious, the conscious mind would become flooded to the point of causing madness. Which explains the thin line between madness and genius: Genius is a “valve” open to capacity, allowing in a steady flow of imagination, bordering on the edge of being flooded. Should the flow intensify just a bit more, the mind would go mad, overwhelmed by the deluge of ideas as they come pouring into the conscious mind without a chance to be absorbed and compartmentalized.

According to this theory of consciousness, the entire concept of human awareness is turned on its head: Ostensibly, one could argue, that madness is being out of touch with reality, while sober consciousness is being in touch. The truth, however, is the other way around: Not only is sanity a limited state of awareness, it actually is a form of blindness. Should we be completely aware of the truths of the collective unconscious we would be unable to contain them. The only way for us to remain intact is through limiting and filtering the flow, allowing us to experience only a drop at a time, like raindrops that fall slowly so that they can be absorbed by the earth, instead of flooding it. Insanity, in a fascinating ironic twist, is actually closer to reality than sanity.

Yet, for us to survive and function “normally” in our defined and narrow world, the essential truth must be suppressed and filtered; our perception must be limited, our vision myopic, lest the pure awareness overload our circuits.

William Blake, who was deeply influenced by the Bible and mysticism, described it well:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”

However, our perception is not locked in an airtight chamber. We have many reminders that offer us a glimpse into a higher state of being. There are doors and channels that connect us with the hidden unconscious.

Intelligence – and for that matter, the entire human journey – is about recognizing our limited perception and reaching, yearning for transcendence, to expand our horizons, see beyond and experience the infinite.

Intelligence is not merely the ability to understand that which is obvious – that does not require any special level of wisdom. Rather, intelligence is defined by its capacity to recognize and perceive that which is invisible to the naked eye, to go beyond the doors of perception and access the inner states of reality, to expand and broaden the channels (“valve”) that connect the unconscious and the conscious.

Someone born with natural intelligence has broad containers and an “open faucet,” that allows in an ample flow of ideas and creativity. (Obviously, there are many variations of intelligence; a wide array of “smarts”). But, even a great mind, deprived of effort and nourishment, will stagnate and atrophy. A mind must be fed – with knowledge, education and inspiration. A mind must be exercised – challenged, pushed and cajoled.

So how do we open or expand these channels? How can we reach deeper into the subterranean caverns of the unconscious and draw its power into our consciousness?

The most obvious way, most of us would reply, is through education and scholarship. By acquiring knowledge, through reading, listening, probing, we expand our minds and broaden our horizons.

However, upon further thought, is this really true? Acquiring new information, even profound and radical ideas, only expands our minds quantitatively. Our consciousness has not shifted to another dimension of understanding. We begin our lives with a very limited scope; as we integrate more information, our perspectives broaden. Qualitatively, however, nothing has necessarily really changed. Our perception may still be just as limited, albeit wider but not deeper.

What allows some people to actually “think out of the box” and discover a qualitative paradigm shift – new dimensions of experience? How do we become lateral thinkers instead of vertical ones? Solving a problem requires stepping outside of the problem, as Einstein said, “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created” (or “the significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”). But how do we step outside of the problem, when we (and our existence) are so much part of it?

How do we access our imagination, which is “more important than knowledge” (as Einstein also said)?

Based on the statement in the Ethics of the Fathers, “turn it and turn it for everything is in it,” Samach-Vav explains that there are two primary ways to “turn it” (hence the double “turn it and turn it”) – to twist and extract deeper levels of the unconscious and expand the channels of consciousness:

The first “turn it” is through exertion. The second and even deeper “turn it” is through humility.

Next week, in part two of this essay, we will discuss the nature of these two methods.


Read Think Different: Part II