Intelligence and the Ability to Learn

Group of girls (8-10) in science lab working on experiment.

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Intelligence refers to one's cognitive abilities, including memory, comprehension, understanding, reasoning, and abstract thought. Intelligence is not quite the same as IQ, although people use the terms interchangeably. IQ, which stands for "Intelligence Quotient," is a score determined by an IQ test. IQ tests are designed to measure a person's intelligence, a general ability.

Intelligence as a General Ability

According to Peter Taylor in The Birth of Project Intelligence, this general ability can be broken down into six separate abilities:

  1. Adaptability to a new environment or changes in the current environment
  2. Capacity for knowledge and the ability to acquire it
  3. Capacity for reason and abstract thought
  4. Ability to comprehend relationships
  5. Ability to evaluate and judge
  6. Capacity for original and productive thought

Humans are, by nature, adaptable. When circumstances in their environment change, they can adapt. However, this adaptation doesn't just mean making and wearing heavy clothing such as coats to adjust to a cold-weather environment. Although that is part of adapting, the environment, in this case, refers to more than the natural environment. It also refers to one's immediate surroundings, which include home, school, and work, as well as any other physical environment - and the people in those surroundings.

Intelligence also includes the capacity for knowledge and the ability to acquire it.

Without knowledge, there can be little else in terms of mental faculties. For example, if you are unable to acquire and maintain knowledge, you don't have much to think about and evaluate. Gathering information and storing it in memory allows you to attempt to understand it. Understanding is also a part of intelligence since without understanding what you know - the information you have gathered has little basis for evaluating and judging that information.

Interestingly, these abilities coincide with the levels of intellectual skills in Bloom's Taxonomy. The higher-level skills in that taxonomy include evaluation and synthesis, which is the ability to use reason to combine pieces of information. For example, the synthesis would allow you to consider a modern Romeo and Juliet. To do that, you would first need to know about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and understand their characteristics and difficulties. You would also need to know something about the life and problems of modern teens. Combining that knowledge would allow you to create a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

Intelligence Beyond the General Abilities

Intelligence is more than those general abilities, which is why intelligence and IQ aren't the same. Since our immediate environment can include other people, we need to be able to understand them. To understand them, we must have what is called a "Theory of Mind.," which means that we must be able to recognize that others have mental states of their own. They have their own feelings, ideas, and beliefs.

Theory of Mind allows us to "mentalize," which refers to the automatic and spontaneous sense we have of another person. We can read other people's intentions and feelings through our communication with them. We can use our other intellectual abilities in our interactions as well. For example, we might read that a friend of ours seems depressed based on what we notice in our interaction with her. We might search our memory for something she had told us that might have led to a depressed state. Perhaps we remember an event that occurred long ago, so we can reason that it is not the cause of the present depression. We might then think of how we had dealt with a similar situation with another friend. Knowing the two friends are the difference, we can apply the method we used with the other friend to something a little different we might do with this friend.

Closing Thoughts

Intelligence, then, is not quite the same as IQ. IQ is not a measure of anything but our general intellectual abilities. Intelligence includes our ability to learn from and interact with everything in our immediate environment, including other people.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Strategy Execution. The Birth of Project Intelligence Part I.

  2. Adams NE. Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive learning objectivesJ Med Libr Assoc. 2015;103(3):152-153. doi:10.3163/1536-5050.103.3.010

  3. Thompson BN. Theory of Mind: Understanding Others in a Social World. Psychology Today.

  4. Lagos CM. The Theory of Thinking and the Capacity to Mentalize: A Comparison of Fonagy's and Bion's Models. Span J Psychol. 2007;10(1):189-198. doi:10.1017/s1138741600006454

By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.