The Matter with Things: Chapter Seven Summary: Cognitive Intelligence

Index and table of contents

Following Emotional and Social Intelligence and the rest, Chapter 7 of The Matter with Things is Cognitive Intelligence.

In the last chapter, we learned that Emotional and Social Intelligence are the provinces of the right hemisphere. In this chapter, we discover more of the same. Whilst the left hemisphere has its duties and functions, it’s primarily a delegate. Let’s jump right in.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

Under the old pseudoscientific mode of thinking, the left hemisphere was the logical side whilst the right hemisphere was creative. It turns out that this is not correct.  At its core, intelligence is about understanding. Keep in mind that there are multiple kinds of intelligence—not referring to multiple intelligence theory, per se. Besides the emotional and social sort discussed at length in the last chapter, there is a sort of rote intelligence. This is where the left hemisphere excels. The left hemisphere is symbolic and algorithmic. It has facilitated the making of computers and other instruments that allow us to extend our intelligence, but these are not sources of intelligence. In a conceit to his previous book, The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist notes that the left brain is effectively the emissary, the junior partner in the relationship, and not really even a partner as the right hemisphere seems to call all the shots when it’s intact.

He tells a story about a geneticist who declared to a biologist that the notion of intelligence was quite meaningless. The biologist retorted that he (the geneticist) was unintelligent, and the two never spoke again. Clearly, the notion is that whilst it may be ill-defined, it nonetheless contains meaning.

I share the working definition of intelligence that he shared, taken from the journal Intelligence and cited in the Wall Street Journal in 1994.

Intelligence is a very general mental capacity which, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings – ‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do.

As noted, there are several flavours of intelligence, even if they are attempted to be captured as G, general intelligence. This can be separated into crystallised intelligence (Gc) and fluid intelligence (Gf). Crystallised intelligence is more culturally bound than fluid intelligence and is more the domain of the left hemisphere. Generally, this is what IQ tests aim to measure.

Two criticisms of IQ tests are the cultural bias and the rote nature of the tests. As it happens, trends show that IQ is generally on the rise despite a feeling that people are getting dimmer. This may be because this rise represents the shift toward left hemisphere thinking, an alarming topic he’ll cover more in future chapters. We’re witnessing a trade-off between creative thinkers for intelligent rote automatons—the type of people more easily supplanted by computers and automation. Even as IQs are apparently increasing, undergraduate professors are complaining in higher numbers about how unprepared their incoming students are. I can add my experience anecdotally to this list. I recall chatting with a physics professor who complained that he had to devote some 20 per cent of his class time to teach students the same prerequisite maths, which meant that he had to cut this from his intended time to teach physics.

As a student, one of my physics teachers said he wouldn’t demerit much for maths errors because this was, after all, a physics course. Again, this was a reaction to many students not being prepared. They just had different approaches to handling the deficits. And don’t get me started on grade inflation.

The right hemisphere is the realm of fluid intelligence and is activated more in gifted persons. This affords creative problem-solving.

The right hemisphere is the realm of fluid intelligence and is activated more in gifted persons. This affords creative problem-solving.

Let me editorialise here in place. Sometimes we hear that this or that person is good at maths, but it turns out that this is not a simple declaration. A person who studies geometry, trigonometry, and calculus and can perform the functions may simply perform all of this rote activity in the left hemisphere. Because someone can do maths a few levels above us may feel like this person is good at maths, but this may not make this person actually good at maths.

A few years ago, I read the introduction to a book whose title I’ve long forgotten. In this introduction, the author had excelled at left hemisphere maths and got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics. Whilst pondering whether to pursue a PhD, in a moment of self-reflection, he decided not to. He was an A student and the pride of his family, but he had to work hard at maths. Then he considered some of the other classmates who seemed to perform the tasks effortlessly. He could do maths, but they could think maths.

This reminds me of the story of a young Carl Gauss whilst he was still in elementary school. Don’t worry. I’ll get back to the summary presently. Gauss’ teacher was hoping to keep the students occupied, so he assigned them the task of summing the numbers 1 through 100.

Eight-year-old Gauss considered the problem. He noticed a pattern and worked out the answer in his head after a few seconds—5050. Gauss excelled at maths naturally. He noticed that pairing each ascending integer from 0 to 100 created values of 100; 1 and 99; 2 and 98, 3 and 97 … 49 and 51. There are 50 such groupings with a product of 5,000 and 50 left over, so 5,050. Easy Peezy.

And now we return to regularly scheduled programming.

Another interesting characteristic of the hemispheres is that the left hemisphere operates serially whilst the right hemisphere operates in parallel, metaphorically speaking, of course. The right hemisphere is the Gestalt operator, which is a problem as McGilchrist sees it given the leftward shift in the sciences, losing the woods for the trees. Moreover, as we are forced into the constraints of business and bureaucracies, we are forced into a left hemisphere perspective, which may create a vicious epigenetic cycle or a downward spiral.


In summary, the right hemisphere not only contributes to the majority of emotional and social intelligence as discussed in the last chapter, but it is also the workhorse of cognitive power.

Before ending, I want to share one more elucidation. I was reading elsewhere about critical thinking, and an example given was an emergency room nurse triaging patients—prioritising the treatment of patients. I wholly disagree. This is algorithmic thinking, not critical thinking. It could easily be done by a computer. In fact, in the late 1980s, I was working with so-called expert systems, which were the AI hype of the day in wave 3.0. We are now in wave 4.0 and it is still hype. Only nowadays it’s deep learning, machine learning, visual recognition, edge computing, and robotic process automation. The only difference is that technology has driven costs down, so they are more accessible to more people and can be run on more powerful computers. For the uninitiated, there is no intelligence in artificial intelligence. So, it’s less artificial and more non-existent.

Yet again, I am left wondering what this left hemisphere is good for.  It seems to do less than 20 per cent of the work and does half of that poorly. Not exactly someone you’d pick for your team. Of course, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my left hemisphere, but still.

That about wraps up the chapter on Cognitive Intelligence. Next up is chapter eight on Creativity. If you think this will focus more on the right hemisphere, I’ll bet you’re right. I hope you’ll join me.

What are your thoughts on intelligence and the hemispheres’ split duties? Did anything surprise you? Was there anything of particular interest?

Leave comments below.

Woe Anarchy, Democracy, and the Rest

Think about it: The average person has an IQ of 100. Essentially, half of the people have lower and half have higher. Not a good hand to be dealt. I don’t particularly buy into the whole IQ thing, but it serves this line of logic. Adopting this framework and reflecting on normal or so-called Gaussian distributions, this means (pun initially unintended) that within one standard deviation of the mean, 68 per cent of the population falls, which is to say having an IQ between 85-115.*

Zut Alors!

An IQ score of 100 wouldn’t be that bad if it was calibrated to Einstein or Hawking, but it’s not. The average police officer in the US has an IQ of around 103. Think about it. This is who democracy is asking to be in charge; this is who we expect to make good voting decisions. Amor fati. Memento mori.

Continuing on my It’s People riff, I am further struggling with options. As a Disintigrationist, I don’t feel compelled to provide answers, but as a personal matter, it seems that I am stuck in the middle. Idiocracy was supposed to be satire, but it’s serious.

So, accuse me of being an elitist. Call me a misanthrope. But it’s more patho-anthropy. It’s pity. Dunning-Kruger, be damned. On the one hand, a hierarchical structure leaves us with self-interested opportunists, megalomaniacs and narcissists; on the other, we get to know the political opinions of the Paul Blart‘s and Homer Simpson‘s of the world. And there’s nothing in between.

The Devil You Know

Following Plato’s Republic, the current system presumes a sort of meritocracy that elevates those who excel at politics to rise to the top. Optimistically, this is precisely what happens; pessimistically, this is precisely what happens. This is as good as it gets—self-serving politicos doing all they can to maintain their positions.

But what about the other people? Surely some honourable people are attracted to the political calling, right? Some who make it into the system are spat out by it; some are marginalised; the remainder are corrupted by it.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. There’s something to consider with local democracy. At least you know the idiots you are dealing with, but that’s not really a consolation. Here, Plato noted the benefits of rhetoric.

15 Things You Should Know About Dogs Playing Poker | Mental Floss
Police break up an illegal poker match—doggy style

Given the limited prospects for even a third-tier suboptimal solution, we might be better off by adopting RNG as a ruling system. No boundaries. No parameters. Remove any interference by humans. They’ll only muck it up.

Where to Go from Here

Hyperbole aside, what is the solution? Nazi Germans took a stab at it, but of course, they were idiots, too. Plain and star-bellied Sneetches. Pots calling the kettles black. People have tried literacy testing, income and wealth testing, lots, and any other number of approaches. The challenge is to have a system with no human intervention. Sadly, even this system would necessarily be constructed by humans, so we’re pretty much doomed.


Finally, to silence those who might label me an elitist, no, I don’t think that a society comprised and governed by people only with IQs at and above, say, 160 would fare much better because the problem is broader than facile intelligence.

* If your reaction is ‘but my IQ is in this range’, you may now get my trepidation.

The Bell Curve

Many racists, closeted and otherwise, cite The Bell Curve as proof that blacks are dumber than white people. Published in 1994, it’s controversial and bollocks. The first problem is with the notion of IQ testing itself, and then there’s the construction of the tests and relevance to aptitude. Anyone who’s read more than a handful of my posts know that I have long labelled the entire discipline of psychology a pseudoscience, so it would come as no surprise that a product of psychology is principally pseudoscience, too.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The impact of the Highly Improbable and Anti-Fragile: Things that Gain from Fragility, among other publications, Nassim is working on adding to his Incerto collection. At least a portion of the work focuses on the notion that IQ is largely a pseudoscientific swindle. Reviewing the material, it’s almost effortless to draw parallels to Foucault’s Mental Illness and Psychology, or even more so, sections from Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.

I’ve already moving on to new topics, so my parting point is that ordinary people find interpreting statistics to be an almost insurmountable challenge. Mark Twain recognised this in his quip, lies, damn lies, and statistics.

lies, damn lies, and statistics

Mark Twain

The problem is many professionals don’t understand statistics—even those whose function requires it. I was a professional statistician decades ago, so I have a certain fondness for it. I was even working on another post on the subject of the Simpson’s Paradox, but not quite yet—though it’s been weeks in the works. I am thinking about a post related to René Girard’s conflict theory as a lens and framework to understand the ‘insurrection’ at the US Capitol. I also want to react to the notion of metamodernism as a reaction to the conflict between modernism and postmodernism.

So little time. Please stand by.

Police State

Bad police dramas on TV have gotten me in the mood to rail. First, there was the topic of lying, and then there was the Unabomber. This post is broader.

We laugh of the notions of Barney Fife, Chief Wiggum, and Paul Blart, but in my estimation these are closer to the norm than the stereotype of the bad-ass cop.

My armchair pop-psychology assessment is that people who are drawn to police work are underachievers with power and control issues and conformity and morality fetishes.

Advantage goes to the house

Law enforcement and jurisprudence systems wouldn’t work if they didn’t stack the decks in their favour. They give themselves get out of jail free cards and rely on lies and deception to create an advantage. Watching these TV shows, they have permission to lie, withhold, misrepresent, coerce, and entrap without repercussion. They make ‘deals’ in domains where they have no authority. They are even allowed to engage in criminal activity if it serves the better interests of a case. They can buy drugs and property, engage with prostitutes, and any number of otherwise illegal activities.

I won’t even spend more digital ink commenting on the lack of due process judges commit in the courtroom—personal fiefdoms.

Domestic abuse

Over 40% of active police officers have domestic abuse histories.

Over 40% of active police officers have domestic abuse histories. These people have records of abusing the wives, children, domestic partners, and pets. And these are only the ones who have been caught. Statistically, the percentage is very likely to be over 50%. This is not shining endorsement. Sadly, domestic abuse is inversely correlated with IQ, so this doesn’t fair well with the next topic.

Low IQs

The average IQ of a police officer in the United States is about 104. In and of itself, this might not seem strange. This seems to imply that these IQs are in line with average, but there’s a problem. The courts have ruled that is not discriminatory to exclude people with high IQs from being police officers because they are more likely to be independent thinkers and not conformant.


Because cops are usually and expectedly conformant, it should come as no surprise that they feel the urge to prescribe this conformity on others. Given the opportunity, I’d argue that in many instances this conformity is superficial and performative, but that’s a topic for another day.