The surprising downside of being clever

If ignorance is bliss, does a high IQ equal misery? Popular opinion would have it so. We tend to think of geniuses as being plagued by existential angst, frustration, and loneliness. Think of Virginia Woolf, Alan Turing, or Lisa Simpson - lone stars, isolated even as they burn their brightest. As Ernest Hemingway wrote: "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

The question may seem like a trivial matter concerning a select few - but the insights it offers could have ramifications for many. Much of our education system is aimed at improving academic intelligence; although its limits are well known, IQ is still the primary way of measuring cognitive abilities, and we spend millions on brain training and cognitive enhancers that try to improve those scores. But what if the quest for genius is itself a fool's errand?

The first steps to answering these questions were taken almost a century ago, at the height of the American Jazz Age. At the time, the new-fangled IQ test was gaining traction, after proving itself in World War One recruitment centres, and in 1926, psychologist Lewis Terman decided to use it to identify and study a group of gifted children. Combing California's schools for the creme de la creme, he selected 1,500 pupils with an IQ of 140 or more - 80 of whom had IQs above 170. Together, they became known as the "Termites", and the highs and lows of their lives are still being studied to this day.

As you might expect, many of the Termites did achieve wealth and fame - most notably Jess Oppenheimer, the writer of the classic 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy.

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