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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 3

MIND Reviews: Ungifted

Books and recommendations from Scientific American MIND



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Smart Start: Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined
Scott Barry Kaufman
Basic Books, 2013 ($26.99)

In 2003 cognitive psychologist Kaufman applied for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship with an ambitious goal: he wanted to redefine intelligence. This mission was deeply personal. As a child labeled as learning disabled, low test scores relegated him to remedial classrooms. He later proved himself an able student, but Kaufman remained fascinated and disturbed by how a single test could dictate a person's destiny.

In Ungifted, Kaufman takes us on the intellectual journey that his research at Cambridge kicked off. He describes the fallibility of popular measures of brainpower, such as IQ tests, and proposes a new view of intellect.

In 1921 psychologist Lewis Terman began following an elite set of students with very high IQ scores. As adults, these subjects were generally healthier and more socially adjusted than the group of students with lower IQs and boasted productive, accomplished careers. Critics at the time, however, noted that these outcomes could have been predicted by socioeconomic status alone, and Terman's test missed some gifted individuals, including two future Nobel laureates.

Despite these flaws, students are still often ranked by such measures. Through early testing and teacher selection, certain children are singled out for an enriched lesson plan to push them to their limit, whereas others are labeled as low achievers, which often diminishes their expectations of themselves and hurts their performance in school.

Kaufman believes this system is problematic because a person's intelligence is much more nuanced than what can be captured in an SAT score. He makes a convincing case for incorporating valuable but less easily measured attributes into our view of intelligence, such as the persistence that can propel driven students to higher test scores than their less committed peers and the creativity demonstrated by individuals more in tune with intuition than intellect.

He also turns to neuroscience to help explain how different forms of intelligence might arise. The ability to infer underlying patterns, for example, is strongly linked to activity in the parietofrontal cortex. Creativity, meanwhile, appears to involve the brain's resting network, a chain of coordinated regions, including areas of the cortex and hippocampus, which is active while daydreaming or reflecting.

Most powerfully, Kaufman illustrates the importance of uncovering what gives each person his or her own brand of intelligence, taking into account individual goals, psychologies and brain chemistry. He details the distinct strengths of savants and prodigies and of those with autism and schizophrenia. By broadening our conception of intelligence, perhaps we can nurture more great minds.

This article was originally published with the title "Smart Start."

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