Intelligence – Are You Holding Back Your Brain?

Is intelligence fluid or crystalline? Is it a function of nature or nurture? Are you born smart, or is the power of your brain under no one’s control but your own?

You might have cruised through classes at school, or you might have struggled and wondered how your peers managed to pass their classes so effortlessly. In the first case, perhaps you met your match at university when you found you were no longer at the top of the class. In the second, perhaps you had just spent your life assuming some people were born smarter than others. In both cases you are treating intelligence as if it were a static trait — you’re born with a fixed quantity of it, and that quantity never changes.

It’s a disheartening mindset to have. While successes are to be celebrated, failures – especially when they occur one after the other — begin to be regarded as inevitable. You might start to feel boxed in or imagine a glass ceiling is capping your intelligence while others whoosh past on a seemingly limitless supply of the stuff.

Caroline Dweck’s 2007 study has the potential to make you feel better. Her research uncovered that your performance as a student is not a function of your perceived intelligence levels. In fact, those so-called “intelligence levels” aren’t very level at all. Dweck’s research shows that those who are brought up to believe they can constantly work at developing their intelligence tend to do so, and as a result perform better in classes than those who believe there’s an upper limit on how smart they are.

The latter is characteristic of a “fixed mind-set” and you might have experienced it yourself when faced with a new task that requires some added effort on your part. It is likely to be exacerbated when an individual’s past experience has meant he or she has managed to overcome challenges easily, and without putting much work in. In the school or university scenario, this means that you may have been able to “naturally” perform well in a subject in the past, but when faced with a new, challenging task within that subject found yourself stuck. In this situation, you might find yourself confronted by thoughts of insecurity and self-doubt, and may imagine your belief in your own intelligence was unfounded. But take heart — that is simply not the case.

More likely what you are experiencing is not “stupidity” or a limited intelligence level — it’s unfamiliarity. Without the prior experience of what it’s like to actually put an effort into learning something new, you might find yourself taking a more taxing path. This path leads you to the false conclusion that if a task is too difficult to do using just your “innate” intelligence levels, you cannot do it at all. This is a disappointing misconception because the truth is that you are fully equipped with the skills to rise to the challenge — you just haven’t had to use them yet.

Consider adopting the opposite “growth mind-set.” This relatively humble intellectual state focuses on learning rather than intelligence. The adoption of such a mindset means you ask questions in class, turn to peers and professors for help when you don’t understand something, and don’t look at every new challenge as an obstacle or a hurdle. It’s an empowering mentality to cultivate, and with it you realise there is nothing holding you back from achieving what you want to achieve.


Dweck CS. The Perils and Promises of Praise. Early Intervention At Every Age. 2007;65(2):34-39.

Image via Vladimir Koletic / Shutterstock.

  • Richard Kensinger, MSW

    General IQ (GIQ) is a very complex construct to measure. The current psychometric tools that are used do a reliable effort. I am more in line w/ H. Garner’s idea of multiple & fluid intelligences; these we cannot measure well.

    The known correlation of university academic performance & GIQ is 0.6; & this indicates a relationship 60% of the time.

    The known correlation w/ IQ & job performance is 0.4; so only 40% of the time.

    Therefore, there are other important mediating factors at play!

    Based on GIQ the normative, or Bell curve, ranges somewhere between 10 or below to 228. Tho, there are some subjects whose IQ’s have not hit the kwown ceiling.

    Tho some research suggests a heritability of 50%; I believe that nurture is far more important.


  • David Morgan

    I totally agree with the premise that every element of our intelligence is plastic. It responds to multiple internal and external factors all the time.
    Of course there is a genetic element, but with the right nurture through stimulation, emotional underpinning and nutrition, our base performance in any task can be changed very substantially.
    We see that all the time with the children we are helping develop their literacy with the Easyread System. Their brain function changes substantially through the right regular exercise.

  • Hello. I leave the link to my website (in Spanish) which explains the different studies that have realizadado on intelligence. Gardner and Sternberg addition, there are many other theories of inteliegencia and the extent of this. Personally, I believe that intelligence can not be measured objectively and that the IQ does not measure intelligence, but is related to it.
    This is the link:
    I hope you like it. Sorry for my English.
    Psicologos Barcelona

  • Richard Kensinger, MSW

    Su ingleis is muy bien!

    Excuse mi espanol por favor!

    Addios mi amigo.

    It is very refreshing to see an international flavor to this blog!

    Senior Ricardo Kensinger

  • Carla Easley

    If everyone adopted the “Growth- Mindset”, there would be a lot more people actually taking the time out to achieve their goals. Our people are destroyed due to lack of knowledge.

  • Richard Kensinger, MSW


    You are absolutely correct about how lack of knowledge can harm others. In fact the field of “Eugenics” reveals many instances of harm & even deaths of many. The extreme example is genocide of a particular ethnic peoples. Another is what E Goffman writes about-“mortification”. I refer to this process as essentially psychosocial death.

    We msut never harm others when we label them as less worthy based on IQ or any other human trait or quality!


  • I was one of those who “cruised through classes at school”, but that is typical of someone with a high IQ. The IQ test is very good at predicting who will do well at school. However, as has been frequently observed, it does rather less well in predicting who will do well in life. One of the reasons is that mentioned in this article. Skills take time and care to develop and that requires other human qualities such as the ability to delay gratification, persistence and, above all, the ability to be “true to oneself”, because this enables a person to seek the goals to which they are really suited. These last abilities are some of the skills of the “rational person” (see my article on this), because without them we have only the raw cognitive skills required to solve IQ puzzles, a job better to leave to computers that have no human needs. These broader human skills can, like cognitive skills, be developed, and there are therapies (such as the person-centred model, aimed at helping people discover what they really feel and want) designed to help people do just this – although, as with cognitive skills, some are more gifted than others.

    • Richard Kensinger, MSW

      Data that I’ve perused from the clinical literature is that GIQ has a predictive power of 0.60 in regards to post-highschool academic performance; and a 0.40 pp with respect to professional performance. So we are looking at a relationship 60% of the time of the former, & at a relationship of 40% for the latter.

      Intellegences are multiple & complex, and other factors influence “succes”. Just a few of these are: self-efficacy, motivation for achievement, & fear of failure.


  • I consider the plasticity in regard to neural pathways as a marker that indeed learning is growing. So many studies point to active brain activity as a preventative cure for the onslaught of alzheimer and dementia diseases. I think the computer for old and young alike can be a a vast resource for new thought development.

  • Great tips, thank you very much, the truth is that it costs much know what to do in these circumstances.


  • AJ

    I work hard at school, concentrate and ask questions.I am in grade 9 (14) .I really believe that i work harder than 90 percent of my grade (150) but i don’t achieve as well as I should.Some of my friends study the night before a major test or exam (some don’t even study) and the achieve higher marks than me .And trust me i study hard and make notes but my brain is too stupid to remember any of it , that is why I have to study overboard to do well in tests .I have tried various studying methods, but i get the same results with all.I get good marks in most subjects besides , English ,Afrikaans (South African language),Science and Math .Its basically all the subjects that require intelligence and long hard thinking.I don’t know what i am going to do when i reach Grade 12 as i believe my brain will not be able to retain all the information unless i start studying at least 2 years in advance.this is why i believe that some people are just born more intelligent than others..Or I think i have a memory disorder .

Radhika Takru, MA

Radhika Takru, MA, has a Bachelor’s Degree with Honors in Psychology, a Postgraduate Degree in Media, and a Masters degree by research on online journalism and perceptions of authority.

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