Monday, May 9, 2011

The Best of Traits

I've mentioned on this blog once before. I've been reading it regularly in recent months, because I like to have some of the information I acquire couched in humor. The funny thing is that if I cut all entertainment out of my life, I would still seek out information in equal measure, but I would find the act of gratifying my curiosity to be something of a tedious slog to try to keep up with the demands of my brain for an undefined purpose.

And that strange observation ties directly into the topic of a recent Cracked article: 5 Unexpected Downsides of High Intelligence. Now, I don't know how intelligent I am. I often feel that my intellect has been diminishing steadily since adolescence. But at the same time, I know that I have demonstrated a tendency to underestimate my competence at learning new tasks and succeeding at carrying them out. So I like to think that the Dunning-Kruger effect influences my own assessment of my intelligence, as well. But then, even allowing myself to entertain the idea that I might be smart throws me into an entirely different series of personal guilt trips about the threat of arrogance. I'd like to believe that there's an upside to all of this neurotic over-analysis.

I think, however, that virtually everyone with intelligence enough to read an information-based humor website tends to take observations about negative traits associated with intelligence as comforting suggestions that they might be able to allot themselves a small measure of praise for above average cognitive ability as a way of alleviating their worries about bad habits and unhappiness.

Regardless of the particulars, and regardless of who gets to include themselves in that category, it does seem to clearly be the case that intelligent people have a lot of problems. The above article makes mention of a greater degree of emotional instability, dishonesty, self-destructive behavior, a higher incidence of depression, and, significantly, a lesser likelihood of reproducing. It makes me sad to think of these various correlations, but it's not because of the effects on individuals, and not because I think the observations may apply to me.

What upsets me is the sense that these tendencies make intelligence seem unappealing and evolutionarily disadvantageous. It upsets me to think that there is a definite gulf between intelligence, which I believe is an objectively good feature in any given human being, and a multitude of other features that are desirable and useful. But - and again, I may be privileging one side of the topic - I think intelligence is perhaps the single most worthwhile attribute a person could hope to have. It's not fair that it should require such a terrific sacrifice in the way of happiness and health. And it doesn't have to. It seems to me that intelligence, by its very nature, should allow its possessors to learn how to overcome its negative side-effects.

So I'm looking for that as a breaking point - a time when the most intellectually astute among us stop letting our best characteristics impact us in markedly negative ways. And this goes equally for anyone whose courage leads them to reckless bravado, or whose strength leads them to over-exertion and the early breakdown of their bodies. But again, intelligence is unique in that it should contain its own safeguards against its ill-effects. And if a person cannot use his intelligence to compensate for what might destroy him or keep him at the outer edge of the gene pool, he is not using it to its full effect.

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