Being gifted has its burdens too

Every fortnight, Israelis with IQs in the top two percent of the general population meet at cafés and households around the country to discuss matters of common interest.

The main purposes of Mensa, an international non-profit society, are to identify and foster human intelligence; encourage research into the nature, characteristics and uses of intelligence; and to provide its members with a stimulating intellectual and social environment.

The Israeli chapter was established as recently as 2003 by Canadian immigrant Dr. Frank Luger, who gathered the first few hundred members. For the last three years, Mensa Israel has been working toward attaining official nonprofit status, and chairman Roy Daya said he hopes to finish the process in the coming month.

Approximately 500 people in Israel have passed the Mensa entrance test, 200 of whom regularly pay the yearly membership fee and 100 of whom are active members, according to Daya. Approximately one third to one half of them are women and almost all are Jewish, both religious and secular.

These members are part of the wider international Mensa community of some 100,000 members in 45 chapters. About 50,000 hail from the United States.

“Mensa Israel doesn’t really advertise,” Daya told Metro, “[because] we didn’t want to grow it too fast and lose control over it.” Many of its members found the organization via word-of-mouth.

Mensa Israel’s members include doctors, dentists, lawyers, psychiatrists, psychologists and hospital department heads. But there is also a test pilot, a dog trainer and an electrician.

They join numerous prominent names on Mensa’s list of members worldwide, like Academy award-winning actress Geena Davis; former chairman of Ford Motor Company Donald Petersen; and former Playboy Playmate chiropractor Dr. Julie Peterson; former two-time World Boxing Association (WBA) Cruiserweight Champion, Bobby Czyz; inventor and owner of Skyy Vodka Maurice Kanbar; Pittsburgh Symphony pianist Patricia P. Jennings – the symphony’s first black member; professional domino toppler Bob Speca, Jr., and Judge Ellen Morphonios – a former model and beauty queen who passed a Florida exam that allowed her to enter law school without an undergraduate degree also belong.

The Mensa entrance test differs from country to country. Mensa Israel uses a combination of the Raven’s Progressive Matrices intelligence test and another test, whose name is not disclosed in order to prevent candidates from preparing specifically for it.

Daya described the IQ testing method used by Mensa Israel as “quick and dirty,” but says it is preferable to a full IQ analysis, which is very time consuming and expensive. One of the shortfalls of the test is that it only assesses very specific types of abilities, and some people whose intelligence is in fact in the top 2% of the population don’t achieve commensurate test results. As such, Daya said that anyone with appropriate documentation proving he or she is in the top 2% of the population might be allowed to join.

What is “IQ,” anyway? “Intelligence Quotient” is a score derived from problem-solving tests, which attempt to measure reasoning ability. A person’s IQ is taken as compared to a statistical average for his or her age.

Members of Mensa Israel attend meetings every two weeks, which alternate between social meetings and lectures. “Very intelligent people are… obsessed with learning things,” Daya observed, and said that in any conversation Mensans are likely to cover many subjects in a short time. “They can start talking about what they ate last night for dinner, then they talk about something they saw [on TV] about physics, then some geography, then global warming, then politics,” he said.

At one Mensa meeting, two sisters gave lectures about their respective fields of expertise. One, who is conducting clinical research on schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, spoke about neuroscience. Her sister lectured about teaching animals with severe behavioral problems.

In addition to their own meetings, Mensa members join forces to contribute to the wider community. People who don’t usually have much spare time, like doctors, lawyers and programmers, meet and teach gifted children who don’t have money to pay for enrichment courses, help paint a school, or consult for other nonprofit organizations. According to Daya, the community work is done for two reasons: one altruistic and the other egoistic. It’s not that people with high IQs can help the community more than others, but it is a good excuse to do so, Daya argued. “We bring them a talented workforce for free,” said Daya. Second, he noted, the community service work helps Mensans bond.

Mensa International also offers Special Interest Groups (SIGs) ranging from African violets, zoology and microbiology to Sherlock Holmes, bread making and roller-skating.

Daya said that people often think Mensa is an organization for geniuses. “But a lot of higher IQ societies look at Mensa as the ‘retards’ of the high IQ societies. It’s like a curse word, ‘Oh how [98th] percentile of you,'” he said.

Other high IQ societies include the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry (ISPE), which accepts people with IQs in the top 0.1% of the population. That is, Mensa accepts the top one in 50 people and ISPE accepts the top one in 1,000.

Then there is The Prometheus Society, which accepts the top one in 30,000 people.

The Prometheus Society is a worldwide nonprofit organization with members from 18 countries. According to membership officer Alfred Simpson, just over 200 people have joined Prometheus since it was founded in 1982. Two of them have Israeli roots and approximately 2% are women.

The tests accepted by The Prometheus Society vary in length. One of the shortest is the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) with 100 multiple-choice questions to be completed in 50 minutes. The MAT is often used as one of the criteria for admission to graduate schools in the US and other English-speaking countries, according to Prometheus Society President Fred Britton.

The longest tests are take-at-home tests, which include the Mega, the Titan, the LAIT and others, which have time limits of up to one month. Many people taking these tests spent 20 or 30 hours, if not more, on them. These tests are no longer available, however, as they were compromised by answers posted on-line. However, scores achieved on those tests prior to the “compromise” dates are still accepted by The Prometheus Society.

Britton says the tests approved by The Prometheus Society are both valid and reliable, necessary conditions for the tests to be considered rigorous.

People join high IQ societies for a number of reasons, but among those suggested by Britton are: 1. Meeting and interacting, either in person or over the Internet, with others who typically share deep interests in many different topics. Prometheans are able to mention arcane matters and know that a large number of those in the conversation are aware of the reference.

2. “Getting an ego boost from the knowledge that one is a member of a group of sharp and erudite people,” said Britton.

3. Being a part of an international community.

4. Many Prometheans have found that when meeting other members they can go straight to talking about certain topics with few barriers. This is an experience that outside of these societies members have typically found to be rare, except perhaps members who work at universities, said Britton.

Mensa’s Daya has an IQ of over 170, placing him in the top 99.9998 percentile of the world against the “normed” average IQ for the American population of 100. In addition to being chairman of Mensa Israel, he is a member of ISPE and says he could be a member of The Prometheus Society if he wished to.

Daya does not see having a high IQ as something elite. “I see it as a kind of disability almost, because [people with high IQs] can be very talented in something but a lot of them lack social abilities and they pay for that,” he said. He gave the example of a class full of children with IQs of 110 and one child with an IQ of 170. The kid with an IQ of 170 would be seen as different and probably get picked on, explained Daya. “It’s a mixed blessing,” he added.

He also said that people with high IQs tend to be very sensitive and some tend to procrastinate. A person with a very high IQ could solve in 10 minutes a problem that might take another person an hour, but it would take him an entire day to be in the right emotional state to tackle it, he said.

Daya’s suggestion that people with high IQs tend to be hypersensitive is supported by Dr. Erika Landau, Supervisor at the Department of Psychotherapy in Tel Aviv University’s School of Medicine, and founder and director of the Young Persons’ Institute for the Promotion of Creativity and Excellence. She is also author of dozens of books and academic articles.

“A gifted child is first of all a child, with all the problems that other children have… it’s only that gifted children are more sensitive… They are faster, more curious, everything a little bit more.” The sensitivity of gifted children causes them to be smarter, more vulnerable and more moody, Landau noted.

According to Landau, gifted children want attention. They suffer from boredom in school, “but not the boredom that you or I feel where they’re not interested,” she said. Rather, a boredom that stems from not getting enough challenges. “They have things to say. They want to be listened to… So they say they’re bored and that causes them to do stupid things during class [like interrupt the teacher with questions and try to be the center of attention], when the teacher wants them to be quiet. [What] the teacher doesn’t understand is that he just wants attention,” Landau explained.

There are special schools in Israel for gifted children, which give them opportunities to learn with other excelling students under teachers who are likely to be more aware of their behavioral demands.

But Landau is very much against those schools. “[The gifted child] has to be a part of life. He has to realize the other side of human beings, too, the fact that [not all people] solve problems as quickly as they do,” she said.

“If you take the child out of his natural surroundings and put him into a school of only gifted children he won’t develop [a sense of] belonging,” she said. Belonging is a very important feeling for human beings, and takes a long of time to really be realized, said Landau. As such, it is important not to interrupt a child in the process of developing this feeling.

Giftedness and intelligence do not only come from having a developed intellect. If even the most intelligent child were less developed in terms of feelings and social interaction than intellectually, he would not realize or actualize his giftedness, added Landau. “We are all organisms, souls and minds… We also need emotional maturity,” she stated.

Gifted children, Landau said, often experience emotional problems – partly because they lack the ability to connect with themselves and their feelings. But she noted that depression and anger among gifted children could be avoided by good parenting. When highly intelligent children ask questions, they are usually fed factual answers, which add to their knowledge. Though their intellect is excited by this sort of answer, their emotions are neglected. Landau said that children need to be encouraged to consider why they want to know the answer, how they feel about the issue at hand. That would help them practice drawing connections between what goes on for them emotionally and ways of being able to express those emotions.

“I advise parents of gifted children that when a child asks them something to first of all relate to it. [They should] ask him, “Do you want to know it?”… “Why do you want to know it? What do you think about it? You asked me a question. That means you have already thought about it. So tell me, what do you think?” The child then has to know how to describe what he or she feels and why it’s important to know. When the child then gets the answer, parents should ask, “Are you happy with the answer or did you think it would be more interesting?” “Get him to describe his feeling,” advises Landau.

Links have been found between a high IQ and genetics. According to Ariel Knafo, senior lecturer in psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, there is no doubt that intelligence is in part inherited: about 40% of the individual differences in intelligence between children are due to genetic effects. Among adults that figure is 60%. This implies that genetics are not the only factor that impacts ones’ intelligence.

But genetics do not interest Landau. “I believe in the influence of the surrounding… That makes the child really actualize what’s in them,” said the researcher, who claimed to have increased the intelligence measurements of children from very poor backgrounds by 30 points.

She is also skeptical about how effective purely written IQ tests are in measuring the intelligence of children, especially of children from impoverished backgrounds. “The questions in IQ tests are always based on the answer to choose from four possibilities, but when do children in poor surroundings have the chance to choose? You can give a child his sandwich at 10 o’clock and ask [if he would] like peanut butter, marmalade or cheese… and the child will choose. But a poor child gets a dry piece of bread and cannot choose; he doesn’t have [a selection from which] to choose. So it’s not right to judge [children’s intelligence] only by those tests that [get them] to choose from possible answers, when they don’t even know what it means to choose.” Landau recommends interviewing children and getting recommendations from the child’s teacher, who sees them every day.

A question that comes up in the debate about intelligence, genes and environment is whether Jews and Israelis really have higher IQs on average than other races and nationalities, as the stereotype suggests.

Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve – a book on the racial basis of intelligence – claims in his article “Jewish Genius” that “Jews have been found to have an unusually high mean intelligence as measured by IQ tests since the first Jewish samples were tested.” Daya asserts that the “proof is in the pudding” when considering the percentage of Jews in the world and the number of Jewish Nobel Prize laureates, Jews with PhDs, and the number of Jewish entrepreneurs.

“To a considerable degree, IQ and scholastic aptitude are different facets of the same underlying entity,” said Britton.

Given that genes account for 60% of adult intelligence, it could be claimed that Jews are born with the potential for higher IQs. However, Landau’s stand on the environment’s impact on intelligence could suggest that accessibility of education and tendency to value education would impact whether that potential were fulfilled.

According to director of research and development at Israel’s National Institute for Testing and Evaluation Dr. Naomi Gafni, there are six universities and about 40 colleges that issue degrees in Israel.

The state’s Central Bureau of Statistics presents a comparison of levels of education among Israelis and other member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with figures relating to 2004.

Among adults, tertiary education was highest in Israel (45%), whereas in other countries the most common level of education on average was the higher secondary school level (42%). The statistics show that Israel is among the countries with the highest proportion of people who have tertiary education and Norway and the USA are the only OECD countries that had percentages equaling Israel’s of citizens with academic degrees.

Daya says he does not believe there are many “general geniuses” in the world. “To be a genius, you have to be a genius in something. You can be a gifted person with a lot of different traits. You can be a genius in math, philosophy or piano playing,” he argues.

“Most of us spend almost the same time getting the same amount of calories and drinking the same amount of milk. We put in the same energy and energy doesn’t go to waste, it gets transformed. So if somebody is a genius at something it means he is lacking somewhere else. If somebody thinks he’s [lacking everywhere] – he just hasn’t found out what it is yet,” he continues.

“I think that almost everybody is genius at something. I think people’s quest should not be to try to become a genius at something that they’re not [naturally good at] and spend their whole life being average at something that they were really bad at.” Instead, he recommends that people research themselves and experience all the things that they are naturally gifted in. “Try being creative, try skills that involve coordination. Try all the possible combinations you know until you find something that naturally you do better than other people and if you train yourself you’ll be amazing,” he said.

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By AIMEE NEISTAT
Updated Mar 5, 2009 16:33

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