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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Do smart people look smart?

(Top Nikola Tesla; second from top, you know who; right, the young Leo Tolstoy, and below, the older version)

Upon meeting someone new, sometimes you get an immediate impression of intelligence -- even before hearing them speak. Certain people just radiate brains.

Facial expressions have much to do with it. A mouth which constantly hangs open generally does not broadcast intelligence. Vacant eyes can reflect either dullness or sociopathy. But an alert expression, and keen eyes which move quickly and seem to take in a lot usually convey intelligence. (And a certain sparkle to the eyes often connotes a sense of humor.) An intense look can mean intelligence, though it can also denote one of the more minor forms of insanity, such as bipolar disorder.

(Of course, after the first few sentences we hear out of someone's mouth, as we quickly learn to associate that person's face with a certain level of insight and logic and wit, and the individual features and overall facial expression soon matter less.)

I've included a couple pictures of widely recognized geniuses as examples. Again, there is the same problem as with serial killers: a photograph taken when very young conveys little, and there is a wide variance between photos taken when older. Plus there is the prejudicial effect of already knowing who someone is. When we see a picture of Albert Einstein, we can almost feel his genius radiating out from the photograph. But if we didn't know who he was, and we saw a snapshot taken right after he had woken up, might we not mistake him for just another bleary-eyed old wino? And if, 100 years ago, this old wino had come up to us on the street to tell us that gravity bends light, might we not have thought him crazy as well?

Nikola Tesla is the main inventor of the radio, his patents made AC power commercially viable, and he contributed to the development of robotics, radar, and computer science. He was also said to have had a photographic memory, being able to memorize entire books at a time. The picture of him above shows a level, piercing gaze; it is easy to imagine one would think him intelligent (if a bit foppish) from just that picture.

I've included two pictures of Leo Tolstoy just to show how photographs vary, and how character emerges later. The picture of him as a youth shows someone who could easily be, well, developmentally disabled. The picture at left shows a powerful face with a great deal of intelligence and character: even Tolstoy's beard seems full of IQ points. (At the same time, if you didn't know who he was and were told he was one of history's worst serial killers, that wouldn't be hard to believe either.)

I'm not sure what conclusion to draw. I've known people who look smart but are dumb, and the opposite. But there is still a certain look which I associate with brains, probably best typified by these pictures of Tesla and the older Tolstoy.


Jim Savage said...

You and Nikola Tesla have something in common: You're both current world record holders.

John Craig said...

Thanks Jim. I just wish I had one-one hundredth of the current that went through that guy's brain.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever considered how someone's accent affects whether they are thought to be smart? Of course, there is an entire column available to be written on intelligent is any person who feels comfortable labeling another person based on their accent? I shake my head as to how many people in my town feel comfortable being judgmental about the relationship between accent and intelligence. I suppose we need to understand what their definition of intelligence is and includes!

John Craig said...

You're absolutely right, we judge people based on their accents. I grew up in Boston and as a youngster associated thick Boston accents with stupidity. British accents, on the other hand, tend to be associated with intelligence.

I should write something about that, maybe assign assumed IQs based on regional or ethnic accent. Hmm......

Yash said...

I was searching for some information on this and found this post. I tend to agree with you. I have been thinking on the same lines. May a times, just by looking at a person's photograph we can judge the IQ level of the person.

One interesting observation - I have never seen many laughing or smiling photos of intelligent people. And even if they do, they rarely show their teeth. Whenever I see a smiling person showing their teeth, I sense low IQ.

John Craig said...

Yash --
Interesting comment. Intelligent people do tend to act more restrained; but all of the really smart people I know have senses of humor and laugh at times. And laughing is like dancing: it's one of those things it's hard to look intelligent doing. (If Einstein had tried to boogie down to Donna Summers in a disco he would undoubtedly have looked as dumb as everyone else.)

Anonymous said...

I didn't understand what authors meant when writing about the "vacant eyes" of sociopaths until I met a sociopath. I looked at pictures of him and I can see it: his expression is never anxious, calm, charmed, curious, happy, excited or sad. He just looks bored in every single picture.

Not sure whether or not we can judge intelligence by looks though. I've known a guy whom I first assumed to be dumb (he has a beer belly and a permanently odd expression) who actually turned out to be a maths genius and to have a BEng in electrical engineering. The idea that we can judge Tesla's IQ by his looks is probably down to hindsight bias. After meeting the aforementioned engineer, I've made it a policy to only judge someone's IQ after speaking to them.

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
I had the exact same experience as you regarding sociopaths. I'd had never bought the concept of anyone having "blank" eyes, especially since eyes themselves (as opposed to the flesh around them) never convey any expression for anybody. But when I got to now one sociopath particularly well, I noticed that he often seemed to have a weirdly blank expression on his face, and that this blankness became even more pronounced when he'd had a drink or two.

I sort of agree about looks and intelligence, and I included the two pictures of Tolstoy to show how misleading that concept can be. On the other hand, I have noticed that smarter people seem to be more alert a higher portion of the time, and that alertness can sometimes be read in their faces.

I wonder if the beer-bellied fellow you're describing might not have had Aspergers. His areas of expertise were those which tend to attract Aspies more, and your reference to the "odd" expression lends further fuel to the suspicion. Aspies can be extremely smart in some ways while being dumb in others.

Anonymous said...

No, he definitely isn't an Aspie. On the contrary, he has very good social skills and he's helped me many times by explaining mathematical concepts in a really articulate manner. I would describe him simply as a happy eccentric.

John Craig said...

Gethin --
Thank you, I stand corrected.