I’m bombarded by so much email that often I don’t respond, but this fan was especially persistent, and since his or her questions were high quality and since he agreed to participate in my influential people survey, I decided to reply here.  The questions are in bold, with my answers below each one.

Q1. My current understanding is that there is a genetic potential which determines your IQ. Is it possible that that genetic potential may never be reached? I am 22 and during my childhood I received very poor nutrition and very little brain stimulation.(due to poverty i My concern is that my IQ potential may have permanently been stunted. Can I do something about it?

From what I’ve read, education and learning new skills will cause you to score higher on IQ tests, but that begs the question: are you actually smarter or just more test-wise?  For example, in the famous Milwaukee project, infants born to low IQ mothers in poor locations were given six years of intensive intellectual stimulation which raised their IQs 32 points above those of the control group, and about a third of that gain lasted eight years after the treatment stopped.  The problem is, those added IQ points made them virtually no better at scholastic achievement tests than the control group, suggesting the experiment merely made them more IQ test savvy, and not any faster at learning new material.

Q2. What are some of the accessible ways to increase IQ? Till what age is it possible?

It’s always possible to acquire new skills and cognitive habits, and if these happen to be sampled by the IQ test you’re taking, your nominal IQ will improve.  But IQ is supposed to measure your capacity to learn new things or cognitively adapt to relatively novel problems. Education and training doesn’t seem to transfer much to unfamiliar tasks,  but since the content of even culture reduced IQ tests is not entirely unfamiliar, many forms of training will spuriously improve your score but it may not much improve your ability to learn new things.

Of course critics will argue that virtually all individual differences in non-pathological cognition reflect differences in training and experience and that “novel problem solving” is a misnomer.

As for smart drugs and brain training software, I’ve known some true believers but I remain very skeptical.

Q3. Can we expect in the near future for it to be possible to increase IQ through technology? And I mean in people who have already been born.

In a way we already have.  One no longer needs as much spatial ability because they can use a GPS.  One no longer needs as much ability to learn and remember facts because they can google them on their mobile devise.  How far technology is from improving the physical brain, I don’t know.

Q4. What do you think of Mensa’s testing standards? And how is 98 percentile intelligent. That is like 1 in 50 people. It seems to me that in a developed country like the US, anyone who is anybody(techie, artist, wall street, industrialist, philosophers, professors) easily comes in the 98 percentile. Because otherwise where are the smart people.

98th percentile is actually extremely intelligent.  To put it in perspective, when it comes to height and fat-free body weight, the 98th percentile for young U.S. non-Hispanic men is about 6’4″ and 220 lbs respectively which is taller and more muscular than most of the World’s most successful athletes.


The above chart shows the average height and weight of the most elite athletes in various sports, but keep in mind that these are just averages and many supreme athletes will be half a foot shorter and dozens of pounds smaller than average for their sport.

If the 98th percentile on physical traits is not required to succeed in a field as competitive and meritocratic as elite professional sports, why would the 98th percentile on cognitive traits be required to succeed in fields like technology, art, business or academia?  Even students at the most selective universities in the entire World do not average more than about the 95th percentile (IQ 125) when given comprehensive cognitive tests that were not used in their selection process, and in many creative and technical occupations, the academic requirements are not high.

Only among the most spectacular achievers (self-made multibillionaires, U.S. Presidents, Nobel Prize winners in science) does the average IQ seem to rise to above 130, and even then, there’s a significant minority with IQs below 115, sometimes way below.

The reason Mensa’s requirement doesn’t sound high to you is because 1) tons of people exaggerate their IQ (I used to claim mine was 156!), and 2) of those who tell the truth, many take poorly normed internet tests, and/or cherry-pick the best score from the many tests they did take, and as a result, far more than 2% of America can qualify for Mensa.

Q5. What is your IQ?

About 135

Q6. How is memory related to IQ. Is memory constrained by genetics too, or is it possible to do something about it?

Specific types of short-term memory are not that strongly related to IQ, but overall memory across many domains as well as working memory (i.e. manipulating what you’re trying to remember) and long-term memory are more strongly related to IQ, but not as strongly as tests of abstract reasoning, verbal comprehension, acquired knowledge, and spatial analysis.

It’s possible to improve your memory through various strategies like word association and rehearsing input,  and it might be possible to improve very specific kinds of memory but it’s probably not yet possible to much improve spontaneous recall or overall memory.

Q7. What do I need to do and have to join some some serious research/effort to better understand/do something about the IQ question? I think a lot of good work is happening in China?

You need to graduate with honors from the most prestigious university you can get accepted in, avoid controversy, and try to publish articles in peer reviewed academic journals.  And you need to do all this while you’re still young because youth is a huge competitive advantage in virtually every field but especially academia.

Is looking into IQ your full time work?

No, I wasn’t a great student (hard to believe but true) because I spent all night obsessing over controversies on the internet and then slept in so late I missed class.