San Diego Smart: In Search of (Local) Intelligence Print E-mail

20230208(San Diego Reader February 8, 2023)

The first thing you realize once you start investigating “intelligence” is that no two people—whose personalities and abilities, capacities and traits, are as different as their DNA—use the word the same way. It’s one of those concepts like pleasure or truth or value where the variety of individual variation makes a reliable definition unlikely.

If, on my block in Clairemont, I ask ten neighbors what they think they are smart at, I’d get unique profiles from each. One has an affinity for native-plant gardening, another is a crackerjack piano teacher, another is a pickleball champ, still another’s Master’s in computer graphics is in such high demand that soon she’ll move out of Clairemont. Each person is better-than-average and one-of-a-kind, a credit to the species. So they will all say. It’s hard to control for self-aggrandizement, the stats tell us: When 64 percent of Americans rate their driving skills as excellent, the same folk score drivers of their own age and skill at 22 percent.

Slide rule enthusiasts insist intelligence can be scientifically measured via college admissions tests. But after years of dispute, the UC system has declared that the once-unquestioned SAT is so fraught with cultural and linguistic bias, it’s useless. We like saying those with a knack, a gift, or a talent are blessed, touched, virtuosos like Toni Morrison writing novels. But intelligence is better thought of as a psycho-social condition that involves all of us, uniting what we do and who we are. Problem there is what we know is quantitative and how we know is qualitative and often a mystery. Even Morrison couldn’t explain how she did it.

I mean if everyone is good/very good at one or two things, I need to uncover what the person is good/very good at before either of us can account for it. When I’m reeling by a grinding noise coming from the left front tire, my Honda mechanic (Luis, in Webster) finds the rock in the brake drum immediately. His quick fix may exemplify his spatial intelligence or his competence—he recognizes the trouble by ear. Is that the same as brainpower? Maybe. But the job demands more, a cleverness, a crafty intuition, to diagnosis my testy 2006 Accord with 150,000 miles on it.

Unlike the loses stupidity ensures, Luis’s facility is a gain: With his smarts, reliable solutions to car problems prove his intelligence—and its usefulness. Our society rewards, with money and gratitude, certain exactitudes: stolid first responders, deft back surgeons, Naomi Osaka’s tennis serve. Such acuities are as much mental and physical as they are behavioral and intuitive.

But we don’t call Osaka or a firefighter smart. We save that for NASA scientists, TED-Talk talkers, the pre-Twitter Elon Musk. No matter how saucy their transgressive inventions are with intelligence, artificial or otherwise, there’s a stigma operating in reverse. “Smart” throws shade on those who aren’t. Elite minds are hardly portioned out equally. Constant slotting ourselves and others into professions and levels is not scientific since we are sorted by resume, connections, even luck, instead of standards of character and wisdom. Consider the irony: That very talented liar, George Santos, is not smart enough to be a politician.

We are searching other planets for “intelligent life,” our fingers crossed that aliens will have solved the enigma of self-destruction. We call information of military value gathered from well-placed sources “intel” for which the Central Intelligence Agency is our nation’s Big Brother. We now have a program called “smart policing,” which uses statistics and computer modeling to make decisions about where crime is likely to occur. (The modifier “smart” implies it used to be “dumb.” Though never called that, it recalls cops in patrol cars looking for dodgy kids, stopping and frisking or racial profiling them.) There is no agreed-upon set of criteria for “intelligence,” although, according to the MacArthur “genius” awards, candidates must show “extraordinary originality, dedication [and] creative pursuits,” leavened with “self-direction.” Sounds quite heady. Yet the MacArthur exclusivity troubles a lot of people (though not its winners). Few can live up to such achievement in an economy built less on an evolved prefrontal cortex and more on deliverymen loading and unloading trucks.

The latest euphemism is the knowledge economy, a slippery phrase created by our capitalist overlords: A workforce with highly specialized skills attuned to global markets that “traffics in” information—the opposite of manual labor. Knowledge is something you access instead of possess, the never-caught-up striving of an online drone.
The French child-learning researcher Jean Piaget says that the West’s view of intelligence emphasizes doing over being, activity over capacity. Capacity is potential, underlays knowledge, and is fickle in its maturation. Potential is lodged in theory. “I could have been a contender” haunts the prisoner.

I’ve assumed that the lens with which we focus on intelligence is less social, more personal. To what degree is hard to say. Individuals have the smarts, not professions, not institutions; such entities have no “extraordinary originality” and typically petrify into corporate stupefaction. In African and Asian countries, social responsibility is selected for, recycling millennia of tribal mores. The benefits accrue to the group. However, I can’t help but think this duty to the whole, a.k.a. the Golden Rule, begins (60,000 years ago) with a plurality of gifted individuals. Groups too often stifle talent and innovation and perpetuate the authoritarian, a surefire deadening of evolution. Something in the American ego distrusts the aggregate.

An advocate of aggregation is Howard Gardner. In Intelligence Reframed (1991), he formulated eight dominant modes of thinking: Linguistic, Logical/Mathematical, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalist. He writes: “While we may continue to use the words smart and stupid, and while IQ tests may persist for certain purposes, the monopoly of those who believe in a single general intelligence has come to an end. Brain scientists and geneticists are documenting the incredible differentiation of human capacities, computer programmers are creating systems that are intelligent in different ways, and educators are freshly acknowledging that their students have distinctive strengths and weaknesses.”

Trouble is, these categories cannot be tested equally, if at all; they overlap, if not overflow into each other; and their neuronal pathways are both indescribable and ever-changing. How does a Buddhist’s “intrapersonal” intelligence, her relationship with her own knowing, work? How is a volunteer at Father Joe’s Village able to tend the neediest, often recalcitrant and damaged, with such compassion? Isn’t his interpersonal ability part of his innate character, his native intelligence? The vagaries of gift and affinity, the individual lubricant of potential, is what I’ve decided to track down.


Intelligence is often described as the way humans solve problems by the most efficient means possible. One progressive solution to kids learning math is to let them play with numbers long before their knowledge of numbers is tested. The latter embeds math anxiety and may turn off children to head-and-hand methods of calculating. So says Randy Philipp, who’s been on the faculty of the School of Teacher Education at San Diego State for 33 years. Semiretired, he agreed to staff the director’s position last fall, so “now I’m full-time, again,” working out of a couple offices on and near campus. We meet up at the Center for Research in Math and Science Education and I marvel at a man who seems as freshly animated by his profession as when he began.

Which started how? As a young child, numbers were his friends. “I wasn’t in love with 3 and 8 but I found it interesting that the sum of 3 and 8 was the same as the sum of 4 and 7.” This pattern-recognition procedure is a tool he intuited early on; it speaks of abstract reasoning. “There are many ways to get an answer of 11,” something he says is instinctual like “hearing the meaning of math.” (He gives me another example. He writes -7 and asks what I see. “Minus 7,” I say. “Right. It’s minus 7, it’s negative 7, and it’s the opposite of 7.” Three ways for one symbol. Those who “hear” a range of answers tell him a lot about the person’s acuity for Math with a capital M.)

Before ten, Philipp’s brother had him solving math problems for his friends “like a little monkey.” His father got into the act by giving him algebraic equations while in the tub. Philipp was entertaining, not a freak but gifted, as he was soon labeled. It was as if math chose him, which is what a gift is: An adult set of skills that appear early in a child. But his natural intelligence is a given, a mark of behavioral genetics: In his case, he was born into was the family through which he would fully activate his prime potential.

Then, something curious happened. In high school, he was one of four juniors taking calculus but he hated it, and did poorly. “The teacher wasn’t very nice, so it was hard to separate the experience from the person,” the remembrance evident in his sour expression. I found this admission striking since he aced calculus, a few years later, in college once he found a mensch for a teacher. After that he sailed on, effortlessly, to a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a Ph.D in mathematics and math education. And then into a couple adventuresome years as a Peace Corps volunteer and trainer.

In the Corps, Philipp realized that positive experiences with people was as meaningful to him as his affinity for numbers. His social-minded resumé lengthened. During college and credentialing, he volunteered with Big Brother in Los Angeles, taught CPR with the Red Cross and math at inner-city high schools, and staffed a crisis-intervention hotline. He discovered his talent as he matured—a desire not just to teach but to explore how kids should learn numbers. “I found a way to merge those fields,” he says. That he has made his career.

I wanted his take on the Big Tech Bafflement of our time: What happens to our gray matter when computers and calculators do mathematical tasks for us? Does it force us to move beyond our staid methods of cognition? Does it make us stupider, shackled to giant, blue-light blinking machines that beat humans at chess or GO or launch fleets of weaponized drones?

Yes and no, he says. Kids with access to solid STEM building blocks are highly motivated; the nerd’s road, vulgarized or mainstreamed in Hollywood movies, has been repaved with yellow bricks, hastening many a geek to an OZ of opportunity. What’s more the competition for the best colleges is more dependent on a school’s raised math and science standards than ever. Philipp notes that much STEM work requires calculus, statistics, and computer science as well as demands a conceptual faculty, “proving theorems or grappling with mathematical ideas for which applications come later.”

Still, despite the six-figure salaries coders can make, brainiacs are often left at the gate by the social-media “influencers” precisely because working Twitch and TikTok or devising YouTube channels requires minimal smarts.


Much the same marriage of profession and sensibility has guided the real-estate career of Patti McKelvey, at 75, a powerhouse seller of South Bay homes. In 2021 she and her son Jeff sold 163 properties, tops at Chula Vista’s Coldwell Banker for whom the duo work. To say the woman is driven is irrefutable. Growing up in Lesterville, South Dakota (pop. today, 115), she and her five sisters toiled in their parents’ restaurant. There, she says, “you develop a lot of social skills even though I didn’t know I was developing them. In kindergarten, they had a contest where you sell tickets and you win a prize.” Which she did, as well as, a dozen years later, become the high-school valedictorian.

Soon, post-college with a business degree, she and her Navy pilot husband were in San Diego where she took a personality test with Corky McMillan Real Estate. She was classed (as if it wasn’t obvious) as exceptionally social: “I’m the kind of person who even if I go into the women’s bathroom, I’m gonna say ‘Hi,’ and I’ll make a new friend in there. Yes, I’m pretty ambitious. Whatever I did I excelled at.” From 1987 to 2017, she sold homes—an agent for buyers and sellers—with McMillan before her recent move to Coldwell Banker.

The first key to success—and she means rapport with people, the sales, secondary—is this: She rises at 3:30 a.m., studies listings and clients’ preferences for three hours, goes to Mass (five days a week), and arrives at the office at 8, on the phone and showing houses till 6. The second factor is acquisition: “You control the business by getting the most listings,” which involves referrals, open houses, follow-ups, contacts, “and listening.”

I suggest that selling real estate taught her how to sell real estate, which seminars, night classes, and commissions did not. Her adaptability enhances her client load. In the Covid crunch, and unlike her colleagues, she kept going via short sales; she took no bailout money. McKelvey listened to what people wanted: Confined, many sought a South Bay property “to homeschool, have an office, and bask by a pool.”)

Another means to lasting is professional ethics. She describes how she profiled a house that backed up to the noisy 54 freeway, looked out on wall of dirt, and was near to a Cyclops of electromagnetic power lines. McKelvey says the potential new owner “was a science teacher, so he was very left brain, caught up in the dynamics of buying. And I said to him, ‘Do you see’” the drawbacks? The home’s value may fall over time, not rise. She tried to convince him by speaking for herself. “I’m a view person. It’d be hard for me to look at that dirt. ‘Are you sure you want this?’ If I list my qualms with the property,” she continued, “then I’ve done my job.” If not, the buyer may get cold feet, drop out, or, the worst: He stays in a house he hates and is miserable forever.

The upshot is, a “smart” sale for McKelvey is a mutual exchange. She says she has to “feel good about what I’m selling,” confidence in the home’s fitness for each buyer outweighing everything. In 35 years, she has “never had anyone call back after the closing and complain.”


Intellect and intelligence are not exactly terms of endearment for the artist: Case in point is the twice-blessed Bruce Turk, actor and visual artist who lives in Carlsbad, shows his torn book-page abstractions at Art n Soul in Encinitas, and acts with the North Coast Repertory Theater. (March 2023, he and his wife are in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.) His “bread and butter” has been live performance, which the pandemic silenced. After graduating college, success came a bit like clockwork in Chicago theater, Broadway productions, a four-year stint in Japan with Tadashi Suzuki, and a decade at San Diego’s Old Globe in 15 plays. In high school he had a mentor, Ron Dodson, who “handed me a Shakespeare monologue and said, ‘Just do it.’” He did and Dodson “changed my life for the better.”

That drama teacher supercharged Turk’s creativity: “‘Here’s an entire play,’ Dodson said. ‘Cut it down to 10 minutes and perform it by yourself.’” Turk has a restless goodwill I decide is his prime affability, a smiling-to-himself uncertainty that steers our inquiry into an actor’s mind and his hundreds of roles. He casts his journey (at 60) as the woodsy siren of the “unbeaten path,” but more, the early decision that experience precede the career mold—agent, auditions, networking, and a shared New York City loft. He hungered to work with directors and explore his performative body to check the critical mind’s (constant) intervention. Thus, the four years in Japan. What was pulling him, he did not resist.

Of course, talent has its place. But, Turk says, “I wonder if talent is seeing the right kind of obstacles to deal with.” As in courting failure, trying roles that run counter to your type, immersing yourself with a Japanese director’s idea that acting, according to a website description, is about “the actor’s innate expressive abilities.” Suzuki’s method draws “from such diverse influences as ballet, traditional Japanese and Greek theater, and martial arts . . .. Attention is on the lower body and a vocabulary of footwork, sharpening the actor’s breath control and concentration.”

Is there such a thing as a “smart” actor?

Actors don’t use that terminology but directors do, Turk says, having directed several plays. He describes the actor/director dichotomy as “two sides of my brain,” in part, conditioned by Shakespeare. “If you’re doing Shakespeare, you need somebody who can follow a long thought and lead another group of people through a very complex verbal world.” But a good Shakespearean actor evinces neither an “analytic” nor a “literary sensibility.” Whatever intelligence is operating, for Turk, it’s a layer cake of skills and desires. He variously labels acting “technical, esoteric, physical, intuitive, and improvisatory.” The ideal result is that those things combine in live performance and achieve a “spiritual synthesis.” Perhaps a smarter actor is not any better but a freer, nonjudgmental one whose half-obscured path he trusts will clarify itself as he goes is: “I never wanted to be on TV,” he says. “I knew I wanted to make my living as an actor, and I wanted to do deep, great work that I felt I had the capacity for.”

There’s a pertinent word: capacity.

I was starting to understand. Intelligence, an elusive term, is not learning or training or work or skill per se. It’s the capacity for knowing and the knowing or perseverance that one can fulfill that capacity. Capacity to understand your abilities, your comprehension, your failings. Knowing what you know, but more, how you know what you know. In addition, the discussion of intelligence is value-laden, implying fixed, potentially race- or ethnic-based zones where group identities override, even censor, individual distinctions. (Group identity, like “evangelical voters,” is the handmaid of social science.) The true value of studying intelligence is to highlight its transpersonal nature: All people are smart to the degree nature has fueled their stamina and nurture has afforded them mentors.

Turk realized that he had a capacity for self-awareness, which was there all along, via live performance. Acting was his way of actualizing his capacity. I suggested it was a low flame that was in him whenever he needed its warming drive. He agreed, sort of.

He manifests what he knows in collaboration, giving me a metaphor that marinates the osmotic goal of actors in a play. “It’s like being underwater—with the fish and everything. The currents are buffeting you about, and every now and then you come up for air. Oh, there’s the coastline. And then you’re back down again. And hopefully you extend those moments of being underwater, so [you realize] I’m out here swimming, not drowning.” To my ear acting sounds athletic, a team sport; the actors’ sensate bodies in intimate, liquid space run through and under the dialogue.

“There’s this pulse between outward knowing,” Turk continues, and the “engine of the play,” a hallmark of theater. Then, “Your motion has a life of its own, and your brain relaxes and thoughts can come and go without you freezing up. The play starts to become more real.” That is, real in its seeming verity. Via much training, Turk attunes himself to the moment-by-moment cohesion of a drama or comedy. It’s a kinesthetic intelligence, as basketball’s Bill Bradley called it, “a sense of where you are” in relation to the momentary ticking and the time-bound whole.

When this bobbing reality directs an ensemble, there’s a harmony, a Zenlike dialing-in on the impermanent, since post-performance, the production must die and be redone, ab ovo, the next night.


Thinking about thinking is the province of Seana Coulson, professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego. How long? I ask. “I’ve been here forever,” she says over coffee just before Christmas on a deserted campus. She grew up with a professor/researcher father, her and her sister tending the whiskery animals in the lab. “I always liked science,” she says. After an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a slog in publishing, “editing encyclopedias,” she woke up to a facility in cognition or “communications,” as she calls it. “It’s interdisciplinary, and there aren’t many people who actually have a degree in cognitive science unless you’re in California.” UC San Diego has the only such department in the United States.

Studying communication styles among people is an “applied philosophy,” she says. “It originates in the philosophy of mind—what’s the relationship between the mind and the body? We use a variety of techniques to address that question.” She says they measure things that are “very abstract,” which is, coincidentally, “its appeal. Cognitive science provides a variety of methodologies for actually figuring out what does it mean for someone to know something.”

For Coulson, the more she examines cognition, the more complicated it becomes, a yeasty brew of the social and psychological regimens. She studies intrapersonal knowing between people and their motives (unconscious or otherwise) in contexts of exchange: “If I’m talking, you’re constructing meaning based on what I say.” She measures this back-and-forth via controlled experiments where subjects work through complex sentences or assess people on video who in dialogue employ irony, metaphor, misinformation, and memes. (She records their brainwave patterns for later analysis.) “A lot of what people communicate isn’t the literal content of what they say, but what they imply, and the way you can imply things is by saying one thing but not saying something else you might have been expected to say. It’s fascinating.”

Despite an overreliance on undergraduates as her lab rats, whose “intelligence” is markedly linguistic (as high-school grads, they are in the top nine percent), Coulson says every age group, especially the underexamined 30 to 60 cohort, should be fully reviewed: All forms of communication have “a huge rich amount of sophisticated processing.” Yes, we come equipped with language abilities, but the “word skills” we develop vary with the cultural, economic, and familial advantages we are raised with.

My intelligence is verbal, linguistic, and musical, which I’ve had since childhood, twin passions for music and writing. The home I shared with my college-educated parents had no books until I brought baseball biographies and boys’ novels home from the library. My Depression-surviving folks valued business acumen and gender roles, which the counterculture countered. A very motivated kid, I was struck by the folk-music bell with brother’s record collection, my guitar-playing friends, and a love of reading. I was born into circumstances that favored my whiteness, my maleness, my middle-class well-being, and I’m grateful for that. I also had the gift of music classes in school, church choir, Unitarian liberalism, and English teachers enthralled by literature. Coulson calls that panorama our “cultural scaffolding,” on which I and likeminded others are nudged or thrust more deeply into our affinities.

By here in our conversation, I find myself thinking that cognition, writ large, is transactional; while we path our proclivities differently, we all take part in languages of gesture, attention, emotion, reason, motivation, and so on. Teaching and sales and acting require visual, auditory, and spoken “languages,” which are standardized by the shared skills and behaviors of the group and which, over time, shape each medium. Thus, 100 years ago, communication was direct, person-to-person or between the natural environment and the individual. Growing and cooking one’s own food, for instance. Our interaction today is largely mediated, a hybrid of preindustrial habits from centuries of outdoor physical labor intermixed with our choiceless cubicle/laptop space of electronic virtuality—Zoom, online classes, email, text, television, video. Americans have become ridiculously machine-run, our body/mind processing pushed into a relentless state of agitation, both “always on” and “on hold.”

For Coulson, there is no such thing as a Canadian hockey gene, but there is a robust Canadian milieu that selects a range of kids to play the sport: long winters mean girls and boys start skating at two and soon grab sticks and swat pucks, four strong winds beefing up their leg muscles and leathering their skin. Up there is a shared, brawny love for flying on ice. Needless to say this is cultural and environmental, not racial or ethnic.

A new kid-on-the-block, motivated reasoning, is the latest marker of Gen Z’s “intelligent” activity. Getting the digitally mesmerized to utilize reason requires motivation—ads, rewards, status, in-groups, political or state or football loyalties. Less germane is evidence-based objective thinking. Motivated reasoning insists you figure things out based on the emotional justifications your biases have already developed in you from political class and religious traditions. “Biases,” Coulson says, “alter the way you process information. If something is consistent with your preconceived ideas, you are much less critical of it than if something goes against those ideas.”

Vast partitions of us are mired in confirmation bias, shaped by tribal beliefs and siloed by preferential media, no matter our politics. And here I reach my final port in the archipelago of intelligence. I can’t help but think interpersonally with my culture, that is, I don’t know where what I think ends and what my culture “thinks” begins. I used to believe I was solely responsible for my judgments; as a writer, my calling is to examine those judgments and correct their flaws (like writing this piece, which easily can get entangled in logical knots.)

Now when I read The New York Times online, I have this clammy feeling that the newsroom bean counters are using me to reify the source’s agenda, which keeps men of my ilk writhing in topics we’re interested in, our restless curiosity algorithmically aligned with flashing, pop-up commodities: People like you who read these articles on this site buy crap such as this.

I’m afraid the Hive Mind I live in consists of one lone waxy cell where my mind and its whisper of intelligence is stored in the colossal Google honeycomb whose digital brain neither I nor you will ever outsmart.