How is Intelligence Like a Rubber Band?

Stretched Rubber Bands
David Malan/ Photographer's Choice RF/ Getty Images

That is not a riddle. That's a real question with a real answer. It is prompted by the growing belief that intelligence is not fixed but can change over time. That belief suggests that giftedness is not innate, but is determined by environmental experiences. In other words, with the right kind of experience, nearly any child can be gifted. This is an idea that is not supported by science and has been discussed in some detail in Stephen Pinker's book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

While Pinker does not refer to giftedness specifically, he does talk about native intelligence and its genetic links.

There is no denying that IQ scores can change somewhat over time, but IQ scores are just numbers that result from tests. The change in an IQ test score does not necessarily reflect a change in the test taker's native intelligence. Thinking of intelligence as similiar to a rubber band makes much more sense and explains what we see.


How much of our intelligence comes from our genes? The genetic influence is the nature part of intelligence. Studies done with identical and fraternal twins reveal that the heritability of intelligence is difficult to determine but genes do seem to account for 50 percent of what is there. That is not a small amount since it tells us that people are not born blank slates just waiting for the environment to determine their level of intelligence.

Another thing we know from twin studies is that the physical structure of our brains are genetically determined. For example, the amount of gray matter found in the frontal lobes is influenced by our genes. And the amount of gray matter correlates significantly with differences in intelligence. That isn't surprising since the functions of the frontal lobes include higher order functions, planning, reasoning, and memory.

Each person is born with a degree of intelligence and that degree of intelligence seems to be determined to a large extent by our genes. Think of this aspect of intelligence as a rubber band. Each person is born with a rubber band and the rubber bands are not the same size.


Nurture refers to environmental influences. Many people want to believe that if we nurture children the "right" way, we can make them "smart." Some go so far as to suggest that gifted people are not born, they're "made," which means that the intelligence they have is all the result of the environment - how they are nurtured. Numerous businesses have been created that sell products to parents who are convinced that with the right parenting techniques and tools, they will be able to "create" a gifted child.

No one would ever suggest that parents shouldn't do all they can for their child. Every parent should nurture their child and provide different opportunities to help their children develop and be the best they can be.

However, no amount of nurturing can create a gifted child. Think again about the rubber band. Rubber bands stretch.

When we nurture our child's talents and abilities, whatever they might be, we are stretching the rubber band they were born with. A larger rubber band can stretch more than a smaller rubber band. In some cases, one rubber band that has been stretched as much as it can be will still not be bigger than or even as big as a much larger rubber band that has been stretched very little.

Final Thoughts

Thinking about intelligence as a rubber band can help us understand the different abilities and talents that each of us is born with. It doesn't matter how large or small the rubber band is that our child is born with. What matters is that we nurture those abilities and talents and help our child develop them as much as possible. But nurturing our child and providing him or her with opportunities and experiences in hopes of creating a gifted child demonstrates a lack of understanding of intelligence and giftedness and is profoundly unfair to those children whose rubber bands aren't as large as those of gifted kids.

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