I Crashed A Mensa Conference: Thoughts On Intelligence And Belonging

Last summer, over the 4th of July weekend, I went to a national Mensa conference right here in Boston. It was kind of a joke, but aren’t most jokes tinged with something serious—a longing, a curiosity, an underlying interest in something you pretend to brand unimportant? I have a thing about prodigies and geniuses. Tell me your seven-year-old kid is studying calculus or ruminating over the nuances of a potential four-dimensional universe, and I’ll show up at your house as soon as I can, ready to commune with your brilliant little star.

I think it has something to do with profound difference: utter alienation from the norm. Though I’m no genius, I’m a bit of a freak. I rarely relate to the fads and concerns that compel most people; to me, popular culture feels like it stems from an alternate world I’ll never be able to penetrate. So when I hear about people whose minds are so fast and deep that they need an organization like Mensa to challenge them and help them find pals who can relate to their powerful, racing thoughts, I say: “I, too, feel different and seek companionship with the world’s oddballs.”

A few friends of mine are Mensa members, and one of them encouraged me to attend this event: a rare opportunity since the organization’s annual national gathering can happen in any city around the country. I might never again get the chance to hop on the bus across the street and find myself at a Boston Sheraton hotel filled with Mensans chattering away with their fellow standardized test phenoms fifteen minutes later.

So I signed up. How could I not? I wasn’t a member, but my friend was thrilled to include me as her guest.

As usual for me, this was no calm, simple adventure. It should have been: getting there was easy, I knew a few people who were going, and I’ve spent considerable time in the upscale, attractive Back Bay neighborhood surrounding the hotel. But what if someone unexpected saw me at a Mensa conference? What if I didn’t get a chance to explain that this was just a cultural experience, a foray into an unfamiliar world, a journey that had no bearing on my usual life? What if someone thought I was the sort of person to actually join a group that required high IQ scores? Never mind that IQ tests always seem to include those horrid little visual puzzles whose incomprehensibility to me would surely keep me out of the group. What if I were a good enough test taker to qualify—and I actually bothered to make use of that fact? And someone saw me, and knew?

The thought preyed on me for days until I realized I could remove my conference ID and hide my paraphernalia when I wasn’t at a Mensa-sponsored activity. People at those events would know I was there—but they were there, too. They couldn’t possibly blame me for checking out a gathering that they were also attending, right?

Don’t tell anyone, but I sort of loved that conference. There were pages of talks and events: transcending gender duality, grammar in everyday speech, polyamory, gifted children, philosophies ranging from atheism to passionate spirituality, debates on topics like globalization and immigration, and even a wildly popular “Mr. Mensa” pageant.

Yes, there were many games like chess and Quiddler (whatever that is) but I easily avoided them. Since I stood clear of those and the much-publicized free exam that qualified anyone who scored high enough, relegating the less impressive testers to wannabe status, I managed to fit in quite well. Throwing a math problem or visual game at an unsuspecting soul is a vanishingly rare phenomenon, even at a Mensa event, so I approached the large ballroom where conference people hung out with little fear of being unmasked. The room was packed with round tables where Mensans chatted and ate snacks. Unlike the real world, where people stick to their own, nearly everyone wanted to talk to strangers. I absolutely love strangers, sometimes even more than the people I already know, so I was in Candy Land.

At times like this, the social psychologist in me comes out. I hopped from table to table, asking various souls why they had joined Mensa and why they decided to attend this conference. A nervous-looking but friendly Connecticut dentist in his 30s told me he just adores being around people who get his jokes. A young woman from Texas explained that she loves to pun, but it’s no fun when others don’t pick up on what she’s doing, or, better yet, come up with their own puns.

A fair number of people came primarily because of their children: the conference included many events for the youngest Mensans, who looked forward to seeing their far-flung friends all year. But most adults came for themselves. Many told me their home communities’ Mensa events saved them from loneliness and social alienation. They found a local chapter (they’re all over the country and in many parts of the world) and immediately had a network of people to hang out with. In addition to general parties, restaurant gatherings, and the like, Mensa includes special interest groups for those who want to connect with others who have particular hobbies. There are writing groups, political discussion groups, practitioners of esoteric spirituality, role-playing game aficionados, exercise lovers… possibilities are broad.

Many of the people seemed to fit the mind over body stereotype. Utilitarian styles that took little effort to put together were common: people my mother and I used to call the farmer type when I was growing up. Among the younger crowd, some had a funky, punkish look: piercings in unexpected places, extensive tattooing, and the like. In some cases, hygiene and sense of appropriate bodily distance from others could have been honed more carefully. But I also saw many who would blend in visually at most mainstream gatherings. There was even a cool crowd who took over the “Gen X suite,” enjoying drinks and snacks apart from the hullabaloo downstairs, and laughing about some of the least socially adept Mensans.

A well-dressed 65-ish woman who looked like she could fit in with my mother’s stylish friends told me: “Mensa is like home. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s like a family. Like any family, there are those annoying people you hope to avoid when everyone gets together. But the connections I’ve made have been amazing.”

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The age range was enormous: a treat for me, since I love meeting people of all generations. There were kids, elderly people, and everything in between. The most common demographic was probably middle age, roughly defined. The group on the whole struck me as overwhelmingly white, but I chatted with a few very interesting African-Americans, including an intense, high energy man who had worked for the military, and there was a decent sprinkling of Asians of various persuasions. This event attracted 2300 people, mostly from all over the U.S. and Canada. I met several who flew in from Europe.

A fairly substantial number of participants were non-members who came with family members or partners who were Mensans: guests are allowed. (Why else would the likes of me have been roaming around there?) I spoke to a few people who had attended events as non-member guests of Mensan spouses for years, then finally took the plunge and braved the admission test. “I felt so validated when I found out I passed,” a bookkeeper in her mid-40’s told me. “My sister was always the smart one in the family and no one ever really paid attention to me that way. This was proof that I was smart too—at least that’s how I felt.”

That sense of validation—of people who didn’t feel particularly successful getting a huge confidence boost from membership qualification—was common. Occupations ranged from high-level business owners, professionals, and academics to homemakers to independent spirits who worked odd jobs and didn’t seem motivated by wealth or prestige. I met a fair number of writers who never tried to break in professionally: they crafted super-quirky short pieces and even books, which they self-published and shared with like-minded friends. The group serves as a haven for some who crave intellectual challenge but whose work environments don’t offer much stimulation: the gamer or independent philosopher who supports himself by waiting tables, or whatever.

When I returned home after the conference’s first day, I decided to research Mensa online, to get some up to date insight into who was at the conference and why. I made some wild discoveries: SAT, GRE, and PSAT scores from my test-taking days are all accepted—and I qualified on all three. With room to spare. Despite the fact that I didn’t even break 50 on the math PSAT when 80 was a perfect score, equivalent to an 800 on the SAT. My crappy SAT math score did not keep me from comfortably qualifying either—nor did the GRE math score that fell below the 50th percentile. Verbal sections of those tests are one of my few talents, but I was astounded that this could compensate for such glaring weakness on other fronts. I could call ETS, ask them to send scores, and boom: Stephanie Wellen Levine. Math Moron. Map Illiterate. Mensa Member.

So much for Mensa being filled with breathtaking geniuses. I mean, maybe it is, but look who else could join, despite the fact that she can barely add a string of numbers. Mensa no longer seemed so fascinating. To give a sense for what I’m talking about, the qualifying math plus verbal score on the SAT when I took it was a 1250. Above average in most circles, for sure, but not amazing. Not grounds to feel incredibly wonderful about your test-taking acumen, or to add a true spring to your step as you walked through your school’s halls. The key is that you have to be in the top 2% of the overall population on the test at hand, and how impressive that feels surely varies depending on social context, goals, and self-conception.

Today’s test takers can no longer use the SAT, PSAT, or GRE. The tests have been revamped: average scores are now considerably higher (at least on the SAT and PSAT), the content has changed, and many feel that the current versions are less akin to pure intelligence tests than the older exams. Mensa no longer trusts their ability to gauge the qualities they want members to have. Perhaps the Mensans I should venerate are the youthful crowd who probably qualified with traditional IQ exams that include those spatial puzzles. That might just be a real accomplishment.

As the conference wound down, I began to feel wistful. Soon there would be no tables of strange, lively people to explore, no tales of social alienation solved by fabulous buddies and deep connection when Mensa entered someone’s life. I would return to my usual Cambridge existence—where, frankly, the average person I saw was probably smarter than most of these Mensa characters, but much more socially comfortable and settled.

I don’t do social comfort, and I’m allergic to feeling settled. So maybe I should join Mensa and band together with my fellow klutzes at life. What would be wrong? I wouldn’t have to tell anyone—I could just slink in and out of events with my name tag turned backwards. Mensa has local activities all year; maybe they’re worth a shot.

But I’m afraid the whole theory behind the organization rankles my deep-seated sense of minds, souls, and intelligence. Several people estimated others’ IQs when I spoke to them, like the writer who figured people had to be at least at the 145 level to appreciate his books. Some disparaged “average” or “normal” people for being dense and unexciting. Many who did this had been socially shunned by these “average” thinkers since childhood, and some of their comments and reactions surely stem from a place of damage and even trauma. I get that. I don’t hold it against them. But it’s not me.

I would never say that intelligence doesn’t exist, or that everyone has the same inherent capabilities and it all depends on drive, experience, and resources. There are people with wondrous innate mathematical ability and those who struggle with fundamental concepts. Some take easily to language, writing fluently and grammatically without thinking much about it; others labor over every sentence despite years of academic training. Those who thrive on nuance often have trouble connecting to people who rarely transcend black and white thinking. Though improvement is always possible, I’m convinced we differ enormously in ultimate potential.

Still, it’s all so much more complex than one score or number. My spatial processing ability—sense of direction, mechanical facility, skill with jigsaw puzzles, and the like—is extremely weak relative to most of the population. On the other hand, my verbal reasoning and comprehension skills are quite strong. Typical intelligence tests will tap both of these areas and yield an overall score that says very little about any aspect of me. That composite score would say much more about someone whose abilities are more similar: someone who is talented both spatially and verbally, or whose aptitudes are weak across the board. But even with more balanced kinds of brains… do we really think that someone whose percentile is 97 should be banned from an organization while someone who breaks the 98 mark should be welcomed? No test is accurate enough to make that fine a distinction, even if we could eliminate factors like concentration-sapping anxiety and fatigue. For that matter… some brilliant people don’t respond well to standardized tests because their minds are too complex or creative, often seeing the bizarre but strangely accurate answer before the obvious one that more typical thinkers pick with no trouble. News flash: only the obvious answer will be “right.”

I do believe in intelligence, but I believe more in the soul. I can’t imagine viewing people based on scores or percentiles. If I were like some of the Mensans, I, too, could let a high (well, not really high, but high enough for the purpose) total SAT score boost my confidence. But I can’t. I have deeper, wider, more elusive goals, and my scores on tests say very little about whether I’ll ever reach them. As far as I know, spiritual insight and expression do not correlate to any known exam. I have few guides beyond the contours of my own scared but questing spirit. Those who try to quantify the human psyche’s vast messiness seem to miss the whole point of everything.