Sheldon Cooper’s Deceptive Intelligence


by Brandon Uhler (@RezBenzene)

Dr. Sheldon Cooper, genius, scientist, prodigy, whatever. There is no denying that Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is a smart guy. In the show, he takes on some of the toughest concepts born from one of the most abstract areas of science: string theory.

As you watch, you can’t help be amazed by the amount of things that Sheldon knows. He can rattle off formulas, origins of popular phrases, and even obscure dates of obscure historical events, all at the drop of a hat. Every week, or whenever you watch the show, we are amazed by his memory and we are able to think to ourselves without a doubt, “Wow, this guy is smart.” However, we’d be sort of wrong to call this conclusive evidence of what I like to call, “being sooper-dooper smart…ness…itis.” Why is this not proof that he is smart?

This casts some light on the fact that we often are confused by what intelligence is. It’s not a bad thing, but we often associate someone who knows a lot of things as being smart. Although that could be part of what makes someone smart, it is not conclusive; it simply means they know a lot of stuff. Also, Sheldon’s incredible wealth of knowledge comes from his eidetic memory, something that allows you to memorize essentially everything with little to no effort. This doesn’t reflect his intelligence. Then what makes him smart?

His job, on the show, is theoretical physics; a science that requires a very abnormally intelligent mind. He has nothing on which to base his research, he has no past scientists’ groundbreaking work to work off of, no calculus or physics textbook that says, “This is what you should look for in string theory.” There are plenty of books out there that address theoretical science and offer up the current theories, but these are all very recent publications that are near impossible to verify with experiment.

I’ll use some guy from the 1900s of science as an example, you might know him, I think his name is Einstein, or something, I don’t know. Anyways, Einstein was able to conceptualize AND EXPRESS the theory of relativity with one of the easiest formulas ever to memorize. E=mc2. This is such a simple equation; it is something that sums up a ridiculously complicated science into nothing more than a few letters. That’s what makes Einstein smart and that’s what makes Sheldon smart. His job is making sense of nonsense. Taking unimaginable things and translating them to coherent thought and being able to explain it in words is what we can call intelligence. So what does this mean?

We need to redefine what we find to be ‘smart.’ Too often we test people on what they know as opposed to testing what someone can conceptualize and make sense of on their own to evaluate intelligence. We need people that can discover, not memorize; memorizing never paved the way for the future. You shouldn’t take this as an insult to people who work hard to memorize. Sometimes, there’s no way around it and you have to memorize things. A good memory is useful and sometimes impressive (Have you ever seen memorization competitions? Those are some brilliant minds). What I’m trying to express, rather incoherently, is that if you don’t have a good memory and aren’t able to memorize everything you come across, that doesn’t mean you’re not smart. One needs to focus on understanding the material before anything else. That’s what breeds intelligence; the why, not the what.

So the next time someone recites the first twenty digits of pi, (which I definitely don’t know that would be swirly-worthy) don’t be impressed; make them work for their brain admirers.


  1. RDlenixJuly 26th, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Perfect analysis. I’m studying psychology and as far back as my introduction class we were challenged to rethink how we view intelligence. There are so many “theories” and concepts of what really makes someone intelligent. Is it the ability to recite facts? The ability to complete tasks? The ability to problem solve?

    Are there different kinds of intelligence? (Practical, theoretical, or the old book smarts vs. street smarts argument).

    Intelligence is something that is unique to every individual and should never be based on the amount of information someone can memorize. I myself memorized and can recite in time “Its the End of the World” by REM but that doesn’t make me intelligent. It just means I had way too much time on my hands one afternoon.

  2. TradeJuly 26th, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    I like this passage (with a caveat) “…making sense of nonsense. Taking unimaginable things and translating them to coherent thought and being able to explain it in words is what we can call intelligence ”
    The caveat, then is the use of “unimaginable.” Clearly somebody imagined it. Many people. They are called physicists. Theoretical physics is a shared dream, based on reason and observation. There is complexity is behind the curtain here, not chaos.
    Perhaps stated like this, “taking complex, vague, or difficult(impossible?) to measure phenomena then organizing, ordering, and predicting causality, hopefully understanding a new part of it and finally expressing it in math is truly intelligent.”

    The ability to translate the math language coherently into another language like English, to describe this phenomena, and their understanding of it, in our common tongue is another form of intelligence.

    The ability to understand other human beings enough to present the material in a format they can accept and guiding their thoughts to full comprehension is another intelligence. (Thank you teachers!)

    Clearly there are many ways to demonstrate intelligence, the challenge is whether or not the observer has any clue about what the phenomenon of “smart” or “intelligent” really means.

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