Mind gamers

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 02, 2012 20:42 hrs

Mensa, the world’s largest and oldest high IQ society, has dedicated followers in India. Amrita Singh picks the brains of some of its members.

How many observations can you make by looking at a fallen leaf? Perhaps, most people will have nothing to say after the initial remarks about colour, size and taste. But a group of four children in Pune could not stop rattling off the features — 750 in all.

The children belonged to Mensa, one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. So exclusive that many may not even know of it. Entry to the club is offered only to the world’s most intelligent — the top two per cent of the population, measured by a pen and paper test. A score of 140 is a minimum to make it to the ranks. And a score above 160 is a rarity reserved for a genius.

Rest assured there is no syllabus. The byword is “come as you are” and no two questions papers are alike.

Recently an Indian girl, Fabiola Mann, nailed a score of 162, beating Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Her score was a surprise even to her. She has now been invited to join the club. But what is there for her in this aristocracy of the intelligent, of course, besides the bragging rights?

For members, it offers a network of people to share a wide range of social and intellectual activities, says Kishore Asthana, a Mensa India member in Delhi. Mensa is a small but thriving community in India with members from all walks of life. The members defy the popular perception of smart people as ‘geeks’ and ‘misfits’.

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For Nirav Sanghavi, founder of a visual merchandising firm in Mumbai, growing up days were hard. He was little understood by his friends. And his jokes left no one but him in splits. “I was often told off by my teachers for asking too many questions, although I was the class topper,” says Sanghavi. But life changed after he read an article about Mensa in The Times of India in 1986. As he had always suspected, his differentness was a function of his high intelligence. And being part of Mensa, as he says, took care of his “special needs”.

He says most Mensans are believed to be socially less adept. Shyness is also endemic to them and most of them prefer communicating via email to phone calls. But in the company of fellow Mensans they find themselves at home. “There is a greater sense of camaraderie with Mensans since they can generally understand quantitative things faster,” says Kishore Asthana, an IIM-A alumni and a Mensan with a consultancy firm in Gurgaon.

Promoting inter-personal meetings, therefore, has been a key focus of Mensa. “Over the years, Mensa has become like a large global family and the society’s annual general meetings serve not only the stated business-like purpose, but also enable members to rekindle old friendships and make many new ones,” says Richard D. Kingston, the coordinator of Service for Information, Guidance and Hospitality at Mensa.

More than the presentation and workshops, most members look forward to these group meetings for the gaming options they offer — board games and, increasingly, computer games, he adds. Mensans love quizzes, puzzles and games. To tap into this fondness for games, Nintendo even has a Mensa academy which packs games with a series of challenges filled with Mensa-endorsed questions.

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Most Mensans tend to have their hands in too many pies. Asthana is a poet, writer, a management consultant, and an organisational worker for India Against Corruption, helping it transform into a political party.

Sanghavi, an engineer, also likes photography, calligraphy, ham radio (the use of designated radio frequency spectrum for private recreation) and scientific fantasy — scientific solutions to everyday handicaps like a wiper to clean up windscreens that fog up on the inside during rains or a device to count the whistles of a pressure cooker. But these scientific flights of fancy remain what they are — fantasies. “We are thinkers, we don’t care whether our ideas are being adopted by manufacturers,” says Sanghavi.

Amitananda Das, a member from Kolkata, says people with high IQ need activity to keep their thinking brain ticking. They may not have the smarts to succeed at work or the acumen to run a successful business, but they love to think of different solutions to a problem. That’s their hallmark. And like Asthana says, “If a problem is thrown at 10 Mensans in a room, there will be 11 solutions.”

Perhaps that explains why a large number of Mensans spend so much time solving puzzles — something that had irked the founding father of the group so much that he called it a waste of time “of which nothing came out.”

But Mensans are far from being dissuaded by such statements. The Delhi Mensa group last month had a session on how to solve the Rubik’s cube systematically. “We were explained the algorithm clearly, which till now I thought was only a matter of instinctive manipulation of the cube,” says Asthana, adding “ the wide variety of similar puzzles he brought to the meeting were also very interesting.”

But a group so selective is bound to have detractors. The American Mensan is seen as a dating group where “eggheads get laid.” The Indian Mensans, though, haven’t trudged beyond a brotherhood and sisterhood of highly intelligent people who share common interests.

The idea of the group, though, is not to identify itself as a highly intelligent group. Narayan Desai, a double doctorate in ecological restoration and vedic ecology, has been on a mission to identify and tap high IQ talent in the tribal districts of Pune. It started with four girls making it to Mensa in 2004 and the number has risen to 140 in 2011. The purpose is “to ensure whatever they are doing, they do it to their best.”

So there is a gardener, a school dropout, a village school teacher and many unknown faces of high IQ that Desai has been painstakingly nurturing for years.

The gardener at his house in Pune is a gifted child who made it to Mensa. Yet, he failed to qualify his school examinations. “With his family in economic hardship, his mind was always focused on earning money, he was not inclined to study,” says Desai.

“But as a gardener, he is doing an excellent job,” he adds. Intelligence shows up in unlikely places. It may not always be academics or scientific achievement, he adds.

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