Ellie O’Byrne thought Mensa, the high IQ society, was a club for intellectual snobs, until she sat the test and qualified. But being a one-in-50 hasn’t changed her nor what she values in others.
ON a drizzly Saturday in September, I rushed through the echoing hallways of the O’Rahilly building in University College Cork, a queasily familiar feeling of pre-exam nerves in my stomach.
I had agreed to write an article about Mensa, the high-IQ society, so I had to sit their two-hour test. So far, the first test of my deductive powers was locating the exam room, and I had just minutes to spare.
Mensa was founded in England in 1946: the only criterion for entry was IQ. The society would pay no heed to race, education, gender or socio-economic class. In Ireland, there are 1,000 members.
To qualify, you need an IQ score in the 98th percentile, meaning that one in 50 Irish people would be eligible if they sat the test.When I found the room, at the end of a corridor, housing the Chinese language department, on the third floor, a few other participants were calmly waiting.
They were all younger than me, mostly students, and were 50-50 male and female.
David Kenny, our tall, softly spoken test supervisor, arrived just as I recovered my composure.We filed into the room as David began telling us the background of the society.
Mensa s an international organisation with more thanhas 100,000 members worldwide. Mensans of note include actress Geena Davis, sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, TV presenter Carol Vorderman, comedian Brendan O’Carroll and, notoriously, Jimmy Savile.
David handed out the papers and checked that we all had pencils for filling in our booklets; I had brought a leaking ballpoint pen. I didn’t get the feeling that I was holding my own.
I glanced around at the other Mensa hopefuls, who all seemed far more composed than me, as David assured us that the test would be “fun”.
The tests were multiple choice, and we had breaks between the sections. The tests were anything but fun; each part was timed, and in some of the spatial and mathematical sections I really felt under pressure.
The test (it costs €27 to sit it) is designed to be as free of cultural and educational bias as possiblebut the verbal reasoning sections certainly depend on English language; if English were my second language I’d have had problems.
After the two hours were up, my brain felt frazzled; I’d done the mental equivalent of running a marathon and I was feeling it.
One UCC student was happy to talk, but didn’t want to be named; he was worried about his college peers finding out that he’d sat the test.
“I literally just did it out of curiosity. I don’t think I made it in, but that doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Whether I pass or fail, I probably won’t tell anyone. I didn’t do it to put on my CV; it’s just to know my own capabilities.”
His reticence was understandable; asking around amongst friends and acquaintances, and a quick internet search, had revealed a surprising amount of venom directed at the organisation.
Many people considered it a club for intellectual snobs. Before he joined Mensa, David’s perception was that it was “something for the elite.” This changed after he started attending events arranged by the society. He discovered that other members were “very normal, down-to-earth people with similar lives to me, facing the same issues as me. We have everybody from brain surgeons to bin men. It’s quite an eye-opener to see just how normal these people are, but, it has to be said, they’re very competitive if there’s a pub quiz going on!”
Gerard Heaney is Irish Mensa’s area officer for Munster and local secretary in Cork.
In his early forties, he works in computers and is active in organising Mensa events. “We have two events per month in Belfast and Dublin, and one per month in Cork,” he said. “In August, a gang of us went to Fota Wildlife Park, exploring and having a bit of craic. In July, we got permission to tour a naval-service vessel at the base in Haulbowline.”
Despite the sometimes snide attitude of non-members, for Gerard the society is central to his social life. “Some of my best friends are in the society, and it’s difficult to explain but the craic is amazing when you’ve all these people in a room who are operating at the same speed, as it were,” he said.
Fitting in isn’t easy for intelligent people. “I’ve spoken to some people who thought they were stupid because they didn’t feel that they fit in with other people,” Gerard said. “It was a boost for them to realise that this is the reason why, but I don’t think anybody swaggers around with a sense of superiority.”
How about the stereotype of intelligent people being socially awkward? Is Mensa a club for geeks? “There are some geeks in there, but, then again, define geek?”
Saturday evening, three weeks later, I arrived home and rifled through the stack of mail in the hall. Amongst the inevitable bills and junk mail was an A4 envelope with a UK postmark; my results.
I opened the envelope in a hurry, on my way back out to go to dinner with friends.
Looking around the table at a group of people of varying ages, life experience, social standing and, no doubt, IQ, it was hard to imagine that I would enjoy our conversations more, or be more interested in their opinions, if I could measure their intelligence.
If I told them how I did, would they view me differently?
What difference does it make, at the end of the day? So many of the attributes we value in our friends — empathy, sense of humour, communication skills — are not measured by an IQ test.
I blushed when I told them that I got a score that made me eligible for membership, as though I was confessing to an embarrassing exploit. One friend responded enthusiastically; she was “so impressed”. She kept turning to look at me and saying “Wow”. But, then again, she was more than a little tipsy.
Whatever about my embarrassment, it made for good conversation; in a world where what car you drive and what shoes you wear affect people’s judgement of you, is Mensa membership just another quest for validation and status?
Aren’t we already categorised enough, by age, by gender, by social standing? We were all in agreement that it’s not an achievement in the same way that completing a triathlon or achieving grade eight in piano would be, because it’s not something over which we have control.
Ultimately, while Mensa might enrich the lives of its members, I’ve decided not to take up the subscription. I’m lousy at pub quizzes; I’d only let the side down.
Mensa will be testing in Belfast, Cork, Dublin and Galway in the coming months. For dates and more information see www.mensa.ie
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