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  • James Tam

The Curse of Intelligence



An intelligent brain thinks faster and more coherently than an average one, has superior analytical power, and is usually supported by a decent memory. Overall, clever people are better equipped to learn, absorb, and utilise information. How then could anyone be too clever for his own good?


Seeing how intelligence may magnify or reinforce the five hindrances cited in Buddhist teachings may serve to illustrate the potential curse of intelligence. Depending on translation, they are greed, anger, torpor or obsession, arrogance, and doubts or suspicions. This is not an exhaustive list of human weaknesses, but most human troubles could be attributed to them. And it seems that smarter brains are more likely to be trapped by these toxic emotions.


Greed: Greed is the endless desire for more, more, and more. It’s a universal human fault regardless of gender, age, wealth, and intelligence, differing only in degree and packaging. But reality seems to teach rapacious dummies more readily than avaricious smart guys. The greed of intelligent people is relatively complex in motive and manifestation, and they are more skilful in dodging retributions. However, dodging oneself is another story. A smart brain thinks it knows everything, except when to stop. At the summit of every peak, able and ambitious individuals see a taller mountain down the road, and walk on trance like, until…


Anger: Similarly, a quick tempered idiot will learn quickly that forbearance and restraint are necessary virtues in the survival game. In the fullness of time, habit makes perfect, he might even become naturally and happily tolerant. Intelligent folks, on the other hand, are destined to be surrounded by stupidity. Instead of feeling blessed with a favourable environment in terms of competition, however, they often feel irritated. They look around and find faults in everything, giving themselves legitimate reasons to be cynical and utterly pissed off with the dumb world, a state of mind which the mind alone cannot find a way out.


Torpor/ obsession: A high IQ person is just as likely as a fool to become torpid. Cynicism and disappointment with human follies are powerful demotivation agents. On the other hand, smart people can become obsessive because he thinks there’s a way out of every unsatisfactory situation if one is clever, and thinks hard enough. Unfortunately, existence is full of mysteries well beyond human knowledge and capacity, many of them utterly ‘unreasonable’, even ‘impossible’ to the human mind. Ironically, the likelihood of getting stuck in the most fundamental facts of life is directly proportional to intelligence.


Arrogance: Even dummies know that smart people are arrogant, though some hide it better than others.


Doubts or suspicions: Smart brains are involuntarily calculative by nature. The more it overthinks, the more traps and pitfalls it sees. That gives it foresight to a certain extent. Beyond that, it gives the owner of that brain neurosis and boundless doubts, seeing potential disasters everywhere. Since most issues are just figments of our insecure imagination, smart individuals end up spending a lot of time worrying about stupid things.


If being clever is a strong precursor of the five toxic hindrances, would smart individuals be better off with a frontal lobotomy? Not at all. Intelligence is a great blessing if aged nicely into wisdom. But similar to a brawny hunk admiring himself twitching muscles before a mirror, a smart fellow would be insulted if you remind him that his beautiful brain is just a piece of meat. And just as healthy musclemen tend to scorn healthful advices, eggheads love to block their own path to wisdom with too many sharp questions.


The difference between intelligence and wisdom maybe a matter of definition, but a meaningful one for clever folks to contemplate without involving their brainpower for once.

James Tam 2023.12.27


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