“Hyper Brains”? High Intelligence and Health

By Neuroskeptic | October 22, 2017 5:33 am

A few weeks ago I blogged about the idea that high-IQ people suffer from an inability to communicate with less gifted folk. Now, a new paper claims that very intelligent people are more prone to mental illnesses and allergies.

However, I don’t think the paper is very smart.

Researchers Ruth I. Karpinski and colleagues surveyed the members of American Mensa, a society for people in the top 2% of IQ (IQ 130+). 3,715 Mensans responded to the survey, which asked them whether they were currently diagnosed with various diseases, from depression to asthma. Participants were also asked if they suspect that they might suffer from these conditions.

It turned out that the Mensans reported levels of illness higher than the ‘national average’:


Karpinski et al. make much of these results, putting forward what they call the ‘hyper-brain/hyper-body’ model of high-IQ ‘hypersensitivity’:

The model posits a unique psychoneuroimmunological process such that those with a hyper brain in the form of very superior (at or above 130) cognitive ability lend themselves to a greater tendency to respond to environmental stressors by ruminating and worrying which are positive predictors of risk for psychological overexcitabilities leading to affective disorders.

These disorders are closely associated with a hyper body which manifests in physiological overexcitabilities which take the form of immune and inflammatory dysregulation, which can also bi-directionally instigate psychological effects.


I have a few concerns here. First off, the disease prevalence data in this study were based on self-report of current medical diagnoses – the questions asked whether disorders had been “formally diagnosed by a medical professional.” The baseline, ‘national average’ comparison prevalence rates, however, were not gathered in this way.

The ‘national average’ data in the mood disorders category, for instance, are taken from the NCS-R survey (data collected 2001-2003.) The NCS-R survey did not ask people whether they’d been diagnosed with a mood disorder. Instead, trained interviewers asked participants a series of questions about their mood, emotions, sleep, and other symptoms, and made diagnoses based on strict criteria.

Doctors in the real world don’t diagnose depression the NCS-R way, so we can’t compare the NCS-R estimate of mood disorder prevalence to the estimate of diagnosed prevalence from Karpinski et al.’s survey. It’s comparing Malus and Citrus.


Secondly, I have concerns about the sample. This wasn’t a study of high-IQ people. It was a study of Mensans, a self-selected subgroup of high-IQ people. 6.5 million Americans fall in the top 2% of IQ, and only 55,000 of them are members of American Mensa.

In other words, Mensans make up about 0.8% of high-IQs, and Karpinski et al. have data from less than 10% of Mensans, so the sample is seriously unrepresentative.

The ‘national average’ comparison data, however, were taken from nationally representative American samples. The age, gender, and ethnic demographics of the Mensa respondants differ considerably from the national average.

Even if we take the results of this study at face value, the ‘hyper-brain/hyper-body’ theory is rather horribly simplistic. It reminds me of ancient Greek humorism, or 19th century neurology’s talk of ‘nervous excitement’. The brain is not a gland that just pumps excitement when aroused.

  • Patrick Sussmann

    Thanks for this post! I feel like the paper was getting at something, but your criticisms echoed my feelings about it. I think there is something to the idea that “ignorance is bliss” but maybe that’s a grass is greener type of fallacy.

  • OWilson

    Mensa membership involves more than a high intelligence. It attracts elitists who need peer recognition and approval.

    It is as boring a group, as a room full of politicians, a room full of Hollywood actors, or a room full of beauty pageant contestants.

    • https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=UUwbGJwCdp96FKSLuWpMybxQ Lee Rudolph

      It attracts elitists who need peer recognition and approval.

      A would-be “elitist” who can accept as “elite” such a large fraction of the population as 1 in 50 isn’t doing elitism right. But I suppose there are inner circles to strive for…

      • OWilson

        Like all Associations they’ll be walking all over each other to get on the executive board, and the committees! :)

        • Erik T.

          That isn’t really true. Psychopaths will to power like that, not brsoniny pocket protector geeks, I know, my mom got me in when I was 12 and I played tribal pursuit with bestcasca result.. My mom was a local proctor for Mensa and indeed had low self concept, despite decent brain power (ironically not as high as my dad in most ways or even myself ) but she limited her lust for acceptance to that; most geeks are not as predatory as Bill Gates and although he is an example of the extreme end of how a smart guy can become maniacal, he ain’t the worst billionaire out there. I haven’t attended a Mensa meeting for 25 years, but I still recall what they were like…. think geek squad, not psychopaths business people or politicians. George Bush and Trump wouldn’t make Mensa btw.

          • Victoria Howerton

            What is your evidence that Trump wouldn’t “make” Mensa? Aside from the reasonable assumption that current members wouldn’t let him in.

          • Erik T.

            I’m now 45 years old and have worked a career where I “assess human behaviour” for 20 years….but it should be obvious who is who on the world stage of not only intelligence, but psychopathy. It’s not like Trump is new on the scene. He has interviews going a long way back….and he wasn’t ever, and isn’t today, very bright. Hearing him speak is about as close to an idiot and clear intellectual fraud as one can get, and those that correctly assess him as unfit for leadership are bang on. It’s not like his antics aren’t traceable to a source…he watches FOX news proudly and regurgitates their drivel…and does so with vocabulary and usage of a child….not that only people from Mensa can see through where people get their ideas from, but holy cow America…assessing behaviour 100 means starting with the simple people to peg and then move on to nuanced psychopaths and criminals. Trump is about as easy to read as they come. I mean the laughingstock of the world is when George W. Bush denounces Trump as unfit…talk about the pot calling the kettle black…and yet he is right about that much. I, like many thought it might be better for humanity to have Trump beat Hillary for the simple reason that people could finally be “shocked” into realizing what “not” to do to “drain the swamp”….which is to hire the cheapest crocodile of the bunch. Hillary would have made another billion threatening universal health care to the pharma and Insurance companies like she did last time with Bill. Trump will make not so much as his threats to corporate interests are idle and he is more than willing to bootlick for peanuts so his poor business deals don’t cost him.

            BTW, Getting in to Mensa has zero to do with “letting someone in” …if you pass the exams you are “in.” Trump can’t even get simple historical facts correct and wouldn’t have a chance trying to figure out how far a train traveling x kms/hr and a car travelling y would have to travel to meet at a certain spot. He is the type of person who gets in to the top business school not based on credentials but on his father’s money buying his way in. This should be obvious. Elon Musk also attended the same school, but he attended “real” universities first, not solely private “business” schools where you have to pay ridiculous amounts to attend. You can tell who is genius material and who isn’t amongst those two figures. Again this should be obvious. The US system is rife with money facilitating otherwise inept or corrupt people’s way through life, and the corruption doesn’t end with Trump, GOP, or establishment Democrats. How most Americans can be “ok” with their money lobbying system used to hyjack democracy by corporate interests is absolutely obvious to most people outside the US…simple propaganda brainwashing, and although it exists in other g8 countries, the percentage of masses that are brainwashed is not higher anywhere than the US. People from the US don’t even accept evolution at a rate any better than third world countries!!!

            But make no mistake, as geeky and filled with low self esteem as many Mensans are, they would be far better options for President than psychopaths, sycophants, and the suckers that vote for them. They are generally the opposite; altruists, almost every one, because, yes, psychopaths don’t have a need to be “friends” with anyone, and geeky low esteemed alienated geniuses do.

          • OWilson

            You still have much to learn!

            If you’ve ever had your life saved by a third world fisherman, and watched how he is able to feed his family directly from Mother Nature, with no middle man. you would understand that education and intelligence is not derived from learning “how far a train traveling x kms/hr and a car travelling y would have to travel to meet at a certain spot”, at one of your “real” universities! :)

          • Mike Hill

            Anti-intellectualism in a raw and unadulterated form. Splendid! lol

          • Kirk Broadhurst

            On raw chance, he has a one in fifty chance. Listening to him speak and considering his intellectual curiosity it’s very hard to imagine he fits in the top 2%. According to his college he was a thoroughly average student. Why would you expect he *would* be eligible to get into Mensa?

          • Victoria Howerton

            A one in fifty chance places him in a pool of the general population, covering the range of intelligences. Indisputably his intelligence is in the above average range. As for Mensa, I’ve known several members who were smart, especially in vocabulary, but I wouldn’t have considered them true genius by any measure . I think Trump is mentally underestimated because he doesn’t “wow” verbally. Further, I can quite imagine that if his parents had trained him as a youth, and given him Mensa practice tests, his chances of getting into Mensa would have been substantial.

          • Affoo

            In high school I finished in the lowest 10% (20% attendance).

            My IQ is above 150 using SB5.

            Now I’m a student at medical school (late start) because we have a standardized national test in my country (Sweden), and I tend to do very good on these.

            But if I had kept being lazy I would still have just been known to have done very poorly in school and been working as a tyre fitter.

          • Bryant Francis

            Very true.

          • Mike Hill

            The problem is that Trump, demonstrably, used to have way more coherence than he does now. Back in the 80s, he routinely completed sentences, for example. Trump’s current lack of eloquence isn’t just a lack of learning, but a startling regression from the height of his ability. However smart Trump was at the top of the curve, he’s a moron now.

          • Jonathan Doe

            His apparent inability to even form a coherent sentence does not paint a picture of a person blessed with a sharp intellect. I would doubt very much that he would be able to score well enough in a validated test of IQ to make the top 2%.

          • Victoria Howerton

            Well, I suspect that quite a few Mensa members don’t aspire to the top 2% as long as they prepped thoroughly for the entrance exam. I find Trump’s speech quite coherent and cogent if it lacks Norton-sanctioned vocabulary. There is an epidemic of pretentious blowhards in the US who speak inanities as if their words were jewels of wisdom.

          • Mike Hill

            He can’t routinely complete sentences, and there’s a multitude of reports that explaining ideas to Trump — “nuclear taboo” was one of them — is a lot like explaining things to house plants. His IQ is almost certainly below 100, so he’s nowhere near 130. I’m not sure how Trump was at his smartest, but that’s clearly decades in the past.

          • I’m me

            I have to disagree about Trump. He is actually quite clever. But you might be right. He wouldn’t need or want to join the group. That goes back to Owilson”s post.

          • Georgius

            Low animal cunning does not equate with intellect. His vocabulary and lack of curiosity show a below average intelligence. Maybe he once had a high social intelligence, but his narcissism constantly clouds his own judgement.

          • I’m me

            You are entirely wrong about cunning. There are many different types of intelligence. The easiest and most uninspired is the type where you take a test. But people do get invested in their supposed superiority if they happen to do well taking a test. Head right over to Mensa and sign up. Their badge of superiority.
            A person that is cunning intelligent can possess the world.

          • Sys Best

            A person that wants to “possess the world”, whatever that means to you, probably money, is not intelligent.

            cunning : having or showing skill in achieving goals by deceit or evasion

            A person that uses deceit to get something, anything for that matter, is not intelligent.

            And a person that doesn’t get that there’s no “possessing the world” and whatever perception of power by means of money or fame one has is only blowing in the wind is plain stupid.

          • I’m me

            You seem to be taking my post personally. It’s ok. I forgive you.

          • TLongmire

            We are in a simulation and Trump figured the rules out and rose to the pinnacle, intellegent or not.

          • OWilson

            I wonder how many of Trump’s detractors, (his list of claimed deficiencies include, variously, dangerous mental impairment, incompetence in business, socially dysfunctional, and part of a Russian scheme to subvert U.S. Democracy by taking over the White House, or just a clown) can boast building World Class New York Skyscrapers, and world wide resorts, not to mention totally overwhelming all 17 GOP Rivals, and 2 of the best the Democrats could muster, including, they would have us believe, the most intelligent woman on the planet, and becoming the most powerful man on Earth?

            To understand the criticism, you have to understand the source.

            (Anybody know what happened to Megan Kelly?) :)

          • I’m me

            That’s it about Trump. He found the key and he used it to his advantage while everyone else was thinking he only had a toy. He used his perceived lack of intelligence to gain a tremendous advantage over all his rivals. His clownishness, in the same way.
            All of his opposition couldn’t see beyond the clown. No one is ever afraid of the dotards and people that aren’t fast and sharp, so they fight all the others that they feel have an advantage. The clown stands alone. Waiting.

          • OWilson

            I was never a fan of Trump, until I saw unsavory and hateful lengths the Washington establishment were willing to go to denigrate him and his voters.

            And, I suppose having dismissed him as a clown, and then falling to his superior political skills, is a bitter pill to swallow for these narcissistic politicians.

          • I’m me

            I’m constantly amused. He’s perhaps the strongest most stubborn and constant person I’ve ever seen. Washington is no match for him. The media doesn’t realize it, but they purified him with their fire.

          • Mike Hill

            I can’t tell if you’re a paid Russian troll or just a deranged volunteer for Putin’s team. But it’s pretty clear you’re at least one of them.

          • go to

            I think there is fusion of ideas here, but we are assuming, and not using logic or proof, just like in politics…no one has enough information to make an accurate assessment about Trump. Some people play a game better through tenacity, or by being clever. lets use Bill Clinton as an example. We all agree Clinton is smart. There is enough proof in multiple ways, i.e. Rhode Scholar.
            But Clinton has been practicing politics and law making for 20+ years…what is the formula that contains the attributes of experience, wisdom and logical intelligence?

            If there is someone twice as talented as Michael Jordan, does that person need 1/4 the experience/practice, 1/2?

            Trump has no experience .

            But voters know that. He is referred to as a break-glass-in-case -of-emeergency, President.

            Hitting the cue ball out of the way of your opponents next shot.

          • Mike Hill

            The information we need is contained not in Trump’s current lack of eloquence, but in the staggering decrease in eloquence we’ve seen from him over the past quarter century. The Donald Trump I knew from news reports in the 70s and 80s could routinely complete sentences. The Trump before us, today, is practically drooling on himself, by comparison. Trump’s IQ has plummeted like a stone as he has aged, as is also evidenced by the cornucopia of reports that Trump does not assimilate new ideas easily, if at all. One famous example was “nuclear taboo.” He’s dangerously stupid.

          • go to

            “… like Hitting the cue ball out of the way, and blocking your opponents next shot.” is a tactic.

            its not how smart he is. He has said , he has been spied on, and turned out he was right.

            he has said 4 CRAZY things, and it turned out he was right , half right.

            what it comes down to, is liberals/progressives will NEVER vote conservative. Their brain is wired that way, forever. And they will seemingly find the things that are wrong with the other side, As I. One thing is for CERTAIN!!!

            my nephew is muslim, and 17 years ago, he celebrated 9/11. thanked Bin Laden, for bringing down the towes. My uncle said he wants to kill ALL CHRISTIANS!!!

            this year, mom 70 year old female cousins dont mind older type of Americans to go away. They dont like the Americans that have been here for a while…

            I am sorry but , i believe TRUMP is right…Islam is not welcome here…its TOO DIFFERENT…it is just common sense…its not a right mix…50% are terrorist sympathizers at nicest.

          • Paul Rain

            @Georgius Lol.

            Please graph your lifetime net worth.

          • Sys Best

            Clever? Yeah, maybe in the shrewd sense.

          • Erik T.

            The continued glorification of Trump in this subthread is laughable. You people realize he “made it” solely through connections and money he received from birth from his father right? He is a useless toad that has figured nothing in life out other than to watch fox news and regurgitate memes like, “wrong!”

            He isn’t even a very good psychopath and is much more a sycophant. Psychopaths can score high in IQ but obviously don’t care about anyone but themselves. Without the conscience of collateral damage to others and the environment, that hardly shows a superior skull but rather a huge intellectual deficit. Largely because even if one takes into consideration other people the long term benefits to the individual are actually greater, not less.

        • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

          Staffing local chapter chairs and committees is misery. Elections are often one candidate/slot.
          Mama Mensa in Texas was stirred by an email titled “Idiot Wackadoodles.” The problem was changed but not fixed.

          Mensa should be a consulting hub. When management needs an answer in the worst way possible – Uncle Al’s way.

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      Mensa was formed as a British social group to breed against reversion to the mean (now being mean indeed – average bulk tested 83-85 IQs in Los Angeles high schools). Average people are doormats, broad in application. Performing high intelligence is increasingly an ice pick, obsessive-compulsive in narrow areas and overall not social.

      psychoneuroimmunological process” “ACK! THBBFT!”

      A typical Orange County Mensa monthly newsletter mailing is staffed by a literal rocket scientist, a patent attorney and past Mayor of a local city, an organic chemist, a lawyer, a concert instrumentalist, two housewives, and a sheet metal salesman. A past member enabled reliable thermonuclear warhead detonation using a Cessna part. Clever fellow. Each and all like to hear themselves talk, soliloquies rather than colloquies.

    • Kamran Rowshandel

      That was a very cliche comment I can’t believe I finished reading it. Sike! I didn’t read the whole thing and you haven’t wasted as much of my time as you planned!

  • Dyrne

    It seems pretty obvious that introspection requires abstract thought. While insensitive to say, this is the reason low IQ populations (thinking of a particular one in the US) have always been reported to have fewer such illnesses.

  • TLongmire

    The stomach is very much like the brain and perhaps individuals with high IQs need a more enriched diet or they become more susceptible to those conditions.

  • Gary Dingleberry


  • mrmethane

    I let my membership lapse after the first year. However, among those members I met, elitism wasn’t a notable characteristic. Lack of social skills seemed more prevalent, along with awareness of same. Hmmm – lots of slagging from the “earth people” making comments here….

  • Candice H. Brown Elliott

    Another aspect of self-selection is that high IQ folks in a self-selected group as Mensa are also likely to have higher than average access to mental health care professionals. So, again, it may not be that high IQ = higher incidence, but rather higher diagnoses rates.

    I’m always amused that Mensa is used in this way. I was cajoled into joining in my early 20s by a college roommie. I let my membership lapse instantly. The meetings were indeed “boring”. I met much more interesting and far more intelligent people in my everyday life in Silicon Valley. A little thought experiment to explain why. First, Mensa has a two sigma cut-off at the upper end of a Gaussian distribution (one in 50). This means that those who are just barely qualified will out number those who are well above qualified. Those who are well above qualified will not find those who are just barely qualified to be all that interesting as companions… and given that they already out-number those well above… well… there is a tendency to self-select for those who are just barely qualified. Thus, using Mensa as a convenience sample gives a very thin slice of the IQ distribution and says very little about those who may be well above two sigma from average.

  • Rixware

    Junk science. But there is a grain in there worth exploring.

    I would be all in with the authors if their claim was instead that people who belong to weird social clubs have a higher incidence of mental illness. Their research still is way too sloppy to prove that, but it would have something much closer to the ring of truth.

  • forsdyke


    It would be nice if you could more formally post your criticisms of this IQ paper (if only to cite their location here), on sites such as PubMed Commons or PubPeer. It is also good to make clear whether one is using IQ in the strict psychological sense or in the vernacular sense – which many find useful when thinking about differences between “very intelligent” and “less gifted” folk.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Thanks. If I have time this weekend I will do. Been a busy week!

  • I’m me

    The higher IQ could suggest that the person is more attuned to their body and are aware of allergens and their effect on their bodies. Not that the awareness causes the allergies, or that the person becomes overexcited about the normal function of their bodies.

    • fedwinri

      Don’t rule out that “awareness causes the allergies.” My allergist, at intakes, hands out a journal article on the impressive and formidable placebo factor in allergy assessments. 50% of symptom-indicated positive skin-prick tests (thrown out) was the figure reached by controlled study. What that implies about relating hypersensitivity to high intelligence, I’ll not assert. We too quickly forget that while there may be good anecdote and a claim displaying the feathers of good sense, evolution falls squarely on the side of the stricken smart kid. It is under precisely the canopy of a super-societal intelligence that the anguished, unstable, frail, and elsewise congenitally inviable of the subspecies well could have held a little more firmly onto genetic success than has elsewhere been proved. Intelligence need not be thought to create or breed infirmity; only it need allow such traits be bred out less quickly, else the scheme of darwinian fitness would be violated for one trait or the other–the good or the bad–or the principle of scarcity would necessarily have been nullified. If survival is difficult, exceptional strength will provide greater ability to support weakness. Through course of time, that weakness becomes increasingly exceptional as it is ill-equipped to survive in the mode of reducing the otherwise mean-trait-fitness individual.

      • Paul Rain

        Or, simply, that the less intelligent aren’t aware of their illnesses.

        I doubt Mensa members leave their children in hot cars all that much.

    • go to

      Just plainly , True, that possibility can exist.

    • Maia

      Good point. Higher awareness of higher sensitivity and reaction…leads to more self-care and better choices.

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  • Donald Leo

    By having an average 150-160 IQ,am I in danger of getting those sorts of illness or is it based of the person itself…..

  • http://www.pbase.com/davidjl David Littleboy

    On the other hand, don’t higher-IQ folks live longer*? Being neurotic for living longer is a trade-off I’d take…
    *: Or was that being more affluent, or having more education? Three things that correlate less strongly than one might think. Whatever. Being able (and interested in) reading the medical literature and being able to differentiate junk from possibly useful stuff has to help. (Of course, being able to read the literature is depressing some times: the study that validated the second-generation antihistamine I take showed that four times the allowed dosage made 30% of allergy sufferers feel better. No wonder smart people are depressed.)

    • Paul Rain

      Yup, it’s higher IQ (assumedly correlated with higher genetic fitness in general, as well as better life choices).

    • ohwilleke

      A very large share of the life expectancy benefit attributable to high IQ is mediated through education and in turn comes from choosing not to smoke which is socially less desirable among the well educated.

  • Thiago Favero
  • PY

    Mensa lol. My entire business revolves around hiring quantitatively intelligent people and we’d only ever laugh at the occasional douche who put Mensa on their resume. If you’re smart you don’t bother joining a group to prove it. It’s not even a thing you care about. Mensa membership is a sign that you lack confidence in your intelligence.

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  • KMcClellan


  • Kamran Rowshandel

    “Intelligence” that is tested for in IQ tests can absolutely be bolstered by states of stress. That’s why nootropics mimick or increase stress hormones. These people need to take a Benadryl every once in a while and relax. If they were actually clever we’d see them owning land. Whatever their intelligence is it seems to be pretty much occupied. Rather funky that they’d be able to be occupied if you ask me. The whole thing is a sort of oxymoron in a way. Since I just thought that, I’m now realizing that their society may well be a sort of better freemasonry. I LIKE it.

  • Mike Hill

    I would be inclined to believe a study that demonstrated a correlation between Mensa members and narcissists.

  • JanJT

    Hm. As a person who works with these highly intelligent people who happen to have ASD, ADHD, or mood disorders, I can tell you that this research is right on the money in terms of what I have observed for the last 11 years working with well over 1000 clients. While anecdotal, I can confirm that the higher the intelligence, the higher the risk for suicidal tendencies among our clients. This may not be perfect research, it starts to open a door to understanding, and can help clinicians such as myself to determine better treatments.

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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