The limits of intelligence

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Like I explained once in the past, human babies are born with under developed brains, for physiological reasons. During the first year of life, they are basically still in pregnancy period, just outside of their mothers. They can’t do anything at all and will pretty much die from anything even remotely violent.

But most importantly, they are very, very dumb.

Of course, you could say they aren’t that dumb. By the 11 months mark, most of them are already crawling around. Compared to some animals, that can actually be an achievement. But compared to fully grown humans, even the smartest infant wouldn’t even compare to the dumbest adult.

Our brain keeps growing and developing for years after we are born. A 5 years old child is old enough to go to school (maybe by himself if it’s close), learn many things including reading, basic mathematics, etc. Some of them can even speak a few languages by that age. But no matter how much you’d try, they probably wouldn’t be able to complete calculus-level problems.

Most sources don’t agree on this matter, but usually you’ll read that the human brain stops evolving at some point between the ages of 17 and 27. Of course you can still learn stuff, but you won’t get physically smarter after that.

That’s why a puzzle game that you played when you were young and thought was super hard might now seem trivial.

Depending on which source you believe, maybe I’m completely done with brain-improvement growth, or maybe I still have a few years left. Either way, I’m most likely very close to the end.

When solving puzzles in my life, I have encountered many different types. Chess puzzles, word puzzles, video game puzzles, real-life puzzles, you name it. I have usually been reasonably decent at it. Some puzzles are easy, some are hard but still doable. Some of them are too hard and I can’t figure out how to solve them within any reasonable time constraint.

Usually, when I had trouble with a puzzle, it was usually one specific instance, that for amysterious reason just didn’t work for me. Maybe I’m wired in some way that this was my blind spot, or maybe I’m in denial of how I found puzzles that are above my level.

But then, during the last Steam Summer sale, I bought a game called SpaceChem.

It’s a puzzle game where you have to, using a set of predefined instructions with extremely limited free space, use the molecules you get as input and move, unbind, re-bind and switch them to get the desired output. For example, a very easy puzzle would be to receive two Oxygen atoms and make an O2 molecule.

This looks fairly straightforward. You get an input, you make an output.

But I can tell you straight away, I have no idea how many levels this game has. Maybe it has 30, maybe it has 3000. Because I can’t go any further.

The difficulty curve is exponential. It starts real easy, with tutorial levels basically doing everything for you. the game almost seems trivial for a few levels. Then it steps up, big time. The last levels I completed took me several hours each. And that’s not in one sitting. I try for a few hours, then go to bed, spend most of the next day thinking about that puzzle while doing other things, go back in the evening, spend a few more hours, etc. This cycle can go on for days. Then I finally reached a level that, no matter how much time I spend on it, I don’t progress. I don’t get any closer to a solution or just a direction. I am no longer improving anything. I’m stuck.

I hate to give up, but at some point you can’t spend your entire life on a game to prove a point, knowing fully well that the level right after would be even worse anyway. I have to accept reality. This was my limit. That is the level at which my own logic and reasoning is no longer enough.

That was a weird experience. I’ve had many moments in my life where I felt smart or I felt dumb. But those are usually “in the moment”. I just made a terrible decision, I was dumb. But I think it was the first time I ran head first into the wall that is my limit. It’s not a mistake that I could correct if I had a second chance, like most dumb decisions. I am not smart enough.

Hopefully, I get a few more years of brain development, and I can try again then. But until then, I guess I’m better off knowing precisely where my limit is, instead of guessing. It’s still pretty depressing.


I still recommend the game though. If you can beat it without looking up the answers (that’s basically cheating yourself. You are the only victim), then you are a smarter person than I am. If you can’t, don’t beat yourself up. You are not alone.