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An Interview with Björn Liljeqvist on Background, Mensa International, Social and Political Aspects of Intelligence, and Camilla (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/04/15


Björn Liljeqvist was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1975. He joined Mensa in 1991 and is currently the international chairman of that organisation. Privately, Björn lectures on advanced learning strategies to university students. A topic he’s written two books on in his native country. He has a background in embedded systems engineering with a Master’s degree from Chalmers University of Technology. He is married to Camilla, with whom he has one daughter. He discusses: family background; other background contexts; the trends for the last couple of decades of societies and identifying and nurturing giftedness; logic in the discourse on social and political aspects of intelligence; national and international Mensa responses; selective reading and interpretations; collective intelligence use and special interest groups; and family.

Keywords: Björn Liljeqvist, Camilla, chairman, Chalmers University of Technology, family, Mensa International, Sweden.

An Interview with Björn Liljeqvist on Background, Mensa International, Social and Political Aspects of Intelligence, and Camilla: Chairman, Mensa International (Part One)[1],[2]*

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

*Interview conducted on March 4, 2020.*

*Note from Liljeqvist, as to avoid confusion between individual statements and the stances of Mensa International: “Opinions are my own and not those of Mensa, except if otherwise stated.”*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background for you?

Björn Liljeqvist: I am basically Swedish all the way back [Laughing].

2. Jacobsen: [Laughing] When you’re looking at the experience in the little enclosed part of Sweden for part of the family background, and when you didn’t have a long history of professors or academic types in background, what were some other contexts?

Liljeqvist: I still had people. My maternal grandfather, for example, who was very intelligent, but grew up in a time when Sweden was a very poor country. He was a police officer, but with a big interest in science and literature and everything like that. He did give me a lot of stimulation growing up. That was something that meant a lot to me. We did have interesting conversations. When I eventually was 15 years old joining Mensa, it is a story, which I have told a lot in interviews [Laughing]. We had a substitute teacher in school who turned out to be a Board Member of Mensa, at the time, when Mensa was a very small organization in Sweden with just like 200 members. We talked after school one day. We had one of those amazing conversations, where you can feel something unusual is happening. I like to call this “Intellectual Resonance.” In acoustics or music, resonance is when you get feedback at the same rhythm that you’re producing your own sounds. So, intellectually, it means that you don’t have to stop and explain things. You don’t have to wait for someone to get the punchline or to get the point. It was an amazing experience to talk with someone who had been where I was, who had thought similar thoughts and then some.

My feeling over that was an exhilarating experience of engaging in thoughts and in ideas of a type that felt natural to me. I felt, “I need more of this. I need to meet more people like this. This is too valuable to be discarded. That is why I joined the society in the first place.” Of course, you can have amazing encounters even out of the intellectual or the IQ field, but, even so, that was an important experience for me. Sweden, in particular, it should be known. I think unlike many other comparative/comparable countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Sweden is extremely egalitarian. In that, you can see this in a lot of ways in how society works. [Laughing] There is a very strong taboo against bragging. Bragging is very much frowned up in Sweden. If you have to tell people how great you are, then there is something is wrong with you. If you are that great, people should notice already, just shut up and carry on.

Jacobsen: It sounds like Canada!

Liljeqvist: Yes, but probably even more so, growing up, that idea spilled over into education. Smart kids don’t need any kind of special interventions. They will always do fine. Who do you think you are being so smart anyway? So, the problem then, of course: if you cannot have special classes in advanced math, then the people, the gifted kids, who otherwise in other countries would excel and would get special education, and would be able to nurture their talents while they are ripe for it; they don’t get it. School can be very, very boring or very pointless. Then, by the time that you get the chance to go into math or science, or engineering, it is a bit late. I am not saying that the potential is lost – absolutely not. We do have talented engineers in Sweden too. But I see it as almost like a human right. Every person, every child, to foster or to excel, to explore things that they are interested in, in society. But that is a common theme in Scandinavia and in Sweden, in particular in growing up in school. I know there are similar things in other countries too. However, Scandinavia would probably be on the extreme end of that.

3. Jacobsen: What has been the trend over the last 20 or 30 years towards societies or organizations devoted to identifying and nurturing giftedness?

Liljeqvist: I think the trend is a lot more organizations and people in society, including government, acknowledge that it’s a real thing. It is something. Talent is unevenly distributed. That is a fact. It was always like that. But if you go back to the 1940s and the 1950s in some countries, like Scandinavia, the people used to talk about the talent reserve. They knew there was a lot of untapped talent or talented children. For economic or class-based reasons, they did not get the education at the level that they could have benefited from. However, I think that was mostly thought of in terms of class-based differences. Now, if you take the developed countries, like in the West or in the developed countries in general, everyone does get a chance to go to school and to foster that talent. So, if differences still persist, that makes it a lot more sensitive. It makes the whole topic a little difficult to handle. We don’t like the idea that not everyone could reach the same heights if they really put their mind to it and if they all got the same kind of education. I think it is important to not get stuck in that trap. I see, for example, when I look at the debate in the United States. That, to some people, and to some parts of society, the whole concept of intelligence and of measuring intelligence might get a bit politically charged in a way that it shouldn’t have to be.

Because this isn’t a right-wing or a left-wing issue. It never really was. It shouldn’t have to be. So, the trend, I would say, went from gradually people starting to accept, “Yes, intelligence is a real thing. Everyone has a right to education at their own level.” Then I worry that there would be a trend, which I haven’t seen in Sweden so far – but maybe in other places; that we shouldn’t talk about intelligence at all, which, I think, would be a mistake. I don’t think it is wrong to say, “Everyone has talent.” I know that some people think that is a cliché. I don’t think so. Everyone does, indeed, have something. It is not that everyone is better than everyone else in one capacity or another. That is obviously false. However, everyone has some things that they do better than they do other things. That is what I mean by talent. Appreciating the talented, discovering what is it what you do better than others things, your comparative talent – so to speak – or comparative advantage, finding that one and do everything that you can to develop that is an important thing. I am not sure if this really answers your question. You could ask again if you don’t think I did [Laughing].

4. Jacobsen: [Laughing] This is important. I think within the issues of intelligence are the political and social aspects of it. On the one hand, the political aspects of denial or defensiveness around affirmation of the concept from which one can then identify and nurture it. On the other hand, the social aspects of people, some people, seeing this as socially destructive in some ways because it puts some people above others and others below them, by natural discourse. And this, they would see as somehow inegalitarian to the society and against social benefit.

Liljeqvist: Yes, and I think the logic of that is completely wrong and upside-down, we should keep in mind the endeavour of testing intelligence came from the opposite end. People knew more than 100 years ago. Yes, there are people who have the intelligence and cannot nurture it simply because they are born into the wrong families or the wrong circumstances. That is fundamentally unfair. I would say that that argument still holds. If we try to pretend that intelligence doesn’t exist or everyone is completely equal, if everyone was completely equal in capacity, then it would be down to the environment. But the more you try to level out the influence of environment with giving everyone the same kinds of schools, and so on. Then all the differences that you would see would be from innate talent. However, we can’t really get around that some things are sensitive. We can’t really shy away from that. But we need to learn how to deal with it, and address that. One of the good things about Mensa and Mensa membership is that you very quickly lose all the prejudice you have about intelligence.

It becomes very, very obvious when you’re active in Mensa that intelligence is one factor among many. It doesn’t really say all that much about who you are. It is quite possible to be intelligent, have a high IQ, and still have a lot of trouble in life. We know that. We know that there is a correlation between IQ and income, and other things. [Laughing] But it is just a correlation, which means we know other factors play into this. So, knowing IQ is fine and not everything, it is important, so you can start addressing all those other things. But if you start to pretend that it doesn’t exist, for one, you would be wrong. One thing is clear from 100 years of intelligence research. There is, indeed, one thing that we can call talent or giftedness. So, I think going too far in either direction is dangerous. But I think, let’s move forward, I think I made the point.

5. Jacobsen: When we are looking at internal-to-Mensa (International), and when we are looking at one of the (national) branches, when we are looking at the organizational response to these political and social aspects, what is done within the culture of Mensa, even policy, to, within reasonable limits, deal with or manage some of these political and social facets, or concerns?

Liljeqvist: Different things are done in different countries. The Czech Republic Mensa, they have their own school. They have a school for gifted children run by Mensa. That wouldn’t work here, Sweden. We have a program where they dispatch instructors or specifically trained member volunteers to go to schools and, sometimes, politicians or people in some kind of position of responsibility, but mostly schools, to give free lectures. To inform, “We’d like to tell you a little bit about intelligence. These are the signs of giftedness that you should look out for. If you have children showing these issues or signs, or who appear to be bored, this is what you could give them, and so on.” Basically, it is trying to raise general awareness of giftedness in as matter-of-factly a way as possible. That is, without drawing too far fetched conclusions from it, simply telling people, teachers, about the factors, then letting this speak for itself, most people, most teachers, want children growing up to be happy, to be able to do the things that they like and enjoy. We understand that. We acknowledge it, when it comes to other things, e.g., having a talent for football or music. That has always been included in my country very much, fostered and cultivated. We have had schools for the musically gifted, sports for the athletically gifted, for a very long time.

But when it comes to mathematically gifted, it has been sensitive. Trying to change that is well within what we as a non-political society can do, the American Mensa Foundation, they give out scholarships, and so on, to students and also to researchers. But I would say Mensa still has a long way to go. The original idea in Mensa: let’s have a society not just for people who share views or share a certain idealism for these issues, but to limit membership only to people who score above a certain point. It is an interesting idea. But there are certain challenges to running a society where you don’t have diversity of talent in the same way that you would have in a normal society. Not everyone is highly educated, most are, we have great diversity in many ways.

We have diversity in opinion, perhaps greater than in society in general, which makes perfect sense from a statistical point of view. But we don’t have diversity when it comes to intellectual ability. It means that most members are people of the kind who enjoy ideas. I think it is good, an organization, if you have some people in there who like to think of ideas, like to philosophize, and everything, and then people who like to do simple manual labour like folding papers, putting them in envelopes, and then sending them away.

That might be better for the society in itself. Mensa has an abundance of people with opinions and a lot of practice in finding arguments, and rationalizations for their opinions. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but it comes with particular challenges. Even for Mensa to find its place, it has been difficult. So, the social aspect of it, what we discovered, what Mensa discovered, very early on, almost as soon as it was founded. When you get these people together, they experience something. They experience this resonance. You get this kind of resonance in conversation. So, many times, many Mensa members, when they meet, have a lot of fun. That has been a very big part of the society, the social platform. It is written into the Mensa Constitution. That it should provide a place for people to meet. It is not the main thing. It is not the reason why we are here. Like I said, a lot of people who come wanting something more, something deeper. But a lot of things have happened in the last ten years. In many countries, we are looking at ways of putting this to use. The one thing that has not really been done successfully is the idea of this global thinktank that can solve problems.

Not because it is a bad thing to want, but, I think, people underestimated the amount of coordination that is needed to get from 100,000 intelligent individuals into a collective intelligence made up of 100,000 people. One of my own private, personal strong interests is how do you achieve collective intelligence. How do a collection of intelligent individuals coalesce into superintelligent collective high hive, hive mind it is way different difficult than we normally assume. But it is still something that is worth exploring because we know that sometimes groups can really accomplish great things. Companies, NGOs, thinktanks, under certain circumstances, a group of intelligent people can still be collectively stupid. The idea, when Mensa was founded, that this society could work or serve as some kind of a thinktank to come up with recommendations for policymakers, and so on. We haven’t reached that. What we do, members find other members what they want to do together, that’s something. We have these programs like schools and raising awareness. All that is fine. But it is still way in the future before some company or a country could say, “We are having troubles with inundations or earthquakes. Quick! Let’s call the Mensa collective hive mind and ask for their advice.” That is not who we are today. I wonder if that will ever be the case. Personally, I have given a lot of thought, particularly in the days of social media when people naturally come together forming groups to discuss.

Sometimes, it works well. Sometimes, it doesn’t work at all. What are the conditions that have to be there for intelligence to emerge from a collective? That is something that, I think, should be looked into at the academic level more. To take an example, if you look at the brain itself, what is it? You have a distribution of nodes, of brain cells. For this to work, it has to contain the noise, don’t propagate the noise, but identify quality, propagate quality. That seems to work even on a greater scale. If you have social media that propagates the noise, then you get all sorts of weird artifacts, e.g., gossip, fake news, hate campaigns, whatever. When the nodes make an effort to identify interesting, useful information, and elaborate on that, and forward that, then you get interesting things emerging from networks. I think this is a tangent. We are living through a very interesting mega-experiment with social media and vastly distributed communication channels. We haven’t seen the end of it. We are learning as a civilization how to deal with it. What networks are helpful and conducive to a better society? What kind of networks are not? That is very, very fascinating to see, to live in that age. I guess, 10 or 20 years from now, we will have a lot more knowledge compared to what we have today.

6. Jacobsen: Some of the research into the social media networks appear to show, at least in Twitter, people stick to their bubbles. No matter the political suasion. It is a very small group of people who will read the different side of things, and pick from different sources, and cross-pollinate networks.

Liljeqvist: Yes, I am aware of that. Although, I know some studies have been made. These bubbles are not quite as thick as they are often made out to be. But yes, fair enough, it’s not all the same. Researchers & scientists also use these. I follow interesting thinkers on Twitter. To me, that has been a great thing. I have grown accustomed to a daily diet of interesting, novel thoughts. That’s not at all what life was like 20 years ago. Now, I can get a steady supply of really, really interesting ideas and research. 10 or 100 times denser than 20 years ago or before the internet. Yes, there are bubbles. For sure, there are bubbles. But it is not all bubble. If you look at this from an evolutionary point of view, there are always changes to the environment. One can never really know in advance what kind of organism is going to emerge victorious. I think it is the same with social media. Some types of behaviour and usages will turn out to be more conducive to intelligence and stable, healthy societies than others. We’re currently seeing a lot of such attempts at how to use, or how should you use, social media. How should you avoid disinformation? How should you find quality? What is a healthy way of engaging? For example, just doing something that would be a good thing to do if it was only you, it could, when 100,000 people do it, become something else. Even such a thing as taking a stance against someone who is saying something stupid, yes, it could be good to counter that. If a 1,000,000, qualitatively, it might be a bit too strong and might lead to people becoming afraid of expressing themselves online, etc. That is the other side of it. The people who we would all benefit the most from listening to might drop out of the conversation altogether if it is not seen as safe to engage in it – so to speak. Of course, this is a topic that could go on forever. It is something that even I am finding for Mensa the best kind of online community, which the members would enjoy and allow for intelligent exchange of ideas. It is a big personal interest of mine.

7. Jacobsen: Do you think, speaking of a collective intelligence use, the special interest groups perform something like that service?

Liljeqvist: That could be one way of doing it, for example, absolutely. When that happens, that members join together to do something in a way that has been facilitated by Mensa because they found each other through Mensa, through a special interest group. Then they are something good in general, but then without really crediting Mensa for it. Similar example, a lot of people find partners and get married, and have children, meeting through Mensa. Absolutely, that’s a wonderful thing if we can do that. But it is not something that you can attribute to the society. It is that Mensa becomes one more area in the world, where people can find each other and join forces, whether that is for some socially beneficial cause or for personal interests. That’s fine, either way. It is one of the goals of Mensa: to make it possible, easier for intelligent people to find other intelligent people to join forces.

8. Jacobsen: Did this happen with Camilla and you, in terms of finding someone likeminded in that community?

Liljeqvist: Sure, absolutely, [Laughing] we met through Mensa 5 years ago or something. It’s something that happens. Yes.

Outliers, and so on, what else can I help you with? What else do you want to talk about?

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Chairman, Mensa International.

[2] Individual Publication Date: April 15, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020:


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