The Bright Stuff

What really lurks inside the Mensa mind?

Call them intellectually elite and they'll protest they're no different from others.

"We don't sit around discussing Einstein's Theory of Relativity or drive around town with vehicles bearing e=mc2 bumper stickers," says Scott Benjamin, Tucson chapter president of Mensa, the High IQ Society.

But they are different by the very fact that only two out of the next 100 people you meet would even be eligible to join this educationally-elite clique. These are the smart folks, gifted brainiacs whose tested intelligence quotients measure a minimum of 135.

"We're very fast people in what we perceive as a very slow world," says Hardy Grant, a past president of the Tucson group. "When you join the club," he says, "it's like joining a herd of wild mustangs. The herd mentality is fast moving, but this is comfortable because each individual can run fast, too, and the group keeps up with you."

Hardy, trained in fine arts as a sculptor-painter-illustrator, describes himself as a collector of skills, constantly moving from subject to subject as his interest wanes or more exciting prospects appear. "I don't choose a particular subject, research it, get comfortable with it and then get bored with it," he explains. "Let's just say something new arrives and takes center stage as it crowds out the old."

Karen Binnie, another past chapter president, refers to it as mental hopscotch in which rapid-fire random thoughts compete for attention. "I know it happens," says Binnie, a certified public accountant. "We did this in my family and considered it perfectly normal. We'd be in the middle of a heated discussion and we'd lose someone's attention to the 'go-tos'--somebody would say something that reminded you of something else, and your mind would move on to the new subject before the old conversation ever concluded."

This happens on a regular basis at a midtown pizza joint where Mensa members gather monthly to meet potential new members and answer questions about the group. If no new recruits show up, they're comfortable enough as peers to test each other's intellect.

"I get off on bright people," says Bill Taylor, who spends his workday with business partner Elizabeth Van Horn (also a Mensan) headhunting for crème de la crème recruits in the biotechnology sector. "I recruited a software engineer from Cornell recently," enthuses Taylor, "one of the brightest people I've ever run into. He speaks three languages and aced his SAT exams in both math and chemistry. I enjoy my job because I get to meet a bevy of highly intelligent and very articulate people. That's also the reason I joined Mensa."

During a recent get-together, the local contingent proved that Mensans will discuss just about anything and will interrupt one conversation to begin another, often commenting on several subjects simultaneously. One participant confided, "Whenever you get two Mensans together to talk, you'll have at least three opinions."

Mensa minds are crowded craniums in constant search of intellectual intrigue. And as these speedy synapses continually fire internally, they often produce outward signs of either ennui or abrasiveness.

"A lot of smart people are socially isolated. They're introverted--'social cretins'--who have never learned how to properly converse in a group setting," observes Binnie. "They're argumentative and think that because they're smarter than others, nobody is right but them."

However, the prevailing stereotype that really smart people have limited social skills and carry around an unlimited supply of pens in a pocket protector is a trite characterization. "Some grow up nerds," she says, "but a lot don't."

"There's no real shortage of characters in this club," says its current president, who performs telescope design work for Southern Arizona's optics industry. Benjamin expresses his individuality by eschewing standard four-wheeled transportation, opting instead to two-wheel it to work on a yellow BMW motorcycle, or his 1969 Harley rat chopper when he can get it running. "There's no dearth of unusual people among our membership, but it's not much different from what you'd find in any other organization," he says.

Society members will acknowledge that stimulating intellectual discussions are a big attraction to membership, but another big drawing card is Special Interest Groups, or SIGs, as members call them. These are individuals with like-minded interests who band together to enjoy regular-type activities such as rock climbing, motorcycling, quilting or target shooting. Of course, this being Mensa, the group that aims for the bull's-eye on the rifle range doesn't refer to the activity as target shooting. They call it "remote perforation."

"This is Mensa tongue-in-cheek humor," says Benjamin. "Our members have already explored the mundane and are looking for stimulation in new activities or at least adding a new twist or new name to a familiar endeavor."

Like the large group of Tucson Mensa "B" movie aficionados who formed a SIG to socialize and talk movies, especially cult classics. "We call this the Musty Piece Theatre," says Benjamin. "These are old movies that weren't necessarily box office successes, like Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town. There was a big turnout for that one." A more recent crowd-pleaser was Forbidden Planet, in which members were enticed to see "a young Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis in a miniskirt, a plot ripped off from Shakespeare, and the only robot more famous than C3PO."

With 170 members in the local chapter, there's a big turnout for just about any gathering. "We'll talk about the same topics you'll find at any Tucson BBQ or pot luck get-together. This concept of stuffy white shirt elitists isn't true. We'll pull a cold brew out of the ice bucket just like at any other gathering in town," Benjamin says.

There have been a lot of gatherings in the 50-plus years since the society was formed as an organization for people who enjoy mental challenges and revel in the interplay of ideas. There are also other advantages to Mensa membership, as Bil ("That's Bil with one L") Munsil explains.

As a youth, Munsil says he had a very low self-image. He sought to establish his identity and generate some positive feedback by accepting sister Marilyn's offer to pay for his Mensa qualification test and join her as a society member in 1986. He's been an intellectual overachiever ever since and is now an instructor of Esperanto, the artificial international language, as well as a genealogist and ham radio/TV operator.

By the by, Momma didn't raise no fools in the rest of his family, either. All seven siblings are qualified by elevated intellectual acumen to join Mensa. Leader of the pack is baby brother Wes, who graduated from Cal Tech before his 19th birthday with a tested IQ of 178.

Munsil says that his own IQ of almost 150 allows him the liberty of introducing himself as "a genuine card-carrying smart ass." His mind is facile and his conversational responses are peppered with wit and humor, or his definition thereof. "Give me a subject and I've got a joke to go with it," he responds, pointing to his T-shirt. It shows a light bulb and reads, "How many Mensans does it take to screw in a light bulb?" The question is followed by a mathematical formula so complex Einstein probably wrote it, ending with, "But then you knew that."

Some well-known Mensans include acknowledged intellects such as architect R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome; Isaac Asimov, the legendary science-fiction writer; and Marilyn Vos Savant, author of Parade magazine's column "Ask Marilyn!" Vos Savant is listed in the Guinness Hall of Fame as having the world's highest recorded IQ, an astounding 228.

Other notable, if less conventional, members in this diverse organization include Academy-Award-winning actress Geena Davis; former two-time World Boxing Association champion Bobby Czyz; the first woman editor-in-chief of Better Homes & Gardens magazine, Jean LemMon; former Playboy Playmate-turned-chiropractor Julie Paterson; and author of What Color is Your Parachute? Richard Bolles, whose book spent 228 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.

Organizational publicity notes the youngest Mensan is 3 years old. At the other end of the spectrum, the oldest is over 100. About two-thirds of the membership is male, with most in the Baby Boomer age group between mid-30s and mid-50s.

Tucsonan James Franks falls into that group by gender, age and a tested IQ of more than 150. "I used to think Mensa was for tunnel-visioned eggheads who didn't realize they were wearing a checkered shirt with plaid pants," says Franks, an elementary-school teacher.

Like the old matchbook challenge, "Draw Bambi and Become an Artist," a magazine article titled "Are you Mensa Material?" caught Franks' eye. He took the quiz and answered all the questions correctly. Spurred by his initial success, he underwent a proctored exam ("as a lark"), passed it and received an invitation to join. He did. For awhile. "I enjoyed some of the happy hour social interactions," he remembers, "but wasn't impressed with the 'Einsteins' who seemed bent on self-validation at the expense of demeaning others," he says.

Franks remembers one club member who proselytized that the future of the planet should be entrusted to Mensa. "His idea was that we were the best hope for humankind and that, collectively, we could solve all of the world's problems," he says, adding, "Other members responded by noting that most of the world's problems were created by those who spend too much time thinking about the problems themselves instead of doing something about correcting them."

Still, says Franks, "You could find a variety of personalities and behavior in Mensa group gatherings, like 'real people' who enjoyed laughing at their folly and foibles. Studying this group diversity was very entertaining."

Mensa is now an international society, so diversity is guaranteed. There are more than 45,000 card-carrying members who belong to 138 chapters of Mensa in the United States, in addition to 25,000 more in 100 other countries. Mensa in Arizona is represented by chapters in Tucson, southeastern Arizona (Borderline), Phoenix, Prescott and Flagstaff. Statewide Mensa participation fluctuates, but usually runs in the range of about 1,000 current dues-payers. Member job titles in the U.S. range from clergyman to CEO, teacher to truck driver, policeman to postal worker and Realtor to rocket scientist.

That's what they do for work. What do they do for fun? Lorna Klein, owner of Tucson's Things for Thinkers store, has built her business on offering games for the intellectually gifted to enjoy. "We offer strategy games you won't find at Toys-R-Us or during blue-light specials at K-Mart," she says. "Our clients may come from a variety of backgrounds, but intellectualism is a common factor. They're bookworms who want games and puzzles that present them with a challenge. Some of these games you can't just open up and begin playing--some take days of research preparation before the package is opened and the first move is made. Our games aren't standard board games like Monopoly. You need a better-than-average intellect just to interpret the rules."

"For anyone interested in joining Mensa, there is one--and only one--unique qualification for membership," says Benjamin, "and that is to score in the upper two percent of the general population on a supervised standard intelligence test. There's an awful lot of people now active in Mensa who initially thought there was no way they would ever qualify."

Would you?