Founded in 1946, Mensa is a club for the most intelligent people on the planet.
Anyone can be a member – as long as they score in the top 2 per cent of the general population in an approved intelligence test. If you’re curious, try the Mensa workout to get an idea of the tasks you need to perform correctly to join.
The name has a suitably erudite origin: it comes from mensa, the Latin word for table, which is supposed to reflect the organisation’s ‘round-table’ philosophy of equality.
Today, there are around 134,000 members of Mensa chapters found in 100 countries around the world – including of course Australia. SBS Life take a closer look at the mysterious organisation.
Mensa was founded by an Australian
Mensa is a global society, but its foundation features an Australian connection. In December 1945, Oxford postgraduate student Lancelot Ware was on a train, heading home to celebrate Christmas. A 50-year-old Australian barrister Roland Berrill struck up a conversation with the student (who would later be known as Dr Lance Ware), and together they hatched a plan to create a society for intellectually gifted people. Berrill bankrolled the idea and became Mensa’s first Secretary. He was a decidedly eccentric character – before establishing Mensa, he tried to start a movement to encourage both men and women to wear bright-coloured clothes. After the 1950s, he lived out the rest of his days as a recluse, rarely leaving his London flat.
Not everyone in Mensa has a university degree
According to the Mensa International website, Mensa has three stated purposes: “to identify and foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity, to encourage research in the nature, characteristics and uses of intelligence, and to promote stimulating intellectual and social opportunities for its members.”
Despite the unashamedly scholarly tenor of these aims, not every Mensa member has a university degree. One of the biggest misconceptions about Mensa is that it’s a very “high-brow” organisation, says Kymberley Wilson, a retired software developer who is the current chair of Australian Mensa. “People think we sit around talking about weighty subjects…When we get together we have interesting conversations, but we tell a lot of jokes and stories like any other group of people.”
Mensa members come from a broad range of backgrounds. “We’re not all academics,” says Wilson, noting that a former chairman of Mensa in the Netherlands was a bus driver.
“A group of Mensans does not necessarily have anything else in common other than the fact that they qualify to join Mensa,” she says.
Age is no barrier
Like many Mensa members, when Adam Kirby joined British Mensa he enjoyed reading Shakespeare and learning languages – an entirely unremarkable piece of information if it wasn’t for his age. Kirby was just two years and five months old when he joined British Mensa in 2013. According to a Daily Mail report, the toddler scored 141 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test – four points below the ‘genius’ threshold.
If you’re wondering just what a highly intelligent two-year old can do, at 29 months Kirby could read at the level of an average five-year old, spell more than 100 words, count to 1000 and perform simple addition and subtraction.
Despite all this, he wasn’t the youngest person ever to join British Mensa – that title belongs to Elise Tan-Roberts, who was two years and four months when she joined in 2009.
In Australia, around one third of Mensa’s members are children. Seven of them are aged under four, says Wilson.
Famous Mensa members
Celebrities are not usually known for their dazzling intellect, but Mensa has had its fair share of famous members throughout its 70-year history. Renowned science fiction author Isaac Asimov (he was also a biochemistry professor on the side) served as vice-president of Mensa in the US. Geena Davis, actress, activist and Olympic archer, is a Mensan, as is Joyce Carol Oates, an American writer who has published over 40 novels. Other high-profile members include Jean Auel, who penned the Earth's Children series of books that starts with Clan of the Cave Bear, and 37-year old Australian actress Kym Jackson.
And then there’s Kanye West, who claims to have recently completed an IQ test. His results “were Mensa level — 133, 98 per cent percentile. Straight up Sigmund Freud, Tesla vibes,” he said in a Periscope video.
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