Canada has bred her fair share of geniuses. We’ve seen the stubborn eccentricity of Glenn Gould, the uncanny athleticism of Wayne Gretzky and the world-changing discoveries of Sir Frederick Banting, to name but three. Yet we are a notoriously humble people, content to change the world from a safe distance.

The new CBC series Canada’s Smartest Person breaks through that shy national exterior and asks our smartest people to come forward and prove themselves. Each episode will provide a new challenge to a group of contestants, testing their intellectual prowess across different categories: musical, physical, logical, linguistic, visual, and interpersonal.

Before the show’s premiere this coming Sunday, March 18, we spoke with creator Robert Cohen to find out what makes a true genius.

Have you found that Canada’s smartest people come from all walks of life?

It’s very diverse which is exactly what we expected and wanted. The whole philosophy behind the show is based on looking beyond old-fashioned definitions of “smart” which tended to favour math and language. Those are the most heavily-weighted parts of the classic I.Q. test. But research is showing that there are multiple forms of intelligence operating very differently from one another. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses in different kinds of intelligence, and we’re looking for those people who are versatile, who can show their strengths across multiple categories.

Those people aren’t the cliched computer scientists and math professors, they’re all around us. Students, entrepreneurs, mechanics, salespeople, dancers ... you name it.

It sounds like you’re looking for an unassuming kind of intelligence, people who are smart but not too esoteric about one field of study.

You might be right. But we’ve had applicants who have made a big impact in their fields, while still being well-rounded.

By the standards of television, even for a respected program like Jeopardy!, the measure of intelligence seems to be how well a person can absorb trivial information. Are you looking more at how applicants/contestants have applied their knowledge in a practical way?

There’s no “trivia” in our show, but it’s everywhere, you’re right. It’s the basis for so many kinds of shows and games. That was purposeful; this isn’t a show about retaining information and spouting it back. We’re hoping to redefine what it means to be smart, to show how people can approach the world in different ways. Our final contestants are going to prove themselves in different kinds of diverse challenges. It’s going to be harder than a trivia contest because they won’t just be using [memory], but also the musical, mathematical, linguistic, and interpersonal/social processes of the brain. 

How do you measure social intelligence?

There’s lots of ways to do that. We’re testing the ability to judge other people’s motivation, to persuade others to do things. Leadership. Salespeople, managers, politicians ... all fields which require that kind of intelligence.

By the format of the show contestants can personally apply or be nominated by another person. Did you get a lot of the personal applications, people comfortable saying “I think I am very smart,”?

It’s been a big mix. A lot of nominations for others ... colleagues or family members recognizing intelligence. But we’ve encouraged people to come to us, to show their own strengths and weaknesses.

How does charisma/superficial appearance play into your selection? As a producer you must have to consider that Canada’s smartest person may not be the most natural on-camera personality.

Not so much. There’s so many different factors in their diversity of contestants. We want to get people from across the country from all different backgrounds. Our tests and interviews are very extensive, and with that we’re trying to get people appropriate for the format we’ll be using.

Where did this idea originally come from?

It’s always hard to say where ideas come from, just a creative spark. I wondered “What does it mean to be smart?” and I think every great television show has a strong question at its core. I thought that the old definitions of “genius” didn’t reflect what we all feel is true. We see in ourselves and other people great strengths that aren’t always recognized. And using the theory of multiple intelligences is a great way to reflect on that question.

Will you have applications for viewers/fans to test their own intelligence?

Everyone will have a chance to test themselves with our Facebook ap. A fun quiz to help people understand their thinking process, the way their mind works. Most people excel in about two or three categories.

Which are you strongest in?

We’ve all tried the quiz ... I can’t remember which was the strongest, but interpersonal, musical and logical stood out.

That sounds much more enlightening than the average I.Q. test, which seems to favour spacial reasoning over almost anything else.

We do have a bit of that on the program. Logical and spacial reasoning can be a good way to test your smarts, but it’s only a small part of understanding what intelligence truly is.

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