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Aging: What is the Difference Between Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence?

By: Bridgette W. Gottwald, LPC, NCC 

Ever wondered why your grandma tells the same stories over and over again or has difficulty troubleshooting or adapting to new ways? No, it’s not just because she is old and stubborn – there is a cognitive concept behind this. When it comes to intelligence, you may think of the accumulation of facts, but it also encompasses the ability to learn new things. Therapists have different definitions that we use to identify the various ways that we gain and use information – fluid and crystallized intelligence.

What is Fluid Intelligence? 

Fluid intelligence is defined as the “ability to perceive relationships independent of previous specific practice or instruction concerning those relationships.” It is rooted in physiological functioning and often used when learning new things. In other words, this means that it involves thinking and reasoning abstractly to solve problems. This ability and skill set is considered to be independent of learning, experience, and education.

Examples of fluid intelligence: problem-solving, puzzles, math problems, encountering an entirely new problem that cannot be solved with existing knowledge and troubleshooting or working around it, non-verbal tasks 

What is Crystallized Intelligence? 

Crystalized intelligence utilizes knowledge that comes from previous learning and past experiences. These situations typically require reading comprehension and vocabulary. As we age and accumulate new knowledge and understanding, crystallized intelligence becomes stronger. It is based upon facts and rooted in experiences – hence grandma’s stories. 

Both crystallized and fluid intelligence are important in everyday life and they are both parts of generalized intelligence. According to Cattell, “while fluid intelligence involves our current ability to reason and deal with complex information around us, crystallized intelligence involves learning, knowledge, and skills that are acquired over a lifetime.”

Examples of crystallized intelligence: knowledge gained through experience and education, facts, skills, the information you learned in school or from a past experience, reading comprehension, grammar

How Do Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence Work Together? 

Fluid intelligence and cognitive skills related to it tend to decline during late adulthood while crystallized intelligence tends to increase with age. Typically, fluid intelligence peaks quite early in life, but research suggests that some aspects of fluid intelligence peak as late as 40. Crystalized intelligence peaks later in life, hitting its apex around 60 or 70.

Although fluid and crystallized intelligence represent two different sets of abilities, they work together. For example, when you are cooking a meal, you may follow a recipe. To understand and comprehend this recipe, you will be utilizing crystallized intelligence to follow the instructions. You would utilize fluid intelligence in modifying spices or other ingredients to suit your tastes or dietary requirements. If this example isn’t cutting it for you, try this one! When you solve a math problem you utilize crystalized intelligence for formulas or math knowledge – to decipher what the plus sign means, for example. You would be using fluid intelligence to develop a strategy to solve a complicated problem.

How Do I Improve My Intelligence? 

Crystallized intelligence can be improved through learning because the more accumulated knowledge you have, the more crystallized intelligence you will possess. To improve this aspect of intelligence, you can further your education either formally or informally. Research shows that fluid intelligence is not something that is set in stone, but it can be improved by “brain training” through exercises or games.

Gaining or increasing your intelligence does not come from sticking to old ways and routines. If you keep exploring things in life, you will continue to learn new things. You can do this by taking up a new instrument, traveling to a new country, or tackling learning a new language. There are countless activities you can do to keep your brain engaged, challenged, and committed to learning new things in new ways.


Vinney, C. (2019). Fluid versus crystallized intelligence: what’s the difference? Retrieved from: 

Cherry, K. (2019). Fluid vs. crystallized intelligence. Verywellmind. Retrieved from:

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