Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Gifted Brain

It may wind up being Brain Week here on Gifted Exchange... I've been reading various articles and studies about how intelligence corresponds with actual physical differences in the brain, and how the brain works. For one run-down, see this CNN write-up on "Scientists dissect the mystery of genius." According to this piece, scientists at the Mental Illness and Neurodiscovery Institute have found that there is a strong correlation between intelligence and the size and shape of various brain structures. Parts mentioned include the superior parietal lobe, and parts of the prefrontal cortex. Also, brains of smarter people (as measured by IQ) are often less active, but more efficient.

Some other research has found that the left and right hemispheres of gifted people's brains tend to work together better. When asked to solve problems that required both sides of the brain to work together (because inputs came in different visual fields), boys who had scored well on the math section of the SAT as youngsters were able to solve these problems quicker than those of more average abilities. For the Science Daily write-up, see this article here.

Now, granted, at the moment, we can't really tell just by looking whether a brain is from a person with an IQ of 180, or 130, or 80. And anyway, we don't get to look directly at brains very often. But all this does raise an interesting question for me.

What if, someday, we were able to measure someone's intelligence via brain scans? What if imaging gets to a point where we can measure just how quickly someone's left and right brain work together, or if certain structures are larger or more efficient -- and we come up with a way to map this onto generally accepted intelligence measurements? How would you feel about that?

My first thought was to be a bit apprehensive. After all, this sounds like a modern-day version of those old cranial measurements that were once used to "prove" that people of certain ethnic backgrounds were not quite all there, mentally.

But then I thought more about it. Head measurements are obviously an incredibly rough proxy for anything. Then again, IQ tests are a proxy, too. Through written or oral means, we are attempting to judge how quickly the brain is able to solve problems by piecing together previously learned information, how quickly it can assess patterns, and whether it can make inferences. The written and oral means introduce some hazards of their own. A child who's been given lots of logic puzzles will know how to solve these better than one who's never seen such games before. A kid who's been drilled on his letters will do better on a school readiness assessment (see the post on NYC's new gifted screening program, below).

A brain scan, on the other hand, may actually be able to measure raw intelligence. As such, wouldn't it be preferable to methods of measuring intelligence that might be more biased against children who haven't been exposed to certain information?

I'm curious what others think of the idea. It doesn't sit very well with me, but I'm really not sure why. Our culture has a strong narrative of the undiscovered genius, the diamond in the rough who doesn't necessarily shine on tests but is secretly brilliant. In theory, brain imaging could discover such a person, but no one likes the idea of one measurement determining anything of too much importance. What do you think?


kev said...

There is, of course, the privacy aspect of it. We already have mandated "little black boxes" for cars which report speeding and braking habits, and insurance companies would kill to get their hands on this data. Once cars can easily be internet-enabled, I can see the insurance companies offering a discount to people who would be willing to disclose their "little black box" data to prove that they really are good drivers (and who among us, really thinks we're bad drivers?).

It's hardly much more of a logical extension to see the potential for abuse of a diagnostic brain scan, once the technological advance happens to allow us to get the data we're looking for.

Anonymous said...

What we are usually interested in is not "intelligence" (however that is defined), but "how well will this person do at ...?".

When the tasks are sufficiently broad ("how well with this person do in college?"), tests can be of some use in making predictions, but prior performance at similar tasks is almost always a better predictor (highschool GPA is a better predictor of college success than SAT scores).

Although there may be physiological measurements that correlate well with certain skills, measuring the desired skill directly will nearly always be superior.

Queen of Shake-Shake said...

I have a natural distrust of the medical community in general. That's probably why this doesn't sit well with me in terms of using it for measuring intelligence.

I think creativity/genius insight is not all physiological, meaning the source of their inspiration isn't only in the brain. In that respect, what's the point of a brain scan?

Anonymous said...

What about the idea that brains grow? It would certainly deflate the hard work will pay off ethic of many if they were to find out the growth is very limited. It seems I've read about numerous average IQ folks who overcome adversity and achieve greatness through perserverance and perhaps a healthy "social IQ". Finding out you're not as smart as you'd like to think (or even if it's just the parents) during the formative years could undermine some unique creative geniuses that could never be measured/quantified. Nobody wants a caste system here. Anecdotally, it would be great if we could discover and better nurture those diamonds in the rough but I believe it's a greater risk that racial statistics could be used to justify systematic racism.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious to hear the reaction of other "gifted" folks to this link relating to the hemisphere cooperation theory:,21598,22492511-5005375,00.html

Basically, it claims that if you see the girl moving counter-clockwise, you favor your left brain, if she goes clockwise, you favor your right brain... If you can see her move both ways, your brain is well integrated.

I didn't tell my 8yo the idea and after she sat in front of her for a minute or two, she told me that if she moved her finger clockwise, the girl went the same direction and if she moved her finger counterclockwise, the girl went in that direction...

When I first looked, I saw her move counter clockwise but now I can only seem to see her clockwise.

Is it youth or simply my daughter has a higher IQ??

Anonymous said...

Trying that hemisphere link one more time:,21598,22492511-5005375,00.html

Anonymous said...

Third time is a charm:

Anonymous said...

Your daughter is right! At first I could only see her moving clockwise, and now I can reverse it after trying with my finger. What a fun little test!

Anonymous said...

Is that real, or does the image just randomly switch directions? I’ve seen this before and just assumed it was a hoax.

Anonymous said...

I've wondered if it was a hoax myself but my dh claims he can reverse it when he concentrates as well. Sure would love the "snopes" on this one!

Mindy said...

I was also stuck in clockwise (after it seemed to magically change for me from counter-clockwise), but then I read the "trick" from the 8 yo.

Here's how I can switch it at will...sort of allow your eyes to gou out of focus (like staring at those 3-D hidden pictures), then when her angled leg is crossed over the straight leg, move your finger the opposite direction. And voila: she switches direction.

Very cool! I'm going to share this with my fifth graders. They love a challenge!

Jerry said...

FOX News Utah

I would like to address a few of the comments that were made in this original thread. The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that while functional MRI’s are useful and making there way to the front lines for non invasive a=look at the brain of an individual with average below average and above average intelligence it is paramount to note that we have been doing this for a while and still very little data has come out in support that the physical nature of the brain (barring damage) can be directly correlated to the better functioning versus the lesser functioning within the collective population. Searching Pub Med online is an excellent place to go in order to see the latest and the greatest research being done any where in the sciences view publications from leading professors in their respective fields.
“The Brain” as we know is an electrochemical organ that relies primarily non sugar water and oxygen in order the generate electricity by way of chemical reactions. This allows neurons (brain cells) to send messages along mylinated cables called dendrites that pass data from one tip(axon) to the tip of the next cell. From there neurotransmitters are sent off in a variety of different directions allowing information to reach other parts of the nervous system that allows the individual to perform a certain function (sympathetic or otherwise).
I f can agree that this is the basis of how the physical brain works in a very, very simple sense of the act we can make the axiom that there are little to no identifiable common denominators in the brain at a frequent enough rate to say this is what is causing this girl or boy to be able to function at this level. This then address the elephant in the room that most people do not want to say or address, Nurture or Nature. We have established a great deal of research in the direction of nurture over nature in other words those who typically are to be considered gifted have a common denominator, that being a solid home support system with encouraging parents.
The Reed Family

Jerry said...

FOX news Utah report on a Bright group of kids in Home School
The Reed School

Anonymous said...

Brain scans are interesting in their potential. If at some point we are able to exam the various functions and pathways of the brain in such away as to predict specific brain abnormalities, we might be able to determine the events which led to the differences. I do not feel that we need to normalize everyone. On the contary I feel that our differences serve varous social functions. But if we understood the development of disabilities and abilities (I perfer learning differences)through the developmental process we might be able to manipulate and mitigate some of the effects of various learning disabilities, perhaps even raise the intelligence of the population as a whole through environmental interventions. Comprehension is always necessary for informed choices to be made. Like every category of new information, there always be instances for abuse. Does that mean qwe stop learning? I truly hope not.

Evan Adams said...

I actually really like the idea, but I'd maybe want to see it used in conjunction with other kinds of tests. I'd also be interested to know how visible some of these differences are with young children.