Is Success Hardwired In Our Brains?

Fascinating Brain Scan Research Further Validates the Science of Natural Abilities

Fascinating Brain Scan Research Further Validates the Science of Natural Abilities

Are some people born smarter than others?

History’s glorification of IQ would have us believe that those individuals gifted with high IQ measurements have a distinct advantage over those with lower scores and that high IQ is an automatic precursor for success. More recent research has begun to extract and identify different types of intelligence beyond and quite separate from standard IQ but the clear measurement and identification of those intelligences have never reached the level of respect in the scientific/academic world as IQ.

Maybe that is about to change.

Psychometric testing along with occupational and psychological research have long supported the differences in innate aptitudes and their relationship to predictive performance, but rarely if ever has there been a direct correlation between the psychometric performance and the “hard science” of neurosciences. That is until now. Recent independent neuroscientific research using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the brain have supported what has long been believed in regards to specific areas of the brain being responsible for different in-born aptitudes further highlighting the much different intelligences beyond IQ, but what else was discovered is quite fascinating.

Dr. Richard Haier, a leading researcher on brain imaging and intelligence along with Dr. Cheuk Tang conducted their study: Gray matter correlates of cognitive ability tests used for vocational guidance: at Mt Sinai Medical Center in New York on 40 participants who undertook varying aptitude test as well as a standardized mathematical test whilst having their brain activity monitored. Their research as well as other studies revealed some very interesting results.

  1. The Brain Map is Clear: Firstly it clearly identified how the brain uses specific areas of gray and white matter to process the different spatial, cognitive, design, verbal and numerical challenges with consistent activity measured in the brain regions of each participant related to the exercise.

2) Bigger is Better: Interestingly the results of the individual psychometric tests positively correlated with the density of the gray and white matter of the brain in the relative region supporting the fact that some people have more “innate” ability or brain capacity to process different task. These results greatly expand on the majority of previous research that focused primarily on numerical and verbal reasoning to show very specific differences in individuals and further validates the range of intelligences beyond standardized IQ.

3) Work Smarter — Not Harder: Perhaps most fascinating was Dr. Tang and Dr. Haier tested the efficiency hypothesis — that a brain shows less activation or requires less energy when working more successfully on a task where they have more capacity. Using positron-emission tomography (PET) which produces images of the metabolism in the brain by detecting low-level radioactive glucose used by neurons as they fire, they traced the brain’s energy use activation while working on a specific exercise. To their surprise, greater energy use was associated with poorer test performance. People with natural ability were using less energy to solve problems — their brains were more efficient. This correlates with previously held beliefs that if a person has a natural aptitude in a particular area they will be more relaxed and more efficient in processing tasks related to that ability.

4) Plasticity Developments May Not Last: Fascinating recent studies show that learning to juggle increases the amount of gray matter in the brain areas relevant to motor activity. Unfortunately when the training stops, the additional gray matter disappears. This supports the difference between innate aptitudes and developed skills. The innate aptitude stays consistent throughout life, however a skill will diminish if not used.

In Dr. Rex Jung and associates study, Subcortical Correlates of Individual Differences in Aptitude, conducted at the University of New Mexico, 107 subjects underwent MRI scans while taking specific aptitude test used for career and occupation guidance. The team recognized there was substantial research related to broad constructs like intelligence, personality and creativity however very little devoted to the study of specific aptitudes in spite of their importance to educational, occupational, and avocational success.

The results were similar to the study by Haier & Tang in that there was a direct correlation of performance on a specific task to the density in the region of the brain dedicated to that task. The authors concluded that more precise measures of ability focused on specific aptitudes will provide highly useful information to individuals, particularly relevant to job choice.

Dr. Haier later wrote an article for Scientific American Mind, titled What Does a Smart Brain Look Like, which expanded on his earlier research and incorporated several other studies to cross reference many of his theories. The article concludes that each Smart Brain is unique. People with similar IQ scores tested very differently across many different abilities pointing to different strengths and weaknesses.

The researchers were all excited about the possibilities of being able to identify the unique strengths and weaknesses of the individual and to apply these in tailored learning programs for students or specific occupations for people based on their inherent and unique brain structure as revealed in the brain scans. What is interesting is this information is already available. The subjects were being measured on their effectiveness on the specific psychometric test/exercise designed to highlight a specific ability. The scans only confirmed that the testing activity was directly correlated with a specific section in the brain and that a high score indicated more gray and white brain matter and more efficient processing in that region, pointing to a pre-existing and innate structure. It was more a process of validating the psychometric instruments used in measuring certain aptitudes.

The Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the study of human aptitudes and their relationship to school and work, has spent over 90 years studying exactly what the brain scans were validating. In fact the psychometric instruments used in the studies were the Johnson O’Connor/ Highlands Ability Battery aptitude tests. The Johnson O’Connor/Highlands research with tens of thousands of individuals around the world has shown strong supporting evidence that a person’s abilities are almost as unique as a fingerprint, each having differing personal styles, problem solving abilities, spatial abilities, learning channels and creative abilities and what is most important is how these all work together in the individual, both strengths and weaknesses to find where they best fit in the working world. Their research has also shown that people who are working with their strengths are more efficient and often much happier in their chosen field.

This is exciting research and confirms what most people have suspected, in that we are all unique and that there are many different markers or intelligences for success beyond IQ. While ability based MRI brain scans are not available for the general public and probably will not be for twenty years or more, this incredible personalized information is available for the average person. Objective measurement tools (how well a person performs on a task) like the Johnson O’Connor/Highlands Ability Battery can provide a student or adult with a very accurate profile of their abilities in up to 19 critical areas, and what they have beyond the scans is correlated research and information that can provide the student or adult with the very personalized or tailored learning and vocational programs that the neuroscientist are only dreaming of in their scanning research.

So are some people born smarter than others? Yes, but the value of smart only relates to the the task at hand. Your sleek thoroughbred horse may be great on race day, but if your cart is stuck in the mud, the old Clydesdale is who you want!


Jung RE, Ryman SG, Vakhtin AA, Carrasco J, Wertz C, Flores RA (2014) Subcortical Correlates of Individual Differences in Aptitude. PLoS ONE 9(2): e89425. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089425

Haier, R. J., Schroeder, D. H., Tang, C. Y., Head, K., & Colom, R. (2010). Gray matter correlates of cognitive ability tests used for vocational guidance. BMC Research Notes

Haier, R.J., (2009). What Does a Smart Brain Look Like. Scientific American Mind. Nov/Dec 2009

Barbey, A. K., Colom, R., Solomon, J., Krueger, F., & Forbes, C. (2012). An integrative architecture for general intelligence and executive function revealed by lesion mapping.

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