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Brain Scans are Revealing the Neuro-anatomy of Intelligence

Posted: Tue, July 16, 2013 | By:

by Hank Pellissier

Where in the brain is intelligence? Why, anatomically, are some individuals “smarter” than others? What does a wise brain look like? Dr. Richard J. Haier of the University of California at Irvine has been using neuro-imaging technology for over two decades in his search to determine the anatomy of neuro-intelligence. I interviewed him recently on the progress and potential of his research:

Hank Pellissier: Dr. Haier, as we learn what’s anatomically required in an intelligent brain, will we be able to deliver higher IQ to everyone, by tweaking the brain?

Dr. Richard J. Haier: We’re learning more all the time, and the research is accelerating. I believe at some point we will learn information that we can use to increase intelligence… it is definitely a possibility in the future that we will be able to ‘tweak the system’ to make people more intelligent. Perhaps an “IQ pill” [metaphorically] will be developed. Depending on what we discover, tweaking may only work in babies, or children or adults, or it might only work in low IQ children with 70-80 IQ, or it might only work in high IQ individuals.

HP: What have you learned about the neuro-anatomy of intelligence? Is it related to the volume of grey matter, or the volume of white matter, or hippocampus size?

Dr. Haier: What we know about the brain is that there is not a 1 to 1 relationship between individual brain regions and specific cognitive processes like memory, attention or intelligence. There are networks of areas distributed across the brain that contribute to problem-solving - it’s in many different areas. Right now we’re learning about the brain mechanism of specific neural circuits related to intelligence…

HP: Do you encounter resistance from other scientists? It seems many people have trouble believing that some people are biologically more intelligent than others. Many people, it seems, think the entire notion of “intelligence” and especially “IQ” is invalid, or at least very flawed.

Dr. Haier: The most important finding of brain imaging studies of intelligence so far is this: a generation ago there was a widely-accepted view that IQ was “meaningless.” But now we know that scores on IQ and ther tests of intelligence are correlated to brain characteristics that we can measure. Brain imaging reveals that there is a neural basis to intelligence.

HP: Are there any drugs or therapies now that can alter brain anatomy in elevate intelligence?

Dr. Haier: There are drugs like amphetamine and caffeine that improve attention or cognitive performance in the short term, but there are no drugs that elevate general intelligence (what researchers call the g-factor.)

HP: Can you explain how the brain determines the solution to a difficult question?

Dr. Haier: The Magneto-Encephalogram (MEG) measures brain activity mille-second by mille-second. If you put a person in a MEG device and ask them to solve a problem, you will see very rapid and complicated brain activity as different neural networks engage, and all within one second. A number of different brain areas will turn on and off in a variety of brain areas in some sequence. From data like these, we know that intelligence is not just in the frontal lobes. We also know that not every person uses the same parts of the brain to solve a problem.

HP: Do you think brain-imaging might, eventually - when it can successfully reveal what a brain’s potentiality is - replace entrance exams, resumes, and other testing measures?

Dr. Haier: We make decisions all the time based on tests, but the tests are actually only indirect measures of the brain’s strengths and weaknesses. At some point in the future, a person might be able to have brain scans from which an estimate of their intelligence could be derived that predicts their score on intelligence tests and other tests of cognitive ability—even vocational interests. Wouldn’t it be nice if a student could just lie down for 20 minutes for a $500 brain scan, and get the same result of hours and hours of testing? Right now we make complicated decisions about school and career choices using whatever information we have about a person - what if we could add brain data into the process? What if, for example, someone had a brain scan that revealed a particularly large auditory cortex? This information might help them pick an appropriate major in school and a career the person would succeed in. I’m not saying brain scans should replace the counselor or psychometric (paper and pencil) tests, bit would just be another piece of information to use that might improve predictions—more information is always better than less.

HP: the work that you’re doing - are there studies in other parts of the world that are conducting similar research? Is there an “IQ race” going on now?

Dr. Haier: There are many research groups around the world using neuro-imaging to study intelligence. From China to The Netherlands… There are also people who believe that the nations who have the most intellectual strength will have the most economic power.

HP: If science discovers - via your research and the efforts of others - how to increase intelligence, do you think it’s something that society should do? Is it ethical to uplift the IQ of humanity, if we have the means to do so?

Dr. Haier: I believe it’s a moral imperative to increase intelligence, it’s like increasing someone’s health—no reason not to do so.

HP: In Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature, he suggests that human civilization is becoming more ethical due to an increase in average intelligence, caused by improvements in health, education, and other societal factors. What’s your opinion? Do you think the world will be a significantly better place, if human beings, on average, are considerably smarter?

Dr. Haier: It would be wonderful to tweak the brain to raise intelligence. I don’t see any downside to that. But I don’t think it will lead to Utopia either, intelligence is independent of personality, social behavior, and human nature. But, all else being equal, I think more intelligence is always better than less.


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