Working Memory and Intelligence

Intelligence tends nowadays to be separated into 2 components: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence.

Fluid intelligence refers to general reasoning and problem-solving functions, and is often described as executive function, or working memory capacity.

Crystallized intelligence refers to cognitive functions associated with knowledge.

Different IQ tests measure fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence to varying extents, but the most common disproportionately measures crystallized intelligence.

Increasing evidence suggests that even fluid intelligence is significantly affected by environmental factors and emotions.

You may have heard of “g”. It’s the closest we’ve come to that elusive attribute known as “intelligence”, but it is in fact a psychometric construct, that is, we surmise its presence from the way in which scores on various cognitive tests positively correlate.

In other words, we don’t really know what it is (hence the fact it is called “g”, rather than something more intelligible), and in fact, it is wrong to think of it as a thing. What it is, is a manifestation of some property or properties of the brain — and we don’t know what these are.

Various properties have been suggested, of course. Speed of processing; synaptic plasticity; fluid cognition. These are all plausible, but experimental studies have failed to provide clear evidence for any of them. The closest has been fluid cognition, or fluid intelligence, which is paired with crystallized intelligence. These two terms point to a useful distinction.

Fluid intelligence refers to cognitive functions associated with general reasoning and problem-solving, and is often described as executive function, or working memory capacity.

Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, refers to cognitive functions associated with previously acquired knowledge in long-term store.

There is of course some interplay between these functions, but for the most part they are experimentally separable.

There are a couple of points worth noting.

For a start, different IQ tests measure fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence to varying extents – the Raven’s Progressive Matrices Test, for example, predominantly measures fluid intelligence, while the WAIS disproportionately measures crystallized intelligence. An analysis of the most widely used intelligence test batteries for children found that about 1/3 of the subtests measure crystallized intelligence, an additional ¼ measure knowledge and reading/writing skills, while only 7% directly measure fluid intelligence, with perhaps another 10% measuring skills that have a fluid intelligence component – and nearly all the fluid subtests were found in one particular test battery, the W-J-R.

The so-called Flynn effect – the rapid rise in IQ over the past century – is for the most part an increase in fluid intelligence, not crystallized intelligence. While it has been hypothesized that fluid intelligence paves the way for the development of crystallized intelligence, it should be noted that the distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence is present from a very early age, and the two functions have quite different growth patterns over the life of an individual.

So, what we’re saying is that most IQ tests provide little measure of fluid intelligence, although fluid intelligence appears to reflect “g” more closely than any other attribute, and that although crystallized intelligence is assumed to reflect environment (e.g., education) far more than fluid intelligence, it is fluid intelligence that has been rising, not crystallized intelligence.

In fact, for this and other reasons, it seems that fluid intelligence is far more affected by environment than has been considered.

I’ll leave you to ponder on the implications of this. Let me make just one more point.

The brain areas known to be important for fluid cognition are part of an interconnected system associated with emotion and stress response, and it is hypothesized that functions heretofore considered distinct from emotional arousal, such as reasoning and planning, are in fact very much part of a system in which emotional response is involved.

We’re not saying here that emotions can disrupt your reasoning processes, we all know that. What is being suggested is more radical – that emotions are part and parcel of the reasoning process. Okay, I always knew this, but it’s nice to see science coming along and providing some evidence.

The point about the close interaction between emotional reactivity and fluid intelligence is that stress may have a significant effect on fluid intelligence.

And I’ll leave you to ponder the implications of that.


Miyake, A., Friedman, N.P., Rettinger, D.A., Shah, P., & Hegarty, M. 2001. How are Visuospatial Working Memory, Executive Functioning, and Spatial Abilities Related? A Latent-Variable Analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology – General, 130(4).


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What is intelligence?

Intelligence in a cultural context

One theory of intelligence sees intelligence in terms of adaptiveness. Thus: "What constitutes intelligence depends upon what the situation demands" (Tuddenham 1963). Intelligence in these terms cannot be understood outside of its cultural context. Naturally to us it may seem self-evident that intelligence has to do with analytical and reasoning abilities, but we are perceiving with the sight our culture taught us.

If we lived, for example, in a vast desert, where success relied on your ability to find plants, water, prey and to remember these locations, an "intelligent" person would be one who was skilled at finding their way around and remembering what they'd seen and where they'd seen it. In a society where people are stuck within a limited social group, where people are forced to get on with each other because they can't escape each other, and where survival requires you to depend on these people, social skills will be highly valued. An "intelligent" person might well be a person who is skilled in social relations.

If I lived in such a society, would I have become skilled in these areas?

If I had spent my childhood playing with construction toys such as Lego, would I be better at spatial relations?

In other words, is intelligence something that you simply have in some measure, which manifests itself in the skills that you practice when young / that are valued in your society or within your family? Or are you born instead with particular talents that, if you are lucky, are valued by your society and thus seen as signs of intelligence?

Here's one of my favorite stories.

An anthropologist, Joe Glick, was studying a tribe in Africa1. The Kpelle tribe. Glick asked adults to sort items into categories. Rather than producing taxonomic categories (e.g. "fruit" for apple), they sorted into functional groups (e.g. "eat" for apple). Such functional grouping is something only very young children in our culture would do usually. Glick tried, and failed, to teach them to categorize items. Eventually he decided they simply didn't have the mental ability to categorize in this way. Then, as a last resort, he asked them how a stupid person would do this task. At this point, without any hesitation, they sorted the items into taxonomic categories!

They could do it, but in their culture, it was of no practical value. It was stupid.

Our IQ tests use categorization, and assumptions of how items relate to each other, to test "intelligence". (And how many of us, when filling in IQ tests, thought of different ways to answer questions, but answered the way we knew would be considered "right"?) These tests measure our ability to understand the mind of the test setter / marker. Do they measure anything else?

Multiple intelligences

One theory of intelligence that has had a certain influence on educational policy in the last 10-15 years is that of Howard Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences (Gardner 1983). Gardner suggested that there are at least seven separate, relatively independent intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily kinaesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, and musical.

Each intelligence has core components, such as sensitivity to the sounds, rhythms and meaning of words (linguistic), and has a developmental pattern relatively independent of the others. Gardner suggested the relative strengths of these seven intelligences are biologically determined, but the development of each intelligence depends on environmental influences, most particularly on the interaction of the child with adults.

This model of intelligence has positively influenced education most particularly by perceiving intelligence as much broader than the mathematical-language focus of modern education, and thus encouraging schools to spend more time on other areas of development.

It also, by seeing the development of particular intelligences as dependent on the child’s interaction with adults, encourages practices such as mentoring and apprenticeships, and supports parental and community involvement in educational environments. Because intelligence is seen as developing in a social context, grounding education in social institutions and in “real” environments takes on particular value.

All these are very positive aspects of the influence of this theory. On the downside, the idea of intelligence as being biologically determined is a potentially dangerous one. Gardner claims that a preschool child could be given simple tests that would demonstrate whether or not they had specific talents in any of those seven intelligences. The child could then be given training tailored to that talent.

Should we then deny that training to those who don't have that talent?

Do you know how many outstanding people - musicians, artists, mathematicians, writers, scientists, dancers, etc - showed signs of remarkable talent as very young children? Do you know how many so-called child prodigies went on to become outstanding in their field when adult? In both cases, not many.

The idea of "talent" is grounded in our society, but in truth, we have come no further in demonstrating its existence than the circular argument: he's good at that, therefore he has a talent for it; how do we know he has a talent? because he's good at it. Early ability does not demonstrate an innate talent unless the child has had no special opportunity to learn and practice the ability (and notwithstanding parental claims and retrospective reports, independent observation of this is lacking). (More on the question of innate talent)

Schooling and intelligence

The more we believe in innate talent, or innate intelligence, the less effort we will put into educating those who don't exhibit ability - although there are many environmental reasons for such failures.

The whole province of intelligence testing is, I believe, a dangerous one. Indeed, I was appalled to hear of its prevalence in American education. While intelligence was seen as some inborn talent unaffected by training or experience by the early makers and supporters of psychometric tests, recent research strongly suggests that schooling affects IQ score.

If you take two children who at age 13 have identical IQs and grades and then retest them five years later, after one child has finished high school while the other has dropped out of school in ninth grade, you find that the child who dropped out of school has lost around 1.8 IQ points for every year of missed school (Ceci, 1999).

Starting school late or leaving early results in a decrease in IQ relative to a matched peer who received more schooling. In families where children attend school intermittently, there is a high negative correlation between age and IQ, implying that as the children got older, their IQ dropped commensurately.

The most obvious, and simplest, explanation is that much of what is tested in IQ tests is either directly or indirectly taught in school. This is not to say schooling has any effect on intelligence itself (whatever that is).


  • Ceci, S. J. 1999. Schooling and intelligence. In S.J. Ceci & Wendy M. Williams (eds) The nature-nurture debate: The essential readings. Essential Readings in Developmental Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp168-175.
  • Ericsson, K.A. & Charness, N. Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. In S.J. Ceci & Wendy M. Williams (eds) The nature-nurture debate: The essential readings. Essential Readings in Developmental Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp200-255.

1. Sternberg, R.J. 1997. Successful intelligence: How practical and creative intelligence determine your success in life. Plume.


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The question of innate talent

Some personal experience

I have two sons. One of them was a colicky baby. Night after night my partner would carry him around the room while I tried to get a little sleep. One night, for his own amusement, my partner chose a particular CD to play. Magic! As the haunting notes of the hymns of the 12th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen rang through the room, the baby stopped crying. And stayed stopped. As long as the music played. Experimentation revealed that our son particularly liked very early music (plainchant from the 15th century Josquin des Pres was another favorite).

We felt sorry for all those parents with crying babies who hadn't discovered this magic cure-all.

And then we had another son.

This one didn't like music. No magic this time. And we realized, it wasn't that 12th century music had magical properties to calm a crying baby. No, it was this particular baby that responded to this sort of music.

The years went on. Nothing we saw contradicted that first impression - one son was "musical", and one was not. It seemed pretty clear to us. One son took after me, and one took after my partner.

My partner plays the piano, and the pipe organ, and the harpsichord. He is "into" Bach. He has played in churches and concerts. He has a shelf full of books on music and cupboards full of music scores, CDs by the score.

Me? I like to sing, to myself. I learned the violin for a while in my youth. I like to listen to CDs of jazz, and popular show tunes. I like music, but I'm not sophisticated about it. It's background to me. My partner actually listens to it.

So which child took after which parent?

Well, we believe the "musical" one took after me, and the "non-musical" one took after my partner. Because - he got there by training. By practicing and learning and persevering and taking an interest. He has no sense of rhythm, no particularly keen sense of pitch. But he's the one who can produce music. Me, I have an ear for music. Remembering a rhythm is effortless for me; I respond, instinctively, to music. But I could never bother to practice, and my response to music has stayed at the same level. Instinctive.

Our "musical" son has been involved in learning music the Suzuki way since he was four. We never particularly encouraged our other son to do likewise, simply told him he could if he wanted to. His brother persuaded him he did want to. So, fine, we said.

You can guess, I'm sure, how things have been. It's been obvious, watching and listening to our older son, that he has a talent for music, that it comes easily to him. Equally obvious that it hasn't come that easily to our younger son. But it's the younger son who has made much faster progress in the past year, because he practices more, because he's keen to learn. And it's been amazing to watch his ear for music develop.

Do you need an inborn talent to do well?

Suzuki flew in the face of "common-sense" when he decided very young children with no demonstrable genius could be taught to play the violin. I can only imagine the stunned amazement with which the first Suzuki concerts were greeted. They still amaze today.

Suzuki himself, while he supported the training of all children, believed that, of course, some would be "naturally" gifted, and that outstanding performance would require a gift, as well as training. However, as his experience with children and his method increased, he grew to believe that “every child can be highly educated if he is given the proper training” and blamed early training failures on incorrect methods.

Howard Gardner (inventor of the Multiple Intelligences theory) reviewed the exceptional music performance attained by children trained in the Suzuki method, and noted many of these children, who displayed no previous signs of musical talent, attained levels comparable to music prodigies of earlier times. Therefore, he concluded, the important aspect of talent must be the potential for achievement and the capacity to rapidly learn material relevant to one of the intelligences. That is, since we didn't see the talent before we started training, and since the fact that they do perform so well demonstrates that they must have talent, then the talent must have existed in potential.

This is, of course, a wholly circular argument.

And one that is widely believed. According to an informal British survey, more than ¾ of music educators believe children can’t do well unless they have special innate gifts10. It is believed that saying that someone has a “gift” for something explains why they have excelled at something - although it is an entirely circular argument: Why do they do well? Because they have a gift. How do you know they have a gift? Because they do well.

It is also widely believed that such innate talents can be detected in early childhood.

The problem with this view is that many children are denied the opportunities and support to achieve excellence, because it has been decreed that they don’t “have” an appropriate talent.

The circular argument becomes truly a vicious circle. You don't do this easily first time, therefore you don't have any talent, therefore it's not worth pushing you to do well, therefore you won't do well - which proves what we told you in the first place, you have no talent!

So how much justification is there for believing excellence requires a "natural" talent?

Is there such a thing as inborn talent?

A questionnaire study found that early interest and delight in musical sounds fails to predict later musical competence25.

We have all heard stories of child prodigies who supposedly could do amazing things from a very young age. In no case however, is this very early explosion of skills (in the first three years) observed directly by an impartial observer – the accounts all being (naturally enough you might think), retrospective and anecdotal. Noone denies that very young children, from 3 years old, have been observed to have remarkable skills for their age, but although the parents typically say the child learned these skills entirely unaided, this is not supported by the evidence. For example, in a typical case, the parents claimed (and no doubt sincerely believed) that their child learned to read entirely unaided and that they only discovered this on seeing her reading Heidi. However they had kept detailed records of her accomplishments. As Fowler19 pointed out, it is difficult to believe that parents who keep such accounts have not been actively involved in the child’s early learning.

Music is an area where infant prodigies abound – many famous composers are reported to have displayed unusual musical ability at a very young age. Again, however, such accounts are reported many years later (after the composer has become famous). Early biographies of prominent composers reveal they all received intensive and regular supervised practice sessions29. “The emergence of unusual skills typically followed rather than preceded a period during which unusual opportunities were provided, often combined with a strong expectation that the child would do well."

Art is another area where infant "geniuses" are occasionally cited. However, although some 2 and 3 year olds have produced drawings considerably more realistic than is the norm45, among major artists, few are known to have produced drawings that display exceptional promise before age 8 or so44.

There is no doubt that some individuals acquire some skills more easily than others, but this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with 'talent'. Motivational and personality factors, as well as previous learning experiences, can all affect such facility.

Biological factors that might underlie "talent"

There are various underlying factors that are at least partly genetic and no doubt influence ability – for example response speed2 and working memory capacity8,9 - but there is no clear neural correlate for any specific exceptional skill.

The closest such correlate is that of "perfect" pitch. There does appear to be a structural difference in the brain of those who have absolute pitch, and certainly some young children have been shown to have perfect pitch. However, even if this difference in the brain is innate and not, as it could well be, the result of differences in learning or experience, having perfect pitch is no guarantee that you will excel at music. Moreover, it appears that it can be learned. It’s relatively common in musicians given extensive musical training before five or six12, and even appears to be learnable by adults, although with considerably more difficulty3,42.

It is always difficult to demonstrate that an observed neurological or physical difference is innate rather than the product of training or experience. For example, many people have pointed to particular physical features as being the reason for particular sports people to excel at their particular sport. However, while individual differences in the composition of certain muscles are reliable predictors of differences in athletic performance, the differences in the proportion of the slow-twitch muscle fibres that are essential for success in long-distance running, for example, are largely the result of extended practice, rather than the cause of differential ability11. Differences between athletes and others in the proportions of particular kinds of muscle fibres are specific to those muscles that are most fully exercised in the athletes’ training22.

There is little evidence, too, for the idea that exceptional athletes are born with superior motor and perceptual abilities. Tests for basic motor and perceptual abilities fail to predict performance15. Exceptional sportspeople do not reliably score higher than lesser mortals on such basic tests.


So-called idiot-savants are widely cited in support of the idea of innate talent. However, studies of cases have found the opportunities, support and encouragement for learning the skill have preceded performance by years or even decades12,23,43. Moreover, their skills are learnable by others.

The only ability that can’t be reproduced after brief training is the reputed ability to reproduce a piece of music after a single hearing. However, in a study of one such savant5 it was shown that such reproduction depended on the familiarity of the sequences of notes. Tonally unconventional pieces were remembered poorly. Thus, musical savants, like normal experts, need access to stored patterns and retrieval structures to enable them to retain long, unfamiliar musical patterns.

Predicting adult performance

Several interview and biographical studies of exceptional people have been carried out (e.g., pianists40,41; musicians31; tennis players35; artists37; swimmers26; mathematicians20). In no case could you have predicted their eventual success from their early childhood behavior; few showed signs of exceptional promise prior to receiving parental encouragement.

Composers21, chess players36, mathematicians20, sportspeople26,32 have all been shown to require many years of sustained practice and training to reach high levels of expertise.

Twin studies

Twin studies support the view that family experience is more important than genes for the development of specific abilities (e.g., The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart found self-ratings of musical talent correlated .44 among identical twins reared apart, compared to .69 for identical twins reared together30; correlations on a number of measures of musical ability were not much lower for fraternal twins (.34 to .83) than for identical twins (.44 to .9)7.

Moreover, the importance of inherited factors reduces as training and practice increases1,28,15.

Practice and performance level

The performance level of student violinists in their 20s is strongly correlated with the number of hours that they practiced13,14. Similarly with pianists27. No significant differences have been found between highly successful young musicians and other children in the amount of practice time they required to make a given amount of progress between successive grades in the British musical board exams; achieving the highest level (grade 8) required an average of some 3300 hours of practice regardless of the ability group to which the student had been assigned39. Another study found that by age 20, the top-level violinists had practiced an average of more than 10000 hrs, some 2500 hrs more than the next most accomplished group15.

Practice accounts for far more than most of us might realize. Several studies have demonstrated the high levels of performance (often higher than experts had regarded as possible) that can be attained by perfectly ordinary adults, given enough practice4,6,12.

It has been argued that talent encourages children to practice more, but this is contradicted by the finding that, even among highly successful young musicians, most admit they would never have regularly practiced at the required level without strong parental encouragement38,24.

The top of the cream?

It may well be, of course, that there is a quality to the exceptionally talented person’s performance that is missing from others, however hard they have practiced.

It is also possible that, although practice, training, and other influences may account for performance differences in most people, there is a small number of people to whom this doesn’t apply.

However, there is at this time no evidence that this is true.

What is clear is that “no case has been encountered of anyone reaching the highest levels of achievement in chess-playing, mathematics, music, or sports without devoting thousands of hours to serious training” (Howe et al 1999).

The pattern of learning seems to be the same for everyone, arguing against some qualitative difference between "geniuses" and ordinary folk. Studies of prodigies in chess and music show that the skills are acquired in the same manner by everyone, but that prodigies reach higher levels faster and younger16,17. Moreover, rather than acquiring their skills in a vacuum, it appears that “the more powerful and specific the gift, the more need for active, sustained and specialized intervention” (Feldman, 1986, p123).

The producing of an outstanding talent indeed, seems to require a great deal of parental support and early intervention.

It is particularly instructive to observe the case of the Polgar daughters. With no precocious love for the chess board observable in their three daughters, Laslo & Klara Polgar, simply as an educational experiment, decided to raise their daughters to be chess experts. All did extraordinarily well, and one became the youngest international chess grand master ever18.

It has been noted that the performance of experts of yesteryear is now attainable by many. When Tchaikovsky asked two of the greatest violinists of the day to play his violin concerto, it is said, they refused, deeming it unplayable33 - now it is standard repertoire for top violinists. Paganini, it is claimed, would cut a sorry figure on a concert stage today34. Such is the standard we have come to expect from our top performers.

And we are all familiar with the way sports records keep being broken – the winning time for the 1st Olympic marathon is now the qualifying time for the Boston marathon.

Are we suddenly breeding more talent?

No. But training has improved immeasurably.

Practicing effectively

It is not, then, simply practice that is important. It is the right practice. Ericsson & Charness distinguish between deliberate practice – which involves specifically tailored instruction and training, with feedback, and supervision - and the sort of playful repetition more characteristic of people who enjoy an activity and do it a lot. Most people reach an acceptable level of performance, and then are satisfied. The "talented" ... keep on.


  1. Ericsson, K.A. & Charness, N. Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. In S.J. Ceci & Wendy M. Williams (eds) The nature-nurture debate: The essential readings. Essential Readings in Developmental Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp200-255.
  2. Howe, M.J.A., Davidson, J.W. & Sloboda, J.A. 1999. Innate talents: Reality of myth? In S.J. Ceci & Wendy M. Williams (eds) The nature-nurture debate: The essential readings. Essential Readings in Developmental Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp168-175.

Footnoted references

  1. Ackerman, P.L. 1988. Determinants of individual differences during skill acquisition: cognitive abilities and information processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 117, 299-318.
  2. Bouchard, T.J., Lykken, D.T., McGue, M., Segal, N.L. & Tellegen, A. 1990. Sources of human psychological differences: the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Science, 250, 223-8.
  3. Brady, P.T. 1970. The genesis of absolute pitch. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 48, 883-7.
  4. Ceci, S.J., Baker, J.G. & Bronfenbrenner, U. 1988. Prospective remembering, temporal calibration, and context. In M. Gruneberg, P. Morris, & R. Sykes (eds). Practical aspects of memory: Current research and issues. Wiley.
  5. Charness N Clifton J & MacDonald L. 1988. Case study of a musical mono-savant. IN LK Obler & DA Fein (eds) The exceptional brain: Neuropsychology of talent and special abilities (pp277-93). NY: Guilford Press.
  6. Chase, W.G. & Ericsson, K.A. 1981. Skilled memory. In J.R. Anderson (ed). Cognitive skills and their acquisition. Erlbaum.
  7. Coon, H. & Carey, G. 1989. Genetic and environmental determinants of musical ability in twins. Behavior Genetics, 19, 183-93.
  8. Dark, V.J. & Benbow, C.P. 1990. Enhanced problem translation and short-term memory: components of mathematical talent. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 420-9.
  9. Dark, V.J. & Benbow, C.P. 1991. The differential enhancement of working memory with mathematical versus verbal precocity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 48-60.
  10. Davis, M. 1994. Folk music psychology. Psychologist, 7, 537.
  11. Ericsson, K.A. 1990. Peak performance and age: an examination of peak performance in sports. In P.B. Baltes & & M.M. Baltes (eds). Successful aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences. Cambridge University Press.
  12. Ericsson, K.A. & Faivre, I.A. 1988. What's exceptional about exceptional abilities? In K. Obler & D. Fein (eds). The exceptional brain. Guilford Press.
  13. Ericsson, K.A., Tesch-Romer, C. & Krampe, R. Th. 1990. The role of practice and motivation in the acquisition of expert-level performance in real life. In M.J.A. Howe (ed). Encouraging the development of exceptional abilities and talents. British Psychological Society.
  14. Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.Th. & Heizmann, S. 1993. Can we create gifted people? In G.R. Bock & K. Ackrill (eds). The origins and development of high ability. CIBA Foundation Symposium, 178. Wiley.
  15. Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.Th. & Tesch-Romer, C. 1993. The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.
  16. Feldman, D.H. 1980. Beyond universals in cognitive development. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
  17. Feldman, D.H. 1986. Nature's gambit: Child prodigies and the development of human potential. NY: Basic Books.
  18. Forbes, C. 1992. The Polgar sisters: Training or genius? NY: Henry Holt.
  19. Fowler, W. 1981. Case studies of cognitive precocity: the role of exogenous and endogenous stimulation in early mental development. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 2, 319-67.
  20. Gustin, W.C. 1985. The development of exceptional research mathematicians. In B.S. Bloom (ed). Developing talent in young people. Ballantine.
  21. Hayes, J.R. 1981. The complete problem solver. Franklin Institute Press.
  22. Howald, H. 1982. Training-induced morphological and functional changes in skeletal muscle. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 3, 1-12.
  23. Howe, M.J.A. 1990. The origins of exceptional abilities. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  24. Howe, M.J.A. & Sloboda, J.A. 1991. Young musicians' accounts of significant influences in their early lives: 2. Teachers, practising and performing. British Journal of Music Education, 8, 53-63.
  25. Howe, M.J.A., Davidson, J.W., Moore, D.G. & Sloboda, J.A. 1995. Are there early childhood signs of musical ability? Psychology of Music, 23, 162-76.
  26. Kalinowski, A.G. 1985. The development of Olympic swimmers. In B.S. Bloom (ed). Developing talent in young people. Ballantine.
  27. Krampe, R.Th. 1994. Maintaining excellence: cognitive-motor performance in pianists differing in age and skill level. Max-Planck-Institut fur Bildungsforschung.
  28. Krampe, R.Th. & Ericsson, K.A. 1996. Maintaining excellence: cognitive-motor performance in pianists differing in age and skill level. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 125, 331-68.
  29. Lehmann, A.C. 1997. The acquisition of expertise in music: efficiency of deliberate practice as a moderating variable in accounting for sub-expert performance. In J.A. Sloboda & I. Deliege (eds). Perception and cognition of music. Erlbaum.
  30. Lykken, D. 1998. The genetics of genius. In A. Steptoe (ed). Genius and the mind. Oxford University Press.
  31. Manturzewska, M. 1986. Musical talent in the light of biographical research. In Musikalische Begabung Finden und Forden, Bosse.
  32. Monsaas, J. 1985. Learning to be a world-class tennis player. In B.S. Bloom (ed). Developing talent in young people. Ballantine.
  33. Platt, R. 1966. General introduction. In J.E. Meade & A.S. Parkes (eds). Genetic and environmental factors in human ability. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.
  34. Roth H 1982 . Master violinists in performance. Neptune City, NJ: Paganinia
  35. Schneider, W. 1993. Acquiring expertise: determinants of exceptional performance. In K.A. Heller, F.J. Monks & A.H. Passow (eds). International Handbook of Research and Development of Giftedness and Talent. Pergamon.
  36. Simon, H.A. & Chase, W.D. 1973. Skill in chess. American Scientist, 61, 394-403.
  37. Sloan, K.D. & Sosniak, L.A. 1985. The development of accomplished sculptors. In B.S. Bloom (ed). Developing talent in young people. Ballantine.
  38. Sloboda, J.A. & Howe, M.J.A. 1991. Biographical precursors of musical excellence: an interview study. Psychology of Music, 19, 3-21.
  39. Sloboda, J.A., Davidson, J.W., Howe, M.J.A. & Moore, D.G. 1996. The role of practice in the development of performing musicians. British Journal of Psychology, 87, 287-309.
  40. Sosniak, L.A. 1985. Learning to be a concert pianist. In B.S. Bloom (ed). Developing talent in young people. Ballantine.
  41. Sosniak, L.A. 1990. The tortoise, the hare, and the development of talent. In M.J.A. Howe (ed). Encouraging the development of exceptional abilities and talents. British Psychological Society.
  42. Takeuchi, A.H. & Hulse, S.H. 1993. Absolute pitch. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 345-61.
  43. Treffert DA 1989 Extraordinary people: Understanding “Idiot Savants”. NY: Harper & Row.
  44. Winner, E. & Martino, G. 1993. Giftedness in the visual arts and music. In K.A. Heller, F.J. Monks & A.H. Passow (eds). International Handbook of Research and Development of Giftedness and Talent. Pergamon.
  45. Winner, E. 1996. The rage to master: the decisive role of talent in the visual arts. In K.A. Ericsson (ed). The road to excellence: The acquisition of expert performance in the arts and sciences. Erlbaum.


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Movie study confirms older people are more distractible

Idiosyncratic brain activity among older people watching a thriller-type movie adds to evidence that:

  • age may affect the ability to perceive and remember the order of events (explaining why older adults may find it harder to follow complex plots)
  • age affects the ability to focus attention and not be distracted
  • age affects the brain's connectivity — how well connected regions work together.

A study involving 218 participants aged 18-88 has looked at the effects of age on the brain activity of participants viewing an edited version of a 1961 Hitchcock TV episode (given that participants viewed the movie while in a MRI machine, the 25 minute episode was condensed to 8 minutes).

While many studies have looked at how age changes brain function, the stimuli used have typically been quite simple. This thriller-type story provides more complex and naturalistic stimuli.

Younger adults' brains responded to the TV program in a very uniform way, while older adults showed much more idiosyncratic responses. The TV program (“Bang! You're dead”) has previously been shown to induce widespread synchronization of brain responses (such movies are, after all, designed to focus attention on specific people and objects; following along with the director is, in a manner of speaking, how we follow the plot). The synchronization seen here among younger adults may reflect the optimal response, attention focused on the most relevant stimulus. (There is much less synchronization when the stimuli are more everyday.)

The increasing asynchronization with age seen here has previously been linked to poorer comprehension and memory. In this study, there was a correlation between synchronization and measures of attentional control, such as fluid intelligence and reaction time variability. There was no correlation between synchronization and crystallized intelligence.

The greatest differences were seen in the brain regions controlling attention (the superior frontal lobe and the intraparietal sulcus) and language processing (the bilateral middle temporal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus).

The researchers accordingly suggested that the reason for the variability in brain patterns seen in older adults lies in their poorer attentional control — specifically, their top-down control (ability to focus) rather than bottom-up attentional capture. Attentional capture has previously been shown to be well preserved in old age.

Of course, it's not necessarily bad that a watcher doesn't rigidly follow the director's manipulation! The older adults may be showing more informed and cunning observation than the younger adults. However, previous studies have found that older adults watching a movie tend to vary more in where they draw an event boundary; those showing most variability in this regard were the least able to remember the sequence of events.

The current findings therefore support the idea that older adults may have increasing difficulty in understanding events — somthing which helps explain why some old people have increasing trouble following complex plots.

The findings also add to growing evidence that age affects functional connectivity (how well the brain works together).

It should be noted, however, that it is possible that there could also be cohort effects going on — that is, effects of education and life experience.


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Short online ‘pep talks’ can boost students

A large study shows how a 45-minute online intervention can improve struggling high school students' attitude to schoolwork, and thus their academic performance.

There's been a lot of talk in recent years about the importance of mindset in learning, with those who have a “growth mindset” (ie believe that intelligence can be developed) being more academically successful than those who believe that intelligence is a fixed attribute. A new study shows that a 45-minute online intervention can help struggling high school students.

The study involved 1,594 students in 13 U.S. high schools. They were randomly allocated to one of three intervention groups or the control group. The intervention groups either experienced an online program designed to develop a growth mindset, or an online program designed to foster a sense of purpose, or both programs (2 weeks apart). All interventions were expected to improve academic performance, especially in struggling students.

The interventions had no significant benefits for students who were doing okay, but were of significant benefit for those who had an initial GPA of 2 or less, or had failed at least one core subject (this group contained 519 students; a third of the total participants). For this group, each of the interventions was of similar benefit; interestingly, the combined intervention was less beneficial than either single intervention. It's plausibly suggested that this might be because the different messages weren't integrated, and students may have had some trouble in taking on board two separate messages.

Overall, for this group of students, semester grade point averages improved in core academic courses and the rate at which students performed satisfactorily in core courses increased by 6.4%.

GPA average in core subjects (math, English, science, social studies) was calculated at the end of the semester before the interventions, and at the end of the semester after the interventions. Brief questions before and after the interventions assessed the students' beliefs about intelligence, and their sense of meaningfulness about schoolwork.

GPA before intervention was positively associated with a growth mindset and a sense of purpose, explaining why the interventions had no effect on better students. Only the growth mindset intervention led to a more malleable view of intelligence; only the sense-of-purpose intervention led to a change in perception in the value of mundane academic tasks. Note that the combined intervention showed no such effects, suggesting that it had confused rather than enlightened!

In the growth mindset intervention, students read an article describing the brain’s ability to grow and reorganize itself as a consequence of hard work and good strategies. The message that difficulties don't indicate limited ability but rather provide learning opportunities, was reinforced in two writing exercises. The control group read similar materials, but with a focus on functional localization in the brain rather than its malleability.

In the sense-of-purpose interventions, students were asked to write about how they wished the world could be a better place. They read about the reasons why some students worked hard, such as “to make their families proud”; “to be a good example”; “to make a positive impact on the world”. They were then asked to think about their own goals and how school could help them achieve those objectives. The control group completed one of two modules that didn't differ in impact. In one, students described how their lives were different in high school compared to before. The other was much more similar to the intervention, except that the emphasis was on economic self-interest rather than social contribution.

The findings are interesting in showing that you can help poor learners with a simple intervention, but perhaps even more, for their indication that such interventions are best done in a more holistic and contextual way. A more integrated message would hopefully have been more effective, and surely ongoing reinforcement in the classroom would make an even bigger difference.




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Birth order has no meaningful effect on personality or IQ

Because this is such a persistent myth, I thought I should briefly report on this massive study that should hopefully put an end to this myth once and for all (I wish! Myths are not so easily squashed.)

This study used data from 377,000 U.S. high school students, and, agreeing with a previous large study, found that first-borns have a one IQ point advantage over later-born siblings, but while statistically significant, this is a difference of no practical significance.

The analysis also found that first-borns tended to be more extroverted, agreeable and conscientious, and had less anxiety than later-borns, — but those differences were “infinitesimally small”, amounting to a correlation of 0.02 (the correlation between birth order and intelligence was .04).

The study controlled for potentially confounding factors, such as a family's economic status, number of children and the relative age of the siblings at the time of the analysis.

A separate analysis of children with exactly two siblings and living with two parents, enabled the finding that there are indeed specific differences between the oldest and a second child, and between second and third children. But the magnitude of the differences was again “minuscule”.

Perhaps it's not fair to say the myth is trounced. Rather, we can say that, yeah, sure, birth order makes a difference — but the difference is so small as not to be meaningful on an individual level.



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Lower IQ & fitness in teen years increases risk of early-onset dementia

Data from 1.1 million young Swedish men (conscription information taken at age 18) has shown that those with poorer cardiovascular fitness were 2.5 times more likely to develop early-onset dementia later in life and 3.5 times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, while those with a lower IQ had a 4 times greater risk of early dementia and a threefold greater risk of MCI. A combination of both poor cardiovascular fitness and low IQ entailed a more than 7 times greater risk of early-onset dementia, and more than 8 times greater risk of MCI.

The increased risk remained even when controlled for other risk factors, such as heredity, medical history, and social-economic circumstances.

The development of early-onset dementia was taken from national disease registries. During the study period, a total of 660 men were diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

A further study of this database, taken from 488,484 men, of whom 487 developed early-onset dementia (at a median age of 54), found nine risk factors for early-onset dementia that together accounted for 68% of the attributable risk. These factors were alcohol intoxication, stroke, use of antipsychotics, depression, father's dementia, drug intoxication other than alcohol, low cognitive function at age 18, low stature at age 18, and high blood pressure at age 18.




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Intelligence & the brain

See also

Intelligence (research reports)

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Genes more important for IQ as children get older

Data from six studies carried out in the US, the UK, Australia and the Netherlands, involving a total of 11,000 pairs of twins, has revealed that genes become more important for intelligence as we get older. The researchers calculated that genes accounted for some 41% of the variation in intelligence in 9 year olds, rising to 55% in 12 year olds, and 66% in 17 year olds. It was suggested that as they get older, children get better at controlling (or perhaps are allowed to have more control over) their environment, which they do in a way that accentuates their ‘natural’ abilities — bright children feed their abilities; less bright children choose activities and friends that are less challenging.

Haworth, C.M.A. et al. 2009. The heritability of general cognitive ability increases linearly from childhood to young adulthood. Molecular Psychiatry, advance online publication 2 June 2009; doi: 10.1038/mp.2009.55

A gene that influences intelligence

A study involving more than 2000 people from 200 families has found a link between the gene CHRM2, that activates multiple signaling pathways in the brain involved in learning, memory and other higher brain functions, and performance IQ. Researchers found that several variations within the CHRM2 gene (which is on chromosome 7) could be correlated with slight differences in performance IQ scores, which measure a person's visual-motor coordination, logical and sequential reasoning, spatial perception and abstract problem solving skills, and when people had more than one positive variation in the gene, the improvements in performance IQ were cumulative. Intelligence is a complex attribute that results from a combination of many genetic and environmental factors, so don’t interpret this finding to mean we’ve found a gene for intelligence.

[1173] Edenberg H, Porjesz B, Begleiter H, Hesselbrock V, Goate A, Bierut L, Dick D, Aliev F, Kramer J, Wang J, et al. Association of CHRM2 with IQ: Converging Evidence for a Gene Influencing Intelligence. Behavior Genetics [Internet]. 2007 ;37(2):265 - 272. Available from:

Common gene version optimizes thinking but carries a risk

On the same subject, another study has found that the most common version of DARPP-32, a gene that shapes and controls a circuit between the striatum and prefrontal cortex, optimizes information filtering by the prefrontal cortex, thus improving working memory capacity and executive control (and thus, intelligence). However, the same version was also more prevalent among people who developed schizophrenia, suggesting that a beneficial gene variant may translate into a disadvantage if the prefrontal cortex is impaired. In other words, one of the things that make humans more intelligent as a species may also make us more vulnerable to schizophrenia.

[864] Kolachana B, Kleinman JE, Weinberger DR, Meyer-Lindenberg A, Straub RE, Lipska BK, Verchinski BA, Goldberg T, Callicott JH, Egan MF, et al. Genetic evidence implicating DARPP-32 in human frontostriatal structure, function, and cognition. Journal of Clinical Investigation [Internet]. 2007 ;117(3):672 - 682. Available from:

Closing in on the genes involved in human intelligence

A genetic study claims to have identified two regions of the human genome that appear to explain variation in IQ. Previous research has suggested that between 40% and 80% of variation in human intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) can be attributed to genetic factors, but research has so far failed to identify these genes. The new study has identified specific locations on Chromosomes 2 and 6 as being highly influential in determining IQ, using data from 634 sibling pairs. The region on Chromosome 2 that shows significant links to performance IQ overlaps a region associated with autism. The region on Chromosome 6 that showed strong links with both full-scale and verbal IQ marginally overlapped a region implicated in reading disability and dyslexia.

[382] Posthuma D, Luciano M, Geus E, Wright M, Slagboom P, Montgomery G, Boomsma D, Martin N. A Genomewide Scan for Intelligence Identifies Quantitative Trait Loci on 2q and 6p. The American Journal of Human Genetics [Internet]. 2005 ;77(2):318 - 326. Available from:

Damaged brains show regions involved in intelligence

Comparison of brain scans of 241 patients with differing degrees of cognitive impairment from events such as strokes, tumor resection, and traumatic brain injury, has correlated the location of brain injuries with scores on each of the four indices in the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), the most widely used intelligence test in the world. It was found that lesions in the left frontal cortex were associated with lower scores on the verbal comprehension index; lesions in the left frontal and parietal cortex were associated with lower scores on the working memory index; and lesions in the right parietal cortex were associated with lower scores on the perceptual organization index. A surprisingly large amount of overlap in the brain regions responsible for verbal comprehension and working memory may suggest that these two measures of cognitive ability may actually represent the same type of intelligence.

[1179] Gläscher J, Tranel D, Paul LK, Rudrauf D, Rorden C, Hornaday A, Grabowski T, Damasio H, Adolphs R. Lesion Mapping of Cognitive Abilities Linked to Intelligence. Neuron [Internet]. 2009 ;61(5):681 - 691. Available from:

When it comes to intelligence, size matters

The NIH MRI Study of Normal Brain Development now contains data from more than 500 children and adolescents from newborns to 18-year-olds, who had brain scans multiple times over a period of years as well as various cognitive tests. A sample of 216 healthy 6 to 18 year old brains from the dataset reveal that there is a positive link between cortical thickness and cognitive ability in many areas of the frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital lobes. The regions with the greatest relationship were the 'multi-modal association' areas, where information converges from various regions of the brain for processing. The finding supports a distributed model of intelligence.

[874] Karama S, Ad-Dab'bagh Y, Haier RJ, Deary IJ, Lyttelton OC, Lepage C, Evans AC. Positive association between cognitive ability and cortical thickness in a representative US sample of healthy 6 to 18 year-olds. Intelligence [Internet]. Submitted ;37(2):145 - 155. Available from:

Processing speed component of intelligence is largely inherited

A new kind of scanner used on the brains of 23 sets of identical twins and 23 sets of fraternal twins has revealed that myelin quality is under strong genetic control in the frontal, parietal, and left occipital lobes, and that myelin quality (in the cingulum, optic radiations, superior fronto-occipital fasciculus, internal capsule, callosal isthmus, and corona radiata) was correlated with intelligence scores. Myelin governs the speed with which signals can travel along the axons of neurons, that is, how fast we can process information. The researchers are now working on finding the genes that may influence myelin growth.

[1310] de Zubicaray GI, Wright MJ, Srivastava A, Balov N, Thompson PM, Chiang M-C, Barysheva M, Shattuck DW, Lee AD, Madsen SK, et al. Genetics of Brain Fiber Architecture and Intellectual Performance. J. Neurosci. [Internet]. 2009 ;29(7):2212 - 2224. Available from:

Intelligence and rhythmic accuracy go hand in hand

And in another perspective on the nature of intelligence, a new study has demonstrated a correlation between general intelligence and the ability to tap out a simple regular rhythm. The correlation between high intelligence and a good ability to keep time, was also linked to a high volume of white matter in the parts of the frontal lobes involved in problem solving, planning and managing time. The finding suggests that the long-established correlation of general intelligence with the mean and variability of reaction time in elementary cognitive tasks, as well as with performance on temporal judgment and discrimination tasks, is a bottom-up connection, stemming from connectivity in the prefrontal regions.

[665] Ullen F, Forsman L, Blom O, Karabanov A, Madison G. Intelligence and Variability in a Simple Timing Task Share Neural Substrates in the Prefrontal White Matter. J. Neurosci. [Internet]. 2008 ;28(16):4238 - 4243. Available from:

Brain network related to intelligence identified

A review of 37 imaging studies may have finally answered an age-old question: where is intelligence. Following on from recent evidence suggesting that intelligence is related to how well information travels throughout the brain, the researchers believe they have identified the stations along the routes intelligent information processing takes. These stations primarily involve areas in the frontal and the parietal lobes, many of which are involved in attention and memory, and more complex functions such as language. Basically, the researchers theorize that your level of intelligence is a function of how well these areas communicate with each other. It’s particularly interesting to note that these various imaging studies had remarkably consistent results despite the different definitions of intelligence used in them.

[1015] Jung RE, Haier RJ. The Parieto-Frontal Integration Theory (P-FIT) of Intelligence: Converging Neuroimaging Evidence. Behavioral and Brain Sciences [Internet]. 2007 ;30(02):135 - 154. Available from:

Intelligence based on the volume of gray matter in certain brain regions

Confirming earlier suggestions, the most comprehensive structural brain-scan study of intelligence to date supports an association between general intelligence and the volume of gray matter tissue in certain regions of the brain. Because these regions are located throughout the brain, a single "intelligence center" is unlikely. It is likely that a person's mental strengths and weaknesses depend in large part on the individual pattern of gray matter across his or her brain. Although gray matter amounts are vital to intelligence levels, only about 6% of the brain’s gray matter appears related to IQ — intelligence seems related to an efficient use of relatively few structures. The structures that are important for intelligence are the same ones implicated in memory, attention and language. There are also age differences: in middle age, more of the frontal and parietal lobes are related to IQ; less frontal and more temporal areas are related to IQ in the younger adults. Previous research has shown the regional distribution of gray matter in humans is highly heritable. The findings also challenge the recent view that intelligence may be a reflection of more subtle characteristics of the brain, such as the speed at which nerve impulses travel in the brain, or the number of neuronal connections present. It may of course be that all of these are factors.

[715] Haier RJ, Jung RE, Yeo RA, Head K, Alkire MT. Structural brain variation and general intelligence. NeuroImage [Internet]. 2004 ;23(1):425 - 433. Available from:

Brain size does matter, but differently for men and women

A study involving the intelligence testing of 100 neurologically normal, terminally ill volunteers, who agreed that their brains be measured after death, found that a bigger brain size is correlated with higher intelligence in certain areas, but there are differences between women and men. Verbal intelligence was clearly correlated with brain size, accounting for 36% of the verbal IQ score, for women and right-handed men — but not for left-handed men. Spatial intelligence was also correlated with brain size in women, but much less strongly, while it was not related at all to brain size in men. It may be that the size or structure of specific brain regions is related to spatial intelligence in men. Brain size decreased with age in men over the age span of 25 to 80 years, suggesting that the well-documented decline in visuospatial intelligence with age is related, at least in right-handed men, to the decrease in cerebral volume with age. However age hardly affected brain size in women.

[1029] Witelson SF, Beresh H, Kigar DL. Intelligence and brain size in 100 postmortem brains: sex, lateralization and age factors. Brain: A Journal of Neurology [Internet]. 2006 ;129(Pt 2):386 - 398. Available from:

Correlation between brain volume and intelligence

An analysis of 26 previous international studies involving brain volume and intelligence has found that, on average, intelligence (as measured by standardized intelligence tests) increases with increasing brain volume. The correlation was higher for females than males, and for adults compared to children.

[925] McDaniel MA. Big-brained people are smarter: A meta-analysis of the relationship between in vivo brain volume and intelligence. Intelligence [Internet]. Submitted ;33(4):337 - 346. Available from:

A copy of the study is available at

IQ-related brain areas may differ in men and women

An imaging study of 48 men and women between 18 and 84 years old found that, although men and women performed equally on the IQ tests, the brain structures involved in intelligence appeared distinct. Compared with women, men had more than six times the amount of intelligence-related gray matter, while women had about nine times more white matter involved in intelligence than men did. Women also had a large proportion of their IQ-related brain matter (86% of white and 84% of gray) concentrated in the frontal lobes, while men had 90% of their IQ-related gray matter distributed equally between the frontal lobes and the parietal lobes, and 82% of their IQ-related white matter in the temporal lobes. The implications of all this are not clear, but it is worth noting that the volume of gray matter can increase with learning, and is thus a product of environment as well as genes. The findings also demonstrate that no single neuroanatomical structure determines general intelligence and that different types of brain designs are capable of producing equivalent intellectual performance.

[938] Haier RJ, Jung RE, Yeo RA, Head K, Alkire MT. The neuroanatomy of general intelligence: sex matters. NeuroImage [Internet]. 2005 ;25(1):320 - 327. Available from:

Individual primates display variation in general intelligence

Research into cognition of non-human animals has been concerned almost entirely with the abilities of the species, not with individual variation within a species. Now a study of 22 cotton-top tamarins has revealed that these monkeys, like humans, also display substantial individual variation on tests of broad cognitive ability, although the degree of variation does seem significantly smaller than it is among humans (individual variability accounted for some 20% of the monkey’s performance, while it accounts for some 40-60% of human’s performance on IQ tasks). It may be that greater variability has been an important factor in human brain evolution.

[781] Banerjee K, Chabris CF, Johnson VE, Lee JJ, Tsao F, Hauser MD. General Intelligence in Another Primate: Individual Differences across Cognitive Task Performance in a New World Monkey (Saguinus oedipus). PLoS ONE [Internet]. 2009 ;4(6):e5883 - e5883. Available from:

Full text available at

Bigger is smarter: brain size predicts intelligence in different species

Animals with larger body sizes generally have larger brains, and it has generally been assumed that larger animals require larger nervous systems to coordinate their larger bodies. Consequently, comparison of brain size across different animal species, as an indirect measurement of intelligence, have controlled for body size. New research however suggests that, although some correction is probably needed, completely controlling for body size is almost certainly a mistake. Both overall brain size and overall neocortex size proved to be good predictors of intelligence in different primate species.

[998] Deaner RO, Isler K, Burkart J, van Schaik C. Overall Brain Size, and Not Encephalization Quotient, Best Predicts Cognitive Ability across Non-Human Primates. Brain, Behavior and Evolution [Internet]. 2007 ;70(2):115 - 124. Available from:

Size of brain areas does matter — but bigger isn't necessarily better

In a fascinating mouse study that overturns our simplistic notion that, when it comes to the brain, bigger is better, researchers have found that there is an optimal size for regions within the brain. The study found that if areas of the cortex involved in body sensations and motor control are either smaller or larger than normal, mice couldn’t run an obstacle course, keep from falling off a rotating rod, or perform other tactile and motor behaviors that require balance and coordination as well as mice with normal-sized areas could. It now seems that the best size in one that is best tuned to the context of the neural system within which that area functions — which is not really so surprising when you consider that every brain region acts as part of a network, in conjunction with other regions. This study builds upon a previous discovery by the same researchers, that a gene controls how the cortex in mice is divided during embryonic development into its functionally specialized areas. Different levels of the protein expressed by this gene changes the size of the sensorimotor areas of the cortex. It is known that significant variability in cortical area size exists in humans, and this may explain at least in part variability in human performance.

[334] Leingärtner A, Thuret S, Kroll TT, Chou S-J, Leasure LJ, Gage FH, O'Leary DDM. Cortical area size dictates performance at modality-specific behaviors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2007 ;104(10):4153 - 4158. Available from:

Full text is available at

Bigger brains associated with domain-general intelligence

Analysis of hundreds of studies testing the cognitive abilities of non-human primates provides support for a general intelligence, and confirms that the great apes are more intelligent than monkeys and prosimians. Individual studies have always been criticized for not clearly ensuring that one species wasn’t out-performing another simply because the particular testing situation was more suited to them. However, by looking at so many varied tests, the researchers have overcome this criticism. Although there were a few cases where one species performed better than another one in one task and reversed places in a different task, overall, some species truly outperformed others. The smartest species were clearly the great apes — orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas. Moreover, there was no evidence that any species performed especially well within a particular paradigm, contradicting the theory that species differences in intelligence only exist for narrow, specialized skills. Instead, the results argue that some species possess a broad, domain-general type of intelligence that allows them to succeed in a variety of situations.

Deaner, R.O., van Schaik, C.P. & Johnson, V. 2006. Do some taxa have better domain-general cognition than others? A meta-analysis of nonhuman primate studies. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 149-196.

Full-text available at

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Correlation between emotional intelligence and IQ

February, 2013

A study shows that IQ and conscientiousness significantly predict emotional intelligence, and identifies shared brain areas that underlie this interdependence.

By using brain scans from 152 Vietnam veterans with a variety of combat-related brain injuries, researchers claim to have mapped the neural basis of general intelligence and emotional intelligence.

There was significant overlap between general intelligence and emotional intelligence, both in behavioral measures and brain activity. Higher scores on general intelligence tests and personality reliably predicted higher performance on measures of emotional intelligence, and many of the same brain regions (in the frontal and parietal cortices) were found to be important to both.

More specifically, impairments in emotional intelligence were associated with selective damage to a network containing the extrastriate body area (involved in perceiving the form of other human bodies), the left posterior superior temporal sulcus (helps interpret body movement in terms of intentions), left temporo-parietal junction (helps work out other person’s mental state), and left orbitofrontal cortex (supports emotional empathy). A number of associated major white matter tracts were also part of the network.

Two of the components of general intelligence were strong contributors to emotional intelligence: verbal comprehension/crystallized intelligence, and processing speed. Verbal impairment was unsurprisingly associated with selective damage to the language network, which showed some overlap with the network underlying emotional intelligence. Similarly, damage to the fronto-parietal network linked to deficits in processing speed also overlapped in places with the emotional intelligence network.

Only one of the ‘big five’ personality traits contributed to the prediction of emotional intelligence — conscientiousness. Impairments in conscientiousness were associated with damage to brain regions widely implicated in social information processing, of which two areas (left orbitofrontal cortex and left temporo-parietal junction) were also involved in impaired emotional intelligence, suggesting where these two attributes might be connected (ability to predict and understand another’s emotions).

It’s interesting (and consistent with the growing emphasis on connectivity rather than the more simplistic focus on specific regions) that emotional intelligence was so affected by damage to white matter tracts. The central role of the orbitofrontal cortex is also intriguing – there’s been growing evidence in recent years of the importance of this region in emotional and social processing, and it’s worth noting that it’s in the right place to integrate sensory and bodily sensation information and pass that onto decision-making systems.

All of this is to say that emotional intelligence depends on social information processing and general intelligence. Traditionally, general intelligence has been thought to be distinct from social and emotional intelligence. But humans are fundamentally social animals, and – contra the message of the Enlightenment, that we have taken so much to heart – it has become increasingly clear that emotions and reason are inextricably entwined. It is not, therefore, all that surprising that general and emotional intelligence might be interdependent. It is more surprising that conscientiousness might be rooted in your degree of social empathy.

It’s also worth noting that ‘emotional intelligence’ is not simply a trendy concept – a pop quiz question regarding whether you ‘have a high EQ’ (or not), but that it can, if impaired, produce very real problems in everyday life.

Emotional intelligence was measured by the Mayer, Salovey, Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), general IQ by the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, and personality by the Neuroticism-Extroversion-Openness Inventory.

One of the researchers talks about this study on this YouTube video and on this podcast.



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The importance of cognitive control for intelligence

October, 2012

Brain imaging points to the importance of cognitive control, mediated by the connectivity of one particular brain region, for fluid intelligence.

What underlies differences in fluid intelligence? How are smart brains different from those that are merely ‘average’?

Brain imaging studies have pointed to several aspects. One is brain size. Although the history of simplistic comparisons of brain size has been turbulent (you cannot, for example, directly compare brain size without taking into account the size of the body it’s part of), nevertheless, overall brain size does count for something — 6.7% of individual variation in intelligence, it’s estimated. So, something, but not a huge amount.

Activity levels in the prefrontal cortex, research also suggests, account for another 5% of variation in individual intelligence. (Do keep in mind that these figures are not saying that, for example, prefrontal activity explains 5% of intelligence. We are talking about differences between individuals.)

A new study points to a third important factor — one that, indeed, accounts for more than either of these other factors. The strength of the connections from the left prefrontal cortex to other areas is estimated to account for 10% of individual differences in intelligence.

These findings suggest a new perspective on what intelligence is. They suggest that part of intelligence rests on the functioning of the prefrontal cortex and its ability to communicate with the rest of the brain — what researchers are calling ‘global connectivity’. This may reflect cognitive control and, in particular, goal maintenance. The left prefrontal cortex is thought to be involved in (among other things) remembering your goals and any instructions you need for accomplishing those goals.

The study involved 93 adults (average age 23; range 18-40), whose brains were monitored while they were doing nothing and when they were engaged in the cognitively challenging N-back working memory task.

Brain activity patterns revealed three regions within the frontoparietal network that were significantly involved in this task: the left lateral prefrontal cortex, right premotor cortex, and right medial posterior parietal cortex. All three of these regions also showed signs of being global hubs — that is, they were highly connected to other regions across the brain.

Of these, however, only the left lateral prefrontal cortex showed a significant association between its connectivity and individual’s fluid intelligence. This was confirmed by a second independent measure — working memory capacity — which was also correlated with this region’s connectivity, and only this region.

In other words, those with greater connectivity in the left LPFC had greater cognitive control, which is reflected in higher working memory capacity and higher fluid intelligence. There was no correlation between connectivity and crystallized intelligence.

Interestingly, although other global hubs (such as the anterior prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) also have strong relationships with intelligence and high levels of global connectivity, they did not show correlations between their levels of connectivity and fluid intelligence. That is, although the activity within these regions may be important for intelligence, their connections to other brain regions are not.

So what’s so important about the connections the LPFC has with the rest of the brain? It appears that, although it connects widely to sensory and motor areas, it is primarily the connections within the frontoparietal control network that are most important — as well as the deactivation of connections with the default network (the network active during rest).

This is not to say that the LPFC is the ‘seat of intelligence’! Research has made it clear that a number of brain regions support intelligence, as do other areas of connectivity. The finding is important because it shows that the left LPFC supports cognitive control and intelligence through a mechanism involving global connectivity and some other as-yet-unknown property. One possibility is that this region is a ‘flexible’ hub — able to shift its connectivity with a number of different brain regions as the task demands.

In other words, what may count is how many different connectivity patterns the left LPFC has in its repertoire, and how good it is at switching to them.

An association between negative connections with the default network and fluid intelligence also adds to evidence for the importance of inhibiting task-irrelevant processing.

All this emphasizes the role of cognitive control in intelligence, and perhaps goes some way to explaining why self-regulation in children is so predictive of later success, apart from the obvious.



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