Yale Neuroscientists Can Now Determine Human Intelligence Through Brain Scans

Safeguards must be put into place before a Minority Report scenario crops up.


Do you feel like you were born to do something? There is just a certain skill like playing an instrument or sport, or a certain subject, like math, which you naturally excel in? It might have to do with the way your brain is wired. Different people have different aptitudes. The repositories for these lie in different parts of the brain and, as scientists are learning more and more, in the connectome or the connections between regions.  

Today, neuroscientists can determine one’s intelligence through a brain scan, as sci-fi as that sounds. Not only that, it’s only a matter of time before they are able to tell each individual’s set of aptitudes and shortcomings, simply from scanning their brain. Researchers at Yale led the study. They interpreted intelligence in this case as abstract reasoning, also known as fluid intelligence. This is the ability to recognize patterns, solve problems, and identify relationships. Fluid intelligence is known to be a consistent predictor of academic performance. Yet, abstract reasoning is difficult to teach, and standardized tests often miss it.

Researchers in this study could accurately predict how a participant would do on a certain test by scanning their brain with an fMRI. 126 participants, all a part of the Human Connectome Project, were recruited. The Human Connectome Project is the mapping of all the connections inside the brain, to get a better understanding of how the wiring works and what it means for things like intellect, the emotions, and more. For this study, researchers at Yale put participants through a series of different tests to assess memory, intelligence, motor skills, and abstract thinking.

They were able to map the connectivity in 268 individual brain regions. Investigators could tell how strong the connections were, how active, and how activity was coordinated between regions. Each person’s connectome was as unique as their fingerprint, scientists found. They could identify one participant from another with 99% accuracy, from their brain scan. Yale researchers could also tell whether the person was engaged in the assessment they were taking or if they were aloof about it. 

Emily Finn was a grad student and co-author of this study. She said, “The more certain regions are talking to one another, the better you’re able to process information quickly and make inferences.” Mostly, fluid intelligence had to do with the connections between the frontal and parietal lobes. The stronger and swifter the communication between these two regions, the better one’s score in the abstract thinking test. These are some of the latest regions to have evolved in the brain. They house the higher level functions, such as memory and language, which are essentially what make us human.

Axonal nerve fibers in the real brain, by jgmarcelino from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK (Webs'r'us  Uploaded by CFCF) [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Yale researchers believe that by learning more about the human connectome, they might find novel treatments for psychiatric disorders. Things like schizophrenia vary widely from one patient to the next. By finding what’s unique to a particular patient, a psychiatrist can tailor treatment to suit their needs. Understanding one’s connectome could give insight into how the disease progresses, and if and how the patient might respond to certain therapies or medications. But there are other uses which we may or may not feel comfortable with.

For instance, your child could have their brain scanned to track them at school, according to study author Todd Constable. It might be used to say whether or not a candidate is qualified for a job or should pursue a certain career. Brain scans could tell who might be prone to addiction, or what sort of learning environment a student might flourish in. School curriculum could even be changed on a day-to-day basis to fit student’s needs. And the dreaded SAT might even be shelved too, in favor of a simple brain scan.

Peter Bandettini is the chief of functional imaging methods at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). He told PBS that barring ethical issues, brain scans could someday be used by employers to tell which potential candidate possesses desirable aptitudes or personality traits, be they diligent, hardworking, or what-have-you. Richard Haier, an intelligence researcher at UC Irvine, foresees prison officials using such scans on inmates to tell who might be prone to violence.

We may even someday learn how to augment human intelligence from studies such as this. It’s important to remember that intelligence research is still in its infancy. Yet, according to Yale scientists, we are moving in this direction.

Some fear a Minority Report-like misuse of said technology. Neuroethicist Laura Cabrera at Michigan State University enumerated for WIRED her concerns. What if insurance companies denied coverage based on such a scan, due to a tendency toward addiction or some other predisposition. Of course, just because someone has a higher risk of something, doesn’t mean they will develop it. Without proper guidelines in place and oversight, we could quickly see banks, schools, universities, and other institutions taking part in “neuro-discrimination.” Strong laws will have to be put in place to defend against misuse.

There are limits to what we now know about the human connectome that have yet to be overcome. For instance, we can only look at the connections as they are now. We don’t know how they form or develop over time. And fluid intelligence is merely one type out of several different kinds. We are still far from applying such technology in the real world. But the potential is there.

To learn more about the Human Connectome Project, click here: 

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Lumina Foundation and Big Think have partnered to bring this entrepreneurial competition to life, and we hope you'll participate! We have narrowed down the competition to four finalists and will be announcing an audience's choice award and a judges' choice award in May.

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Finalist: Greater Commons - Todd McLeod

Greater Commons, founded by Todd McLeod and Andrew Cull, is an organization that helps people live happier, more successful and fulfilling lives through agile learning. The current education system is inefficient and exclusionary, in which many students who end up earning a degree, if at all, enter a career not related to their field of study. Greater Commons solves this problem and gap in post-high school secondary education in a variety of ways. Passionately and diligently, Great Commons helps others obtain skills, knowledge, wisdom, motivation, and inspiration so that they may live better lives.

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PeerForward is an organization dedicated to increasing the education and career success rates of students in low-income schools and communities by mobilizing the power of positive peer influence. PeerForward works with partner schools to select influential students as a part of a team, systemizing the "peer effect." Research in the fields of sociology of schools, social-emotional learning, adult-youth partnerships, and civic education demonstrates that students can have a positive effect on the academic outcomes of their peers. PeerForward is unique through its systemic solutions to post-secondary education.

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Cogniss combines technology and best practice knowledge to enable anyone to innovate and share solutions that advance lifelong learning. Cogniss is the only platform to integrate neuroscience, through which it solves the problem of access by providing a low-code platform that enables both developers and non-developers to build sophisticated education apps fast, and at a much lower cost. It addresses the uneven quality of edtech solutions by embedding research-based learning design into its software. App creators can choose from a rich set of artificial intelligence, game, social and data analytics, and gamification to build their perfect customized solution.

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Practera's mission is to create a world where everyone can learn through experience. Today's workplaces are increasingly dynamic and diverse, however, costly and time-consuming experiential learning is not always able to offer the right opportunities at scale. Many students graduate without developing the essential skills for their chosen career. Practera's team of educators and technologists see this problem as an opportunity to transform the educational experience landscape, through a CPL pedagogical framework and opportunities to apply students' strengths through active feedback.

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