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Could Brain Imaging Replace the SAT?

Scanning the next Einstein's brain


Imagine it's the year 2032. You are a high school student. You are at a center where a visual scanner confirms your identity so you can enter a room where you are about to receive a brain scan. A robot attendant with a soothing voice recommends that you should relax and that you are welcome to take a nap. As you lie down in the scanner and earphones playing your favorite music block out ambient noise, you find yourself drifting off to sleep.

You wake up. The scan is now over and there is good news. You don't have any medical complications. Rather, you've found out that with your brain characteristics, you have a good chance of being admitted to the college of your dreams. Why is that?

Well, as you were sleeping, you just took the neuro version of the SAT.

This fictional scenario is certainly not a reality today, but perhaps something like it may be a reality in the future. Richard Haier, an emeritus professor at the University of California Irvine, was the first to suggest that a brain scan might one day be used in place of testing like the SAT.

Haier paints a picture of our future: "Can it be done today? No. Is it in the realm of possibility based on what we've already done? Yes. Some day you will be able to have some kind of brain imaging or multiple kinds of brain imaging to assess the quantity and quality of your gray and white matter, the speed of your information processing in specific brain networks, and the neurochemistry of your neurons. The brain imaging data algorithms that combine all this information could well give an accurate indication of your intelligence and your cognitive strengths and weaknesses—maybe even your vocational talents."

Where in the brain is intelligence?

brain scan rich haier

In 1988, Haier and his colleagues scanned volunteers while they attempted to solve problems from the Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices, a nonverbal intelligence test. The scientists wanted to know which parts of the brain were active as the participants solved the problems. What they discovered was that there was an inverse relationship between brain activation and scores on the intelligence test.

In other words, smarter people had brains that could be more efficient.

Since that landmark study, the field of Neuro-Intelligence has started to take off. From 1988 to 2007, 37 imaging studies of intelligence and reasoning were published. From a 2007 synthesis of the literature, Rex Jung of the University of New Mexico and Haier concluded that intelligence was distributed across the brain and not focused in one part of the frontal lobe.

In Haier's words, "There was a network distributed around the brain that was related to intelligence, which we named the Parieto-Frontal Integration or P-FIT theory. In our theory, not just the specific brain areas are important but how efficiently information is communicated among those areas."

Since that review in 2007, there have now been about 100 new papers on intelligence and imaging. Haier says that this explosion in interest has come largely from cognitive and brain imaging scientists who have grown interested in the brain correlates of IQ tests.

Back in the 1980's there was still some controversy over whether IQ or intelligence tests measured something real. This is because IQ or intelligence has traditionally been assessed using a paper and pencil test. Now that scores on standardized tests have been directly related to brain assessments made by a variety of imaging technologies, Haier says that "brain imaging has just about ended the debate over whether intelligence test scores assess something real-they do."

A video of the brain solving a problem across time

Now Haier and his colleagues are collecting data to compare the brains of bright (IQs around 130 and higher) and average participants (IQs in the low 100's). They plan to use an imaging technique that will allow imaging of the problem solving experience to be recorded millisecond by millisecond.

According to Haier, "We will be able to see what parts of the brain are activated when people are solving problems. We can see the part of the brain that begins to work on the problem and where that information goes in the brain over the course of problem solving until there is an answer."

Will the researchers find that in smarter brains information goes through the P-FIT circuit faster?Or perhaps only part of the P-FIT circuit will be activated? These are some of the questions they hope to answer. At the very least, they will be able to show us a video of brain networks being intelligent.

Could we find the next Einstein using a brain scan?

Mark Zuckerberg Time

Every year, talent search centers across the country test over 200,000 intellectually talented students using an exam such as the SAT. They use the SAT on 7th graders rather than 11th graders so that there is enough intellectual headroom for these brilliant adolescents. And longitudinal research has demonstrated that the SAT predicts educational and occupational success later in life for these gifted participants. Consider the names Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Lady Gaga. Each of them was identified by a talent search as gifted in adolescence. Perhaps these are not names we would associate with a genius like Einstein, but they are still outstanding achievers of our time nonetheless. Let's say instead of giving them standardized tests we gave them a brain scan. Would the brain scan give us similar predictive power as the SAT? Would the brains of Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin look different from Lady Gaga's?

According to Haier, "There are probably many different ways that the brain can work to create genius. However you want to define genius or intelligence, the brain is where the action is. Einstein's brain and Isaac Newton's brain were likely different from my brain and most brains. If you had Einstein and Newton's brains side by side with the most sophisticated brain imaging, would they be unusual in the same way? Would they be unusual in the same way as a Nobel prize winner in literature?"

In 2032 will we really have a brain scan instead of the SAT?

Haier notes that "The goal of our research is not to replace the SAT with brain imaging. The goal is to understand what it is about brain characteristics that make some people smarter than others. As we learn about brain/intelligence relationships and mechanisms, we might be able to manipulate the brain to substantially increase intelligence using neurochemicals or other means."

Haier acknowledges there are a host of social policy and political issues that using a brain scan instead of the SAT raises, but he has faith that society will sort those out. He does, however, point out that a brain image is about one third the cost of a test prep course, which most students enroll in anyway. So if a student had the choice between taking a prep course and the paper and pencil SAT or opting for the brain scan, perhaps the brain scan might be easier and cheaper, and even demanded by parents.

Says Haier, "That's kind of a no brainer."

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

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