Superfluidity: Fluid Intelligence Goes Beyond Brain Size

Fluid intelligence has two facets that rely on brain size and energy production.

Posted Jun 21, 2016

Source: XStudio3D/Shutterstock

We all know the feeling of having an “Aha!” moment—when your thoughts and ideas seem to flow without friction or viscosity and come together in a millisecond of perfect harmony. Having an epiphany is directly linked to fluid intelligence, which is the ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas in new and useful ways.

Superfluidity is a term I borrowed from the world of physics to describe the highest form of what Mihaly Csikszentmihályi describes as flow. I also use this term to describe the optimization of fluid intelligence that occurs during Eureka! moments. I've learned from personal experience that superfluidity is an episodic experience in which your mind, body, and brain seem to function in a state of "super flow" marked by zero friction, viscosity, or entropy between your thoughts, emotions, and movements.

What Is Fluid Intelligence?

Fluid intelligence is the ability to think creatively, adapt to new situations, and solve problems you've often never encountered before in novel situations. Fluid intelligence generally involves the ability to use critical thinking—along with explicit and implicit knowledge—to identify patterns and connect-the-dots in a personal and original way. As Albert Szent-Györgyi once said, "Thus, the task is not to see what nobody has seen, but to think what nobody has thought, about what everybody sees."

“Aha!” moments—in which you wrestle to find an analytic solution and have an intuitive flash of insight that provides a correct answer—exemplify fluid intelligence. On the other hand, crystallized intelligence is represented by the strict analytic ability to utilize skills, knowledge, and experience to answer declarative questions solely using explicit knowledge.

Crystallized intelligence is a form of declarative memory that represents cerebral facts that you could memorize and respond to in a basic multiple choice standardized test. As the name implies, crystallized intelligence is not fluid or malleable. In many ways, the emphasis on gauging intelligence based solely on academic tests that only measure crystallized intelligence (under initiatives such as No Child Left Behind) has caused the importance of fluid intelligence to be grossly undervalued and allowed to atrophy in a digital era. 

Arthur Koestler beautifully described the feeling of having an "Aha!" moment in a way that touches on the difference between fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Koestler said,

“The moment of truth, the sudden emergence of a new insight, is an act of intuition. Such intuitions give the appearance of miraculous flushes, or short-circuits of reasoning. In fact they may be likened to an immersed chain, of which only the beginning and the end are visible above the surface consciousness. The diver vanishes at one end of the chain and comes up at the other end, guided by invisible links.”

For a long time, cognitive neuroscientists have been conducting research to better understand the biological foundations of various types of human intelligence. Decades of research have revealed that general intelligence is correlated with two brain-based biomarkers: the concentration of the brain biochemical N-acetyl aspartate (NAA), which can be measured by proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) and total brain volume, which can be measured using structural MRI brain imaging.

Fluid Intelligence vs. Crystallized Intelligence

Albert Einstein said of E=mc2, "I thought of it while riding my bicycle." 
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In March 2016, I reported on a study from the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign which found that higher concentrations of NAA in motor regions of the brain were specifically linked to higher levels of fluid intelligence.

NAA is a biochemical marker used to gauge the neural energy production within a specific brain area. In a statement, lead author Aki Nikolaidis said, “The brain’s motor regions have a role in planning and visualizing movements as well as carrying them out. Mental visualization is a key element of fluid intelligence.”

The researchers concluded that while overall brain size can be genetically determined and not readily changed, NAA levels and brain metabolism may respond to health interventions including diet, exercise, or cognitive training—all of which can improve fluid intelligence.

This week, a new study by researchers at the Beckman Institute offers more clarity on how brain structure and chemistry give rise to specific aspects of fluid intelligence. The June 2016 study, "Dissociable Brain Biomarkers of Fluid Intelligence,” appears in the journal NeuroImage.

What makes this study groundbreaking is that the researchers have linked higher concentrations of NAA energy production in the brain with an improved ability to specifically solve verbal and spatial problems. However, the researchers found an association between brain size and number-related problem-solving.

In a statement, University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Erick Paul, who led the work with research scientist Ryan Larsen and Illinois neuroscience professor Aron Barbey, said, 

"Surely there are many things about the brain that determine a person's intelligence, and the goal is to try to tease apart that puzzle. These two brain biomarkers, brain volume and NAA, are each giving us independent information about fluid intelligence. There are different properties of the brain that we can measure, and these different properties go with these different facets of fluid intelligence.

In our data, we observed two facets of fluid intelligence—one that involves quantitative or numeric reasoning, and another that involves verbal or spatial reasoning. A similar separation of reasoning abilities has been demonstrated in previous studies.

We found that the quantitative reasoning component of intelligence correlated with brain volume, but not with the concentration of NAA in the brain. And the verbal and spatial components of intelligence correlated with NAA, but not with brain volume.The findings add to the evidence that fluid intelligence involves distinct yet interrelated processes in the brain."

The analysis for this study involved 211 research subjects, making it the largest study to date linking brain chemistry and intelligence in living humans. The researchers emphasize that more studies will be needed to confirm and extend the findings. 

"Our findings contribute to a growing body of evidence to suggest that intelligence reflects multiple levels of organization in the brain—spanning neuroanatomy, for example brain size, and neurophysiology, such as brain metabolism—and that specific properties of the brain provide a powerful lens to investigate and understand the nature of specific intellectual abilities," Barbey concluded.

The "Book Smarts" of Crystallized Intelligence Are Often Overrated 

Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons
The cerebral cortex (in red) houses brain regions associated with crystallized intelligence. 
Source: Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been fascinated with the brain science of various types of intelligence and how we “think about our thinking” for as long as I can remember. For example, in sports, creating fluidity and maintaining the "grace under pressure" necessary not to choke, fumble, or drop the ball generally requires not overthinking. As a science writer, trying to connect the findings of various studies in novel ways to support my original hypotheses requires a combination of crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence.

My father, Richard M. Bergland, was a world-renowned neurosurgeon, neuroscientist, and author of The Fabric of Mind (Viking). In his youth, he was a nationally ranked tennis player. My dad would say, “Of this I am absolutely positive, becoming a neurosurgeon was a direct consequence of my eye for the ball.”

My father always saw a strong connection between athletics and life success. However, it wasn't until the final years of his life that he hypothesized that the cerebellum (Latin for "little brain") might be playing a big role in many types of intelligence and cognitive abilities. Historically, the cerebellum has been considered to be the seat of muscle memory and coordinating fine-tuned muscle movements.

Growing up, my father expected all three of his children to excel in both sports and academics. My sisters each had a ton of “book smarts." They could retain crystallized intelligence with ease and did very well on tests. My older sister was especially cerebral. She read War and Peace in the fourth grade, got perfect SAT scores, went to Exeter, etc. 

On the other hand, I was terrible at school, hated doing homework, and flunked a lot of tests. But, I did have a knack for hitting a tennis ball really well. I was also extremely social and loved keeping my finger on the pulse of America's Top 40 and pop culture. My father thought all the pop music and K-tel records I listened to as a kid were going to turn my cerebrum (Latin for "brain") to mush....

Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons
The cerebellum (in red) is the seat of muscle memory. The cerebellum may also play a role in optimizing fluid intelligence by fine-tuning our thoughts, just as it fine-tunes our muscle movements. 
Source: Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons

As a consolation for my poor test scores and bad grades, my dad would say, “Your sisters may have the cerebral smarts, but you have athletic genius and superior cerebellar intelligence, Chris.” Cerebellar is the sister word to cerebral and means 'relating to or located in the cerebellum.' 

Needless to say, I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about being perceived as a dumb jock. I'm also hypersensitive to anyone being labeled "smart" just because he or she can retain and regurgitate crystallized knowledge. I identify strongly with the motto of my Alma mater, Hampshire College (a school with no tests or grades) Non Satis Scire, which means, "to know is not enough." 

That said, my need to prove to my father that I had both cerebral and cerebellar intelligence was the prime motivating force that drove me to pursue getting a book deal to write The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (St. Martin’s Press).

Throughout the process of writing the manuscript for my first book in 2005, I relied on my father's lifetime of science training for expert advice and guidance. While writing the book, my dad and I spoke every day, as I picked his brain about neuroscience. Not only did this help strengthen my crystallized intelligence regarding neuroscience, it also fortified our father-son bond.

In my opinion, my father's long-time affiliation with various Ivy League institutions—and his encyclopedic levels of crystallized intelligence—often made him somewhat of an intellectual snob, who spent much of his career primarily interested in "making smart people smarter." Luckily, because of my very rudimentary background in science, my father was forced to slow down and simplify his explanations of complex neuroscience when we worked together. His thought processes benefited from having to simplify things, too. 

As I began to reinvent myself and metamorphosize into a more cerebral thinker, my father was pleasantly surprised to see that I had become living proof of the ideas about mindset never being fixed, and the power of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis to reshape the brain—which were cornerstones of The Athlete's Way

Together, my dad and I created a new split-brain model that put explicit learning in the cerebrum and implicit learning in the cerebellum. When my father died suddenly in 2007, I made a vow to continue his life’s work in neuroscience and to keep my antennae up for clues that help solve the riddles of various types of thinking and human intelligence.

"Unclamping" the executive-control centers of the prefrontal cortex may allow for the "superfluidity" of thoughts to flow without friction or viscosity between all four brain hemispheres. This process could enhance both fluid intelligence and creative thinking.
Source: Photo and illustration by Christopher Bergland (Circa 2009)

In recent years, I began to expand on the "Bergland Split-Brain Model" to include representations of crystallized and fluid intelligence. In 2009, I came up with the idea that creating "superfluidity of thought" was associated with bridging the gaps between all four brain hemispheres as illustrated in the rudimentary sketch above.

One of the reasons I'm personally excited by the research on fluid intelligence coming out of the Beckman Institute recently is that it plugs into the ideas of optimizing intelligence by a combination of diverse brain structures, unexpected neural connectivity, as well as the importance of NAA chemical drivers. 

Conclusions: Unclamping the Prefrontal Cortex Might Improve Fluid Intelligence

Last week, researchers at Stanford University published a study in the journal Cerebral Cortex reporting that enhanced cerebellum connectivity with the cerebrum boosts creative capacity.

It turns out that suppressing the executive-control centers of the cerebrum—and allowing the cerebellum to be the “controller"—increases spontaneous creativity, which is directly linked to fluid intelligence. This is a revolutionary concept that challenges the dubious construct of the “right brain” being our creative epicenter. In many ways, these findings dovetail with the latest research on various facets that drive fluid intelligence. 

The latest neuroscience is redefining traditional constructs of how we view intelligence by deconstructing the role that various brain structures, functional connectivity, and brain chemistry play in our daily thinking processes. Stay tuned for updates on these findings!

To read more on fluid intelligence and the cerebellum, check out my previous Psychology Today blog posts, 

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