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The Biology of Intelligence

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

The brain processes underlying intelligence are not completely understood, but current research has focused on four potential factors: brain size, sensory ability, speed and efficience of neural transmission, and working memory capacity.

There is at least some truth to the idea that smarter people have bigger brains. Studies that have measured brain volume using neuroimaging techniques find that larger brain size is correlated with intelligence (McDaniel, 2005), 1 and intelligence has also been found to be correlated with the number of neurons in the brain and with the thickness of the cortex (Haier, 2004; Shaw et al., 2006). 2 It is important to remember that these correlational findings do not mean that having more brain volume causes higher intelligence. It is possible that growing up in a stimulating environment that rewards thinking and learning may lead to greater brain growth (Garlick, 2003), 3 and it is also possible that a third variable, such as better nutrition, causes both brain volume and intelligence.

Another possibility is that the brains of more intelligent people operate faster or more efficiently than the brains of the less intelligent. Some evidence supporting this idea comes from data showing that people who are more intelligent frequently show less brain activity (suggesting that they need to use less capacity) than those with lower intelligence when they work on a task (Haier, Siegel, Tang, & Abel, 1992). 4 And the brains of more intelligent people also seem to run faster than the brains of the less intelligent. Research has found that the speed with which people ca n perform simple tasks—such as determining which of two lines is longer or pressing, as quickly as possible, one of eight buttons that is lighted—is predictive of intelligence (Deary, Der, & Ford, 2001). 5 Intelligence scores also correlate at about r = .5 with measures of working memory (Ackerman, Beier, & Boyle, 2005), 6 and working memory is now used as a measure of intelligence on many tests.

Although intelligence is not located in a specific part of the brain, it is more prevalent in some brain areas than others. Duncan et al. (2000) 7 administered a variety of intelligence tasks and observed the places in the cortex that were most active. Although different tests created different patterns of activation, as you can see in Figure 9.5 "Where Is Intelligence?", these activated areas were primarily in the outer parts of the cortex, the area of the brain most involved in planning, executive control, and short-term memory.

Figure 9.2 Where Is Intelligence? 
fMRI studies have found that the areas of the brain most related to intelligence are in the outer parts of the cortex. Source: Adapted from Duncan, J., Seitz, R. J., Kolodny, J., Bor, D., Herzog, H., Ahmed, A.,…Emslie, H. (2000). A neural basis for general intelligence. Science, 289(5478), 457–460.