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Have you always suspected that you’re more intelligent than your IQ gives you credit for? It turns out that science is on your side! The researchers at the University of Western Ontario have recently demonstrated that intellectual capabilities cannot be reduced to a single number. According to Dr. Adrian Owen, the study’s principal investigator, “…The whole concept of IQ… is a myth.”In order to arrive at this conclusion, Dr. Owen’s lab had over 100 000 participants complete an online survey, in which they performed a variety of tasks, included but not limited to those traditionally asked on IQ tests. For instance, these tasks tested things such as the participant’s digit span (ie. their ability to remember a long string of numbers), and their spatial memory (ie. their ability to remember the location of an object on a grid).

Dr. Owen’s lab then tested a subset of these participants using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) in order to determine whether or not different brain networks were recruited for different tasks. They then further examined what individual factors (such as personality, lifestyle, etc) could serve as predictive indicators of performance on each of these different tasks.

The survey showed that individuals perform at different levels in different types of task. Furthermore, their performance on these tasks was strongly related to traits such as anxiety. These different types could be grouped into three broad categories: reasoning, verbal, and short-term memory. Furthermore, each of these categories activated a distinct functional brain network.

While it is comforting to see a formal study dedicated to this topic, it is not really a novel piece of information – behaviourally or neurologically. It has been experimentally shown for decades that different people exhibit different levels of performance on different tasks, and that these abilities have specific neural correlates.  Since Paul Broca’s seminal studies on language in the 1860’s, it has been known that different brain regions are responsible for the comprehension and production of spoken language.  Likewise, it has been shown that someone fully capable of understanding a set of commands, and execute each command separately, may be unable to perform that that same task in a real-world context (know as Ideational Apraxia). Similarly, there is an entire body of research dedicated to each of the tasks tested in Dr. Owen’s study.

It is important to remember that it is impossible to separate a person’s ability to perform a task from their ability to perform that task during a test in this type of laboratory setting. This study shows that anxiety strongly impacts participant’s ability to perform well. It could be (and likely is) the case that performance in three categories (reminiscent of the dreaded SAT score) is no more accurate in gauging ‘intelligence’ than IQ.

One of the great things about this study, however, is that it re-ignites a philosophical question that has been around since the early days of artificial intelligence research. Namely, is ‘intelligence’ really a testable phenomenon? After all, a computer can be programmed to execute all of the tasks examined in this, and yet it is not called ‘intelligent.’