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Brain Scans are Revealing the Neuro-Anatomy of Intelligence
Hank Pellissier   Mar 27, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Where in the brain is intelligence? Why, anatomically, are some individuals “smarter” than others? What does a wise brain look like?

Dr. Richard J. Haier of the University of California at Irvine has been using neuro-imaging technology for over two decades in his search to determine the anatomy of neuro-intelligence. I interviewed him recently on the progress and potential of his research:

Hank Pellissier: Dr. Haier, as we learn what’s anatomically required in an intelligent brain, will we be able to deliver higher IQ to everyone, by tweaking the brain?

Dr. Richard J. Haier: We’re learning more all the time, and the research is accelerating. I believe at some point we will learn information that we can use to increase intelligence… it is definitely a possibility in the future that we will be able to ‘tweak the system’ to make people more intelligent. Perhaps an “IQ pill” [metaphorically] will be developed. Depending on what we discover, tweaking may only work in babies, or children or adults, or it might only work in low IQ children with 70-80 IQ, or it might only work in high IQ individuals.

HP: What have you learned about the neuro-anatomy of intelligence? Is it related to the volume of grey matter, or the volume of white matter, or hippocampus size?

Dr. Haier: What we know about the brain is that there is not a 1 to 1 relationship between individual brain regions and specific cognitive processes like memory, attention or intelligence. There are networks of areas distributed across the brain that contribute to problem-solving - it’s in many different areas. Right now we’re learning about the brain mechanism of specific neural circuits related to intelligence…

HP: Do you encounter resistance from other scientists? It seems many people have trouble believing that some people are biologically more intelligent than others. Many people, it seems, think the entire notion of “intelligence” and especially “IQ” is invalid, or at least very flawed.

Dr. Haier: The most important finding of brain imaging studies of intelligence so far is this: a generation ago there was a widely-accepted view that IQ was “meaningless.” But now we know that scores on IQ and ther tests of intelligence are correlated to brain characteristics that we can measure. Brain imaging reveals that there is a neural basis to intelligence.

HP: Are there any drugs or therapies now that can alter brain anatomy in elevate intelligence?

Dr. Haier: There are drugs like amphetamine and caffeine that improve attention or cognitive performance in the short term, but there are no drugs that elevate general intelligence (what researchers call the g-factor.)

HP: Can you explain how the brain determines the solution to a difficult question?

Dr. Haier: The Magneto-Encephalogram (MEG) measures brain activity mille-second by mille-second. If you put a person in a MEG device and ask them to solve a problem, you will see very rapid and complicated brain activity as different neural networks engage, and all within one second. A number of different brain areas will turn on and off in a variety of brain areas in some sequence. From data like these, we know that intelligence is not just in the frontal lobes. We also know that not every person uses the same parts of the brain to solve a problem.

HP: Do you think brain-imaging might, eventually - when it can successfully reveal what a brain’s potentiality is - replace entrance exams, resumes, and other testing measures?

Dr. Haier: We make decisions all the time based on tests, but the tests are actually only indirect measures of the brain’s strengths and weaknesses.  At some point in the future, a person might be able to have brain scans from which an estimate of their intelligence could be derived that predicts their score on intelligence tests and other tests of cognitive ability—even vocational interests. Wouldn’t it be nice if a student could just lie down for 20 minutes for a $500 brain scan, and get the same result of hours and hours of testing? Right now we make complicated decisions about school and career choices using whatever information we have about a person - what if we could add brain data into the process?  What if, for example, someone had a brain scan that revealed a particularly large auditory cortex? This information might help them pick an appropriate major in school and a career the person would succeed in.

I’m not saying brain scans should replace the counselor or psychometric (paper and pencil) tests, bit would just be another piece of information to use that might improve predictions—more information is always better than less.

HP: the work that you’re doing - are there studies in other parts of the world that are conducting similar research? Is there an “IQ race” going on now?

Dr. Haier: There are many research groups around the world using neuro-imaging to study intelligence. From China to The Netherlands… There are also people who believe that the nations who have the most intellectual strength will have the most economic power.

HP: If science discovers - via your research and the efforts of others - how to increase intelligence, do you think it’s something that society should do?  Is it ethical to uplift the IQ of humanity, if we have the means to do so?

Dr. Haier: I believe it’s a moral imperative to increase intelligence, it’s like increasing someone’s health—no reason not to do so.

HP: In Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature, he suggests that human civilization is becoming more ethical due to an increase in average intelligence, caused by improvements in health, education, and other societal factors. What’s your opinion? Do you think the world will be a significantly better place, if human beings, on average, are considerably smarter?

Dr. Haier:  It would be wonderful to tweak the brain to raise intelligence. I don’t see any downside to that. But I don’t think it will lead to Utopia either, intelligence is independent of personality, social behavior, and human nature. But, all else being equal, I think more intelligence is always better than less.

Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Managing Director and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.


just to point out a typo—-“Fro China to Netharlands” should be “from China to Netharlands.”

If brain test were used as a selective tool, you will no doubt see lots of protest.

The question is, we all know that sometimes we perform better than other time. If a person were to enter his peak performance/peak experience/flow state, would that be properly displayed by neuro-imaging? If a person shows the potential for flow state, but only is able to occasionally activate it, would that be taken into account the admission(selection) process?

In the meanwhile, I’m really looking forward to non-invasive Personal Brain Imaging cost to go down so I can buy one myself to do some inner-exploration and self-improvement—the ultimate project in Quantified Self.

actually, I’m wondering if anybody on IEET actually uses a brain-machine interface for personal uses? e.g. to track meditation, sleep, lucid dreaming progress etc.

What are the price points? Any recommendations? I’ve been wanting to buy one for a long time, but the machines are always in the thousands. I know EEG is considerably cheaper than portable MRI(if there’s such a commercial product)

@ Cybernoetic Man - I agree with you, when the costs go down, Personal Brain Imaging will be very popular with the Quantified Self crowd. I’ve looked into the machine costs, and they’re more than the thousands, they’re in the ten thousands.  But still, if a Quantified Self group wanted to collectively purchase one…. count me in. Costs seem to be coming down, and there are portable models…

Let me know what you find. Another plan is for a group to buy one and operate it for both personal use and as a business.

@Cybernetic Man - this website has prices ranging from $9,000 - $600,000. We don’t need the full body scanners so that saves thousands. It is also possible to rent the equipment - if a large group formed that only wanted to use a machine 2-3 days a year, that would be affordable… keep me in the loop.

@CyberNoetic Man—the website url is:

Thanks for publishing the interview. It was interesting indeed.

I would be rather curious to see in detail how exactly Dr. Haier has been able to map measurable brain features with IQ results. From what I understood, there is the possibility to measure a number of interesting facts about what happens inside our skulls, and quite obviously intelligence depends entirely on our cerebral structure/dynamics. Yet I would like to see how this can be bidirectionally connected with IQ test results. For example, can Dr. Hair show that is possible to lower IQ with disruptive magnetic interference on the electrical activity of certain brain regions (or with some other technique)? It well known that - the more IQ tests you take, the higher IQ can be measured. So, it would be really interesting to see this effect reversed by an intentional action on the brain. This would really make more plausible the idea that IQ measures something “real”.

Andre - thanks for your interest -

here’s a link for you with more info:

I think we need to reduce the broad category of “intelligence” into smaller, interrelated categories that are dependent upon task-oriented contexts.

Critical thinking, lateral thinking, and so forth can all be construed as intelligence. Intelligence depends upon context. Without context, you can’t measure intelligence. Intelligence only makes sense in relation to certain tasks, and not all tasks measure the same intelligence. For example, some people can effectively follow the logical steps involved in determining an answer in mathematical problem. However, they have more difficulty understanding the conceptual reasoning - that possibly involves a different neural pathway from the former.

Just like HM’s temporal lobe lobotomy showed there is a clear distinction between procedural and declarative memory, perhaps cases like the one I referenced indicate clear distinctions between certain kinds of intelligence (i.e., dependent upon contexts).  What this means is we should be careful when ascertaining whether someone possesses a high level of intelligence or not.

It is kind of strange to aim for the neural correlates of intelligence at this moment, when we don’t even fully know the neural correlates involved in literacy, mathematical comprehension, etc. All of them seem to be a form of intelligence (i.e., completing a task*** that involves a multitude of thinking skills effectively and efficiently).

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