Are the Brains of Geniuses Different?

July 15, 2016
Heidi Moawad, MD

Cognitive deficits have been extensively studied, but what could be gained from studying the brain activity of highly intelligent individuals?

Cognitive deficits have been extensively studied. There is a range of cognitive deficits of recognized etiology and there are many types of cognitive deficits of uncertain etiology. But the etiology of high intelligence and genius has been rarely studied using a controlled, scientific method. What differences are there between the brains of individuals who have high levels of intelligence compared to individuals who have normal intelligence?

What Is Intelligence?

Of course, the definition of intelligence itself is not an entirely firm definition. There is academic intelligence, artistic genius, social intelligence, and emotional intelligence, to name just a few facets of recognized cognitive skills among human beings. Even academic intelligence can be subdivided into areas such as analytical skill, reading comprehension, and problem solving. 

However, there is a general commonality among the various categories of intelligence in that people who are deemed as highly intelligent are generally able to use that intelligence to navigate the challenges of life, while individuals deemed to have any type of cognitive deficit generally have difficulty navigating the social or practical tasks needed to manage everyday living. Thus, while an IQ test is far from a perfect barometer of cognitive abilities, it does measure an individual’s ability to solve certain kinds of written analytical problems in comparison to peers. Scientific studies that look at the brain activity of people with high IQ scores can provide some useful insight into what makes “intelligence.”

Research Studies Evaluating Intelligent People’s Brains

A few interesting research studies show that people who have an IQ above an average level use different regions of the brain while solving tasks than people with average IQ scores. One of the earlier studies, from Slovenia, showed that people who had an IQ above 127 (categorized as highly intelligent) were more efficiently able to use different regions of the brain when solving tasks. Another research study, a few years later, showed similar results with participants who had an IQ above 124. This time, participants were asked to solve analytical problems as well as to identify emotions. The highly intelligent individuals used a different part of the brain to solve these tasks than the participants who had normal, average intelligence.

What Does this Mean?

The benefit of this type of information doesn’t lie in locking people into labels of “smart” or “not smart,” based on their brain activity. The benefit of studying the brain activity of highly intelligent individuals lies in unlocking ways that people of normal intelligence, or even more importantly, people who have trouble navigating life’s challenges, can train, learn, or become more cognitively skilled in order to be able to carry out tasks of life in a more effective way. If it is possible for cognitive exercises to teach people how to more effectively solve cognitive, social, or emotional challenges, then innate deficits in intelligence can potentially be overcome to give people an advantage in life.

How would you approach the idea of cerebral training to overcome cognitive deficits for your patients?




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