What a smart brain looks like

Wednesday, 07 August, 2019

What a smart brain looks like

What is the capital city of Tajikistan? When did Einstein create his famous theory of relativity? And when did Goethe die? Some people seem to have an answer to every general knowledge question. Why?

It’s a question that German neuroscientists at Ruhr-Universität Bochum and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin set out to answer, to understand what the brains of people with excellent general knowledge look like.

They showed, using magnetic resonance imaging, that the brains of people with excellent general knowledge were particularly efficiently wired.

“Although we can precisely measure the general knowledge of people and this wealth of knowledge is very important for an individual’s journey through life, we currently know little about the links between general knowledge and the characteristics of the brain,” Dr Erhan Genç from the Department of Biopsychology in Bochum said.

The results were published in the European Journal of Personality.

The researchers examined the brains of 324 men and women with a special form of magnetic resonance imaging called diffusion tensor imaging. This made it possible to reconstruct the pathways of nerve fibres and thus gain an insight into the structural network properties of the brain. By means of mathematical algorithms, the researchers assigned an individual value to the brain of each participant, which reflected the efficiency of his or her structural fibre network.

The participants also completed a general knowledge test called the Bochum Knowledge Test, which was developed in Bochum by Dr Rüdiger Hossiep. It comprised more than 300 questions from various fields of knowledge such as art and architecture or biology and chemistry. The team led by Dr Genç investigated whether the efficiency of structural networking was associated with the amount of general knowledge stored.

The result was that people with a very efficient fibre network had more general knowledge than those with less efficient structural networking.

“We assume that individual units of knowledge are dispersed throughout the entire brain in the form of pieces of information,” Dr Genç said.

“Efficient networking of the brain is essential in order to put together the information stored in various areas of the brain and successfully recall knowledge content.”

The researchers cite as an example: to answer the question of which constants occur in Einstein’s theory of relativity, you have to connect the meaning of the term “constant” with knowledge of the theory of relativity.

“We assume that more efficient networking of the brain contributes to better integration of pieces of information and thus leads to better results in a general knowledge test,” Dr Genç said.

Top image: With diffusion tensor imaging, the researchers can visualise the pathways of nerve fibres. Image credit: © RUB, Erhan Genç

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