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See Inside November / December 2009

What Does a Smart Brain Look Like?: Inner Views Show How We Think

A new neuroscience of intelligence is revealing that not all brains work in the same way



Aaron Goodman (photoillustration); PASIEKA/SPL/PHOTO Researchers, Inc. (brain images)

We all know someone who is not as smart as we are—and someone who is smarter. At the same time, we all know people who are better or worse than we are in a particular area or task, say, remembering facts or performing rapid mental math calculations. These variations in abilities and talents presumably arise from differences among our brains, and many studies have linked certain very specific tasks with cerebral activity in localized areas. Answers about how the brain as a whole integrates activity among areas, however, have proved elusive. Just what does a “smart” brain look like?

Now, for the first time, intelligence researchers are beginning to put together a bigger picture. Imaging studies are uncovering clues to how neural structure and function give rise to individual differences in intelligence. The results so far are confirming a view many experts have had for decades: not all brains work in the same way. People with the same IQ may solve a problem with equal speed and accuracy, using a different combination of brain areas. [For more on IQ and intelligence, see “Rational and Irrational Thought: The Thinking That IQ Tests Miss,” by Keith E. Stanovich]

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