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Intelligent minds take longer to solve difficult problems

Do you ever wonder if smart people think quicker? Well, wonder no longer, because we have the answer. A surprising finding has emerged from the laboratories of the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in collaboration with a team member from Barcelona. Contrary to popular perception, intelligent individuals don’t necessarily think faster. 

In fact, the researchers discovered that those with higher intelligence scores were only quick at handling simple tasks, whereas they took more time in solving complex problems than subjects with lower IQ scores.

Study used personalized brain models

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, was focused on personalized brain simulations. The researchers used data from 650 participants to delve into the decision-making mechanics of our grey matter. 

The experts found that brains with less synchrony among various regions were prone to making hasty decisions without waiting for upstream brain regions to process the necessary information for solving the problem. However, for those with higher intelligence, their brain simulations took longer to solve the tougher tasks but committed fewer errors.

Decoding the brain, with its estimated 100 billion neurons and a thousand connections for each neuron, is no small feat. It’s this complexity that both accounts for our brain’s astounding capabilities and makes it so challenging to understand.

Professor Petra Ritter, who leads the Brain Simulation Section at BIH and the Department of Neurology and Experimental Neurology at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, is at the forefront of this investigation. The current project, she says, aims to comprehend how the brain’s decision-making processes function and why people make varying decisions.

The team employed digital data from brain scans, like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and mathematical models grounded in theoretical knowledge about biological processes. From this, they developed a “general” human brain model, which they then refine using individual data to create “personalized brain models.”

The data for this particular study was sourced from the Human Connectome Project, an American initiative that has been studying neural connections in the human brain since September 2010. Professor Ritter explained that it’s the “right excitation-inhibition balance of neurons that influences decision-making and more or less enables a person to solve problems.”

Artificial brains behave like biological brains 

The team successfully reproduced the activity of individual brains, finding these “in silico” brains behaved differently from each other, mirroring their biological counterparts. The simulated brains accurately represented the intellectual performance and reaction times of the original human brains.

Interestingly, both in the human subjects and the brain models, the “slower” brains exhibited more synchrony. The researchers found that greater temporal coordination within the brain allowed the decision-making circuits in the frontal lobe to deliberate longer, as compared to less synchronized brains. The latter would often “jump to conclusions” during the decision-making process.

Gathering information to make correct decisions takes time

The participants were asked to identify logical rules in a series of patterns, with the tasks becoming progressively complex. In the context of everyday life, a simple task would be stopping at a red light, while a complex task would involve figuring out the best route on a map.

As per the model, decision-making involves a competition among different neural groups, with those having stronger evidence prevailing. However, in complex decisions, clear evidence may not be readily available, forcing the neural groups to make hasty conclusions.

Michael Schirner, the study’s lead author, explained that the synchronization or formation of functional networks in the brain changes the properties of working memory. This alteration in turn affects the ability to endure prolonged periods without making a decision. 

“In more challenging tasks, you have to store previous progress in working memory while you explore other solution paths and then integrate these into each other,” said Schirner.

Professor Ritter expressed satisfaction that the outcomes observed in the computer-based “brain avatars” aligned with those seen in “real” healthy subjects. Her primary focus is on aiding patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Professor Ritter explained that the digital simulation technology used in the study has made considerable advancements, opening doors to enhanced personalized medical interventions. This could include the planning of surgical and drug treatments, and even therapeutic brain stimulation.

Digital simulation technology holds real-world promise

The technology holds the promise of tailor-made solutions for individual patients. As Ritter elaborated, a physician could potentially use these computer simulations to decide which treatment or medication might work best for a specific patient and would cause the least side effects.

In essence, the simulations can be designed to mirror the patient’s brain activity and could even predict the patient’s response to a given treatment. This, Ritter believes, will prove immensely useful in managing neurodegenerative diseases and improve patient outcomes.

In other words, the research does not merely challenge the common perception of the link between intelligence and speed of thought. It also gives us a glimpse into the potential future of personalized medicine, where individual treatment plans are designed based on a deep, simulated understanding of a patient’s unique brain.

While the human brain’s vast neural network and its complexities continue to pose significant challenges to scientists, these findings signal a key breakthrough. With each new insight, we get closer to understanding this intricate organ’s functionality, ultimately leading to more refined treatments for various brain-related conditions.

As the exploration of the brain’s vast and complex networks continues, we are reminded of the intricate interplay between intelligence, decision-making, and problem-solving. These are not just matters of mere speed, but of careful coordination and balance within our brain’s neural circuits.

More about human intelligence 

Human intelligence is an intricate and multidimensional concept that encompasses several mental capabilities, including problem-solving, reasoning, learning, adaptation to environment, abstract thinking, comprehension of complex ideas, and creativity. 

It’s a combination of various cognitive abilities, not just a single monolithic entity. Despite extensive research, understanding the complete picture of what determines human intelligence remains a work in progress.

Nature vs. nurture

A significant part of human intelligence is believed to be inherited, with twin and adoption studies showing that genetics play a crucial role. However, environmental factors such as socio-economic conditions, education, and cultural influences also significantly impact intelligence.

One key aspect of intelligence is “fluid intelligence,” the ability to reason and solve novel problems independent of acquired knowledge. This aspect is closely related to working memory capacity and speed of information processing, which are believed to be influenced by the number and efficiency of neural connections in the brain.

Recent advances in neuroimaging techniques like MRI have helped us understand the neurological basis of intelligence. It appears that the brain’s overall structure, as well as the connectivity and efficiency of specific neural networks, contribute to intellectual abilities.

Certain brain regions play key roles

Several brain regions have been identified as critical for intellectual function. The frontal lobes, specifically the prefrontal cortex, are involved in higher-order cognitive functions such as problem-solving, decision-making, and social behavior. The parietal lobes are associated with spatial skills and mathematical abilities.

Furthermore, the strength of connections between different brain areas seems to play a critical role in intelligence. Greater connectivity between the frontal and parietal lobes, for instance, has been associated with higher intelligence.

Neural connections and connectivity

However, intelligence is not simply a matter of having more neural connections. Some research suggests that more intelligent brains may be more selective in their neuronal connectivity, focusing on the most efficient pathways rather than maintaining an extensive but less efficient network. This principle is known as “sparse connectivity,” and it’s thought to allow for faster and more effective information processing.

The brain’s plasticity, its ability to change and adapt in response to new experiences, is another important factor. It enables the development of new neural pathways and the strengthening of existing ones, which in turn can enhance cognitive abilities.

Despite these advances in our understanding, human intelligence remains a deeply complex and multifaceted phenomenon, and many questions about its nature and origins are still unanswered. Future research, combining genetics, neuroscience, and psychology, promises to reveal more about the fascinating puzzle that is human intelligence.


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