The Key to a High IQ? Not Getting Distracted

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A new study suggests that intelligence is more about what the brain chooses to ignore than simply its ability to process information rapidly.

The research, which was published in the journal Current Biology, suggests new ways of testing intelligence that may be less biased by cultural knowledge— as many have claimed other IQ tests are. It may also help to explain the profound intellectual talents of some autistic people. “It’s a really interesting potential new paradigm,” says Scott Barry Kaufman, adjunct assistant professor of psychology at New York University, who was not associated with the research.

Scientists led by Duje Tadin, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, studied 67 people in two similar experiments. Before beginning, all participants took IQ tests: the first twelve took short versions, the rest sat for the full battery of testing. Then they watched videos of both small and large objects that moved, very slightly, either to the right or to the left of a screen and tried to identify the direction of motion. The scientists knew that tracking larger objects is actually more challenging, possibly because in the natural world, large background movements like those of trees rustling in the wind are typically irrelevant to human activity— so the brain automatically dismisses or ignores them.  “What you want to see is if there’s an animal hiding in the tree about to jump you,” says Tadin.

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The researchers found that the difference between an individual’s ability to correctly identify the direction of motion between the small and large objects was strongly linked to their IQ. “The more they struggled with the big ones and the better they were at the small ones, the better their IQ was,” Tadin explains. In other words, intelligence may require a trade-off between being good at identifying motion in small objects at the cost of not being able to do so with large ones. Tadin and his colleagues called the measure of this skill the “suppression index.”

“This is the first study I’ve ever seen that shows that the exact same ability to inhibit irrelevant and distracting information [on low levels] is correlated with higher order functions,” says Kaufman.

Although people have been trying to connect intelligence with perceptual speed and accuracy since smartness was first studied, prior research found only small correlations with measures of sensory information processing speed. “For intelligence, you need to be able process relevant information fast, but you also need to focus on the most relevant information and filter out what’s irrelevant,” says Tadin.

That type of skill can be both disturbed in some ways and enhanced in others in autism. In previous research, Tadin examined sensory processing in autistic people, and found that autistic children were twice as effective in detecting motion of high contrast objects as typically developing kids. This heightened sensitivity may explain why autistic people frequently find themselves overwhelmed by strong sensory experiences like bright lights and loud noises that most of us register, but ignore.

Such a sensitivity, however, may be linked to autistic individuals’ intellectual talents— and testing for this kind of sensory skill might reveal intelligence that is not captured by traditional IQ testing. “People with high functioning autism are really good at focusing on the local aspects of perception and totally ignoring the bigger  picture,” says Kaufman. “This new paradigm might [offer a way] to measure the intelligence of autistic people, which is often underestimated because the tests are verbally loaded.”

But while it might seem that the suppression index would be more strongly correlated with visual and spatial aspects of IQ, the measure actually showed a tighter connection with verbal intelligence. “That took us by surprise,” says Tadin. He says that verbal IQ has the strongest association to the overall score, but it is not clear why the connection appeared with this skill.

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Neither Tadin nor Kaufman sees the new test as a replacement for IQ testing, but if further research confirms the strength of the correlation between the suppression index and IQ, and determines how it changes with age, it could help provide additional information on intelligence. For example, it might be useful for children from disadvantaged backgrounds whose intelligence on current IQ tests may appear artificially low because they haven’t received the right type of intellectual stimulation or been exposed to the same cultural environments reflected in the test questions.

The research also shows how intellectual ability may rely on the ability to avoid distraction. And that raises interesting questions about the impact that the constant diversions of the digital world could have on the intellect of future generations. “It’s getting worse and worse,” Tadin says of the technology that surrounds us and divides our attention.  To maintain our intelligence, he adds, “We need to filter out some of this stuff.”

63 comments
Jen7
Jen7

A very interesting read. I always enjoy reading about peoples IQ and how you can improve upon what you already have. I would like to know how they actually make these test and how they determine what questions should be asked http://www.seobrisbanehq.com.au/surfers-paradise/

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BradFoley
BradFoley

I'd love it if you reported correlation values in these articles (in this case, when I chased up the original article, they were very high: for overall IQ it was 0.7. The correlations ranged from 0.5-0.7 for different aspects of intelligence, and were highest for verbal reasoning). If people don't understand correlations, that's fine. But 'significant' doesn't mean 'large effect', and it's worth reporting the effects.


CerebralSmartie
CerebralSmartie

IQ testing always cracked me up. Oops I just ended a sentence with a preposition. Not very smart? Oops I just put in the wrong punctuation mark.  Should have been a period or at least an exclamation point. Oh no, I just forgot to type a subject in that last sentence. The subject was the word "I".  I might not be paying attention. I was distracted easily. Please, can I have some adderall now?

Lemon Fung
Lemon Fung

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Justclean
Justclean

Doesn't that further undermine testers' claim that it's an objective measure of natural smarts?

David Miles
David Miles

I have both ADHD and a very high IQ. A strong mind is like the wheels of a car, an attention span is like the drive shaft.

Tom Lee
Tom Lee

There are other ways to perceive human intelligence besides measuring IQ.

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Edgard Guevara

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Ash Roshan
Ash Roshan

focus, you dont need to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out

William J. Brinkman
William J. Brinkman

On the other hand, the ability to focus on a test probably also correlates with higher scores on the IQ test.

Randy Tolentino
Randy Tolentino

I believe the brain capacity is predetermined by our genetics, in most cases, as well as the environment. Being focused on something is just an effect of having a high IQ. It's a one way road, you can't be focused all the time on something and gain let's say 10 IQ points.

Peng Eng Teoh
Peng Eng Teoh

Interesting observation especially the comments re distractions of the digital age - the quality not the quantity, the content not the quantum etc. An English professor, chiding a "foreign student's complaint" re restrictions on number of words for an assignment - "Say more with less!" (what English comprehension is about ;-))

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Stephen Abbott
Stephen Abbott

I wasn't distracted. I did NOT click the link to go read this article.