Successful, positive people have different brain connections

© Chris Helgren
Scientists have for the first time observed a connection between particular brain centers and the presence of talent, success and positive lifestyle choices in people. The fMRI technique opens the door to extensive research which could improving human cognition.

The research was undertaken by the University of Oxford’s Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain (FMRIB). It took a large sample of 461 individuals, and crossed them with 280 behavioral traits, as well as demographic, traits – including language, vocabulary, education, income and others.

The initiative was part of the $30 million Human Connectome Project (HCP), funded by the US National Institutes of Health, aimed at studying the neural pathways of the brain. In this particular study, the Oxford team wished to create an average map of the brain’s processes.

“You can think of it as a population-average map of 200 regions across the brain that are functionally distinct from each other,” Professor Stephen Smith of Oxford University, said.

“Then, we looked at how much all of those regions communicated with each other, in every participant.”

The resulting maps, which the scientists called connectomes, included 280 behavioral and demographic traits for each subject. Compiling all data, a ‘canonical correlation analysis’ was able to establish correlations between the two data sets.

The analysis found correlations between the presence of some positive traits and how well wired-up the corresponding parts of the brain were. For example, the generally ‘positive’ traits associated with skill or general life happiness showed significantly higher brain activity in regions associated with higher cognition.

Conversely, those less lucky in life – be it with regard to income, happiness, drug use, anger problems and so on – were observed to have less connectivity in those regions.

The team says they were after the ‘general intelligence g-factor’ – a variable first theorized in 1904, and dealing with one’s abilities at performing certain cognitive tasks. The variable has been augmented for the current study to include other variables like income and life satisfaction. But the others, such as memory, patter recognition and related tasks, strongly correspond with expectations.

Those who support the existence of the g-factor believe many features and gifts are inter-related, meaning that if you’re good at one thing, there’s a strong chance you’re good at another.

Opponents of such a perspective discount it on the premise that they have not seen concrete proof of how the abilities relate to brain circuit functioning. The Oxford study, therefore, offers a degree of evidence in the face of skepticism.

Among the advantages offered by HCP is the extraordinarily high image resolution. The initiative has already analyzed the scans of some 1,200 healthy participants, combined with questionnaires and other tests.

“Not only is the number of subjects we get to study large, but the spatial and temporal resolution of the fMRI data is way ahead of previous large datasets,” Smith said in the press release.