What if a brain scan could determine whether you should be a doctor or an actor? We might stop asking kids “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Instead, we’d know from a brain scan which career path is the best choice for our children. Recent research suggests that brain imaging may be able to pinpoint our intellectual strengths and steer us toward our future careers.
In the study, scientists had 40 individuals seeking career guidance undergo brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and voxel-based morphometry (VBM). These 40 test subjects had previously completed eight standard vocational cognitive tests in four main areas: spatial proficiency, numerical proficiency, memory, and speed of reasoning. These cognitive tests have been shown to be good predictors of overall job performance and satisfaction. Afterward, the scientists compared the cognitive test results to brain images. The researchers expected the subjects’ brains to show activity in areas thought to be dedicated to the specific cognitive abilities being tested. However, this was only true for speed of reasoning and memory tests. What does this mean? A little background will help you understand the context and meaning of this research.
Previous studies had discovered the specific areas of the cerebrum–the “gray matter” portion of your brain that houses your intelligence and personality–dedicated to reasoning, spatial proficiency, numerical proficiency, and memory by detecting focused electrical activity when test subjects used those cognitive skills. The amount of electrical activity in a specific area of the cerebrum correlated well with a person’s test score in that area. In other words, the area of the cerebrum dedicated to reasoning would “light up” the brightest in people who scored highest on reasoning tests. The present research attempted to take this one step farther; they refined the testing so that it measured specific types of reasoning, spatial, numerical and memory skills.
The four tests dedicated to speed of reasoning and memory did indeed link to brain activity in the areas dedicated to those cognitive functions. The people who scored highest on all speed of reasoning and memory tests showed corresponding brain activity in the areas predicted by earlier research. Interestingly, memory testing showed a negative correlation; that is, the better a person’s memory, the less activity showed in the memory area of the brain. Some have postulated that this is due to increased efficiency in the memory centers of those people, but they cannot be sure. Only one of the spatial proficiency tests showed activity in the expected area of the brain, and neither of the numerical proficiency tests panned out as predicted.
In the future, will vocational guidance counselors simply hook up electrodes to your brain, show you some brain-teasers to activate your cerebrum, and send you off to the perfect career? Perhaps, but we are not quite there yet. Even though scientists might now be able use brain scans to roughly assess your reasoning and memory skills, they cannot do the same for spatial or numerical skills. While the research reported here represents an advance in the understanding of the brain networks responsible for skills important for career placement, there is still much work to be done.
Of course, the flip side could also mean one day we might not need to send in a resume to apply for a job. We’ll just send in a brain scan.