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Predicting Brilliance From Brain Activity

Will it be possible? The answer is: “Sort of.” The notion begins with the premise that “some brains are better than others at certain things, simply because of the way they’re wired.”  If we accept this, it follows that FMRIs (which are like snapshots of brain activity) can be used to create a map of the way a person is wired, a.k.a. a “connectome.”  If we then put a whole bunch of neuro-nerds who’ve accepted this into a consortium bent on making Minority Report a reality, we have the human connectome project.  While the findings are not even close to the “minority report” level yet, they are quite interesting.  As Yale researcher Emily Finn explains, at a fundamental level, “the more certain regions are talking to one another, the better you’re able to process information quickly and make inferences.”  FMRIs simply show researchers which regions are talking to one another.  For instance, FMRI studies are revealing that people with high fluid intelligence (the ability to recognize patterns) have a strong connection between their frontal and parietal lobes.  Artists are wired differently, and so on.

The practical application of this body of research is immense and ethically-terrifying.  On one hand, it might allow us to someday screen for anything from potential writing aptitude to propensity for violence.   To name a couple of examples, insurance companies could use a known propensity for violence to adjust premiums and universities could use writing/artistic/mathematical aptitude scans to guide admissions decisions.  What’s terrifying is that this would (in effect) open the door to a whole new dimension of discrimination, a.k.a. “neurodiscrimination.” Indeed, brain scans reveal the way one is wired at any given moment (and allow an inference of aptitude at that moment), but because of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to rewire itself based on experience, training, practice, etc.), they may be an inaccurate means of predicting ultimate potential.  Put simply, brain scans can’t measure “heart,” “drive,” or to reference another great movie, what Rudy had.   And because of neuroplasticity, what Rudy had may also have a lot to do with potential.

In sum, brain scanning may one day allow us to accurately assess aptitude, i.e. talent.  But that will only be one factor (albeit an important one) in gauging ultimate potential, which is affected significantly by both talent and what Rudy had.  Indeed, even in neuroscience, the adage that “hard work beats talent hardly working” will likely hold true.

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