People Who Are Smart Have 'Social Networks' In Their Brains

German-Swiss-American mathematical atomic physicist and Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa. Researchers may be closer to understanding how a smart person's brain works. Keystone/Getty Images

Scientists may understand a bit more about how a smart person's brain acts, according to a paper published Wednesday in Scientific Reports.

Ulrike Basten, a cognitive scientist at Goethe University Frankfurt, and her team compared the results of an intelligence test given to 309 people to data collected from brain scans. Specifically, they found that connections within and between modules could be correlated with those results.

These modules are more of a concept than a physical section of one's brain, but there are a few whose functions have been established. Some are related to executive function—being able to organize thoughts, for example—while other modules are related to salience detection—being able to pick out details from the environment, for example. Other modules are actually less connected to others in the brains of intelligent people.

"It's a major step forward in that we now are using a much more realistic model of the brain than previous research had," Basten told Newsweek. "You can say it's a big step forward because previous research was using a very coarse model."

In a press release announcing the findings, Basten compared the connections that these modules make to a social network—not all connections between people will be equally strong. Close friends and family might share more information among themselves than they would with more distant acquaintances.

"From all we know about the brain, it's so much about connections and interactions between regions and neurons," she said. "It's the only thing that makes sense if you consider that in your model of the brain. We're not the first ones to do that, but this is still a rather new trend."

The paper builds off previous results from this team published in 2015 and earlier this year, which looked at individual brain regions that seemed to activate differently in people who did better on a test designed to measure general intelligence.

However, there's still a lot more research left to be done in this field. "Today, science is not able to diagnose intelligence from the brain," Basten noted. "What I would advise against taking from the paper, maybe, is that finding biological correlates of intelligence means that intelligence is somehow determined by the biological correlates themselves." For one thing, there's no way to tell if certain brain patterns lead to intelligence or if things that people are doing, like thinking or maybe reading, are leading to the patterns in the brain. The two processes could even be interconnected—there might not be just one answer.

Bottom line: Don't expect an MRI to replace the SAT—or any other test that may claim to identify the smarter ones among us—anytime soon.