How the brains of artists, thinkers and entrepreneurs differ


“What do you want to be later?” – this question should annoy children and young people on a regular basis. Researchers at Saarland University in Homburg have now found a way to capture professional strengths and inclinations with a look at brain anatomy.

To do this, they used a method called “Voxel-Based Morphometry”: Magnetic resonance tomography is used to determine the ratio of gray to white brain matter. The gray matter mainly contains nerve cell bodies, the white mainly nerve fibers.

“It can be observed that training leads to an intra-individual shift to more gray matter,” write the researchers Stefan Gurres, Klaus-Ulrich Dillmann, Wolfgang Reith and Christoph M. Krick in their Paper. “These structural changes correlate with the measured performance.”

For their study, they examined 67 women and 37 men with an average age of almost 29 years (standard deviation: 12.8 years). With the “Situational Interest Test”, a relevant questionnaire, their professional inclinations were recorded. The results of this test are different expressions of six character traits: “realistic”, “intellectual”, “artistic”, “social”, “entrepreneurial” and “conventional”.

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

The researchers compared the results of the questionnaire with those of the brain scans. They factored out the influence of age, gender and brain volume. The result: “statistically relevant correlations or anti-correlations” of the density of gray or white brain matter in certain brain areas were found for all of the six character traits. The functions assigned to these brain areas corresponded in turn “explainable” with those of the character traits found:

  • According to the questionnaire, “realistic” test subjects (“Doer”) showed a higher density of gray brain matter in the areas responsible for seeing, hearing, grasping, orienting and complex movement sequences.
  • In the case of “intellectual” test subjects (“thinkers”), however, it was more areas that process tactile and visual-spatial stimuli. In addition, they showed a lower degree of networking in brain regions for creativity, language and audiovisual skills.
  • Characteristic for “artistic” people (“creators”) was a generally stronger networking of the brain areas.
  • “Social” inclinations (“helpers”) are reflected in the “superior temporal sulcus”, which is primarily responsible for social perception.
  • “Entrepreneurial” people (“persuaders”) have particularly dense gray matter in brain regions for conscious control of hand and head movements – this probably makes it easier to convince other people through gestures and facial expressions, the researchers suspect. They also have areas for arithmetic and mathematics.
  • According to the study, “conventional” inclinations (“organizers”) correlate with a network for the “integration of rule-based information in motoric actions”, combined with a “tendency towards poorer social skills”.

All of these relationships are not set in stone – after all, the brain is plastic. “We can only offer snapshots, because after all, people’s interests may change over time,” co-author Gurres told the magazine Work prraxis.

In addition, one does not know which came first: a certain inclination or the pronounced brain region. “If you practice a lot, brain regions also change,” added co-author Krick.


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