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Science Careers Blog

July 28, 2010

Brain Scans for Career Choices?

Anyone who's ever taken a general aptitude or specific mental ability test will know that these can turn up wacky career suggestions. But if you go beyond the specific suggestions, such tests can also often tell you something about what matters to you or what you would enjoy doing in your professional life. 

One day, perhaps, there may be a new test type that provides vocational guidance, according to research recently published in BMC Research Notes. Using brain imaging, a team of researchers tried to correlate brain networks with ability factors such as general intelligence, speed of reasoning, and test scores among 40 individuals seeking vocational guidance. The team was able to detect different gray-matter correlates depending on whether the tests assessed general or more specific mental abilities.

"A person's pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses is related to their brain structure, so there is a possibility that brain scans could provide unique information that would be helpful for vocational choice. Our current results form a basis to investigate this further," said first-author Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine, in a press release.

Perhaps. Still, the image that comes to our mind is of Harry Potter and the Sorting Hat, the magical hat that read the mind and heart of every new freshman at Hogwarts School of Magic. It's fine for fantasy books -- but applied to the real world the notion seems too ambitious and greedily reductionist. It seems, for example, to overlook the fact that some people do great work not by following our strengths and pursuing our particular aptitudes, but by working to overcome our weaknesses. It's not unusual, especially in science, for especially creative work to arise from a new perspective on an old problem; any approach that tries to channel us into neurologically determined professional silos would, we think, inhibit that.

It's important to remember that even the magical sorting hat had a difficult time deciding whether to assign Harry to Gryffindor or Slytherin -- precisely due to the idiosyncratic blend of personal attributes that eventually made him great.

-by Elisabeth Pain and Jim Austin

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