Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to test job-applicant IQ in 30 seconds—even if only vaguely, or very specifically? Show the applicant this 1 minute-10 second “Motion Quotient” video created by University of Rochester researchers; ask a couple of questions. Ta-da!—done! You’ll know with some degree of likelihood whether the candidate is “highly intelligent”.

Or will you? (At least one big-league online news network suggested that indeed you will, with its slightly garbled story headline “Watching This Video of Black and White Bars Could Predict Your IQ”.)

Recently reported research  conducted at the University of Rochester suggests a link between IQ and the ability to detect the direction of motion of animated vertical lines moving like ripples across a screen (much as shown in the image below and exactly as in the video). Somewhat unexpectedly, the study suggests that the higher the degree of perceptual intelligence and the larger the test image, the worse the performance.

That’s because “highly intelligent” people are very good at filtering out and suppressing background “noise” when laser-zeroing in on what is occupying their minds. The larger the image, the more it becomes background and therefore the likelier it is to be ignored, unprocessed or otherwise fail to register.

Apparently, the more “intelligent” the video viewer, the smaller the image has to be (within limits) in order to identify the direction of motion.

Conducted through collaboration among various departments, including the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science at Rochester, the research results were summarized in the online posting of the study, as follows:

·       IQ scores are predicted by individual differences in sensory discriminations.

·       High IQ is associated with motion perception impairments as stimulus size increases.

·       The results link intelligence and low-level suppression of sensory information.

·       Suppressive processes are a key constraint of both intelligence and perception.

Before rigging up tiny screens flashing LED rapid-burst vertical ripples or arrowheads leading to the interview room (in order to guide and identify the most intelligent candidates to the room) or huge screens (with the ripples/arrowheads pointing to the exit, for everybody else), you may want to hit the pause button on that video and the research, in order to ask several presumably intelligent questions, based on the presented summary.

1.  1.  Are general IQ scores so closely correlated with sensory discrimination? What about logic, verbal fluency, mathematical calculation, spatial orientation and relations, static pattern recognition, memorization skills (including photographic memory), motor intelligence (e.g., fitting pegs into holes) and the like.

      Do all of them correlate that strongly with sensory discrimination, and if so, with which kinds, e.g., visual only, or also auditory, olfactory (smell), tactual (touch), gustatory (taste) and/or even gravitational? Are we to conclude that dog-nosed professional wine tasters (sommeliers) are, on average, smarter than most of us?

Read that verbatim summary above one more time: “IQ scores are predicted by individual differences in sensory discriminations.” Where does that leave the musically brilliant, but blind Stevie Wonder—or is there no such thing as “musical intelligence” and musical genius (even if utterly absent in some of the worst genres of modern music)?

The likeliest reply is that the correlations are valid only for the visually unimpaired—which is obviously true for the cited study.Still, the case of Stevie Wonder does suggest the need for controls for eyesight in research population, specifically over comparable, if not identical, acuity.

Otherwise, another correlation might be found between poor visual discrimination and high intelligence, based on performance with eye charts and comparison of the low eye-chart scores of nearsighted bookworm academics with those of everybody else.

I easily and more readily perceived the direction of the lines in the smaller images. But I thought I also saw motion (presumably correctly) in some of the larger ones (the rest looking static). So, does that make me smart, but with a helpful degree of averageness for backup?

Although I have been a professional musician, I do not have absolute pitch and cannot, therefore discriminate C from C# auditorily—even though I have no problem in locating them visually on a keyboard. So is the IQ yardstick only visual sensory discrimination?

Or is the kind of sensory discrimination that correlates with high IQ only in the modality specified in the research protocol, namely, moving lines set against fields of varying size?

2.  2.  Exactly which sensory discriminations are markers for intelligence? The doubt and red flags being raised here boil down to this: OK, so sensory discrimination correlates with IQ. But, which senses—only visual? How about multilinguals who can distinguish seemingly indistinguishable tones in other languages—and therefore learn them more easily than others.

      Which candidate would you want to hire—the guy who not only knows the difference between his left and his right, but can also visually discriminate which way vertical lines are moving, or the German linguist who can perfectly discriminate the six tones of Vietnamese?

3.   3. Can we be “smart” with respect to one kind of sensory discrimination, but less so in terms of another, e.g., visual vs. auditory? If sensory discrimination correlates with intelligence, what happens when normal, unimpaired performance in one sensory domain is much worse than in another?

      For example, my sense of smell is very acute and discriminating (or so I think); but I can’t distinguish a Siamese cat from an Abyssinian by blindfolded touch (or should I be able to?). Joking aside, I can distinguish visual Chinese characters much more easily than when they are pronounced.

What implications does that have, if any, for sensory discrimination-based concepts of intelligence? Clearly the existence of “homonyms”—words that sound the same, but have different meanings, e.g., “bored” and “board”, can make “sensory” discrimination of these as auditory inputs impossible

Considerations like this one raise the question of whether the sensory discriminations that correlate with intelligence are only the “raw” ones—pure physical stimuli, with no semantic, cultural, otherwise learning-based or other complicating variables affecting attempts to discriminate among them.

4.  Is your dog smarter than you? Take yet another look at the first statement of the summary:IQ scores are predicted by individual differences in sensory discriminations.” So, if I had a dog, it would have a higher IQ than mine, because it can distinguish sounds, smells and tastes not only better than I can, but in ranges I cannot perceive, e.g., ultra-high frequencies. 

By the same token, and confining the discussion to visual discrimination—the key parameter of the Rochester study, are eagles smarter than us because they can distinguish a mouse from a cigarette butt while soaring high in the sky?

If you jumped to that conclusion, subtract a couple of IQ points from your score, or add a few to what you thought your dog’s IQ is. Nonetheless, it is worth asking whether IQ is “acuity-dependent”—with finer discriminations evidencing higher intelligence, or whether the key claim of the research is only the narrower one that IQ is “field-dependent”, in this case, dependent on the relative or absolute sizes of the visual fields (of the sort used in the video).

Until these and probably a lot more other questions are formally raised and answered, it’s probably better to wait before installing that flashing office LED screen to screen job applicants. But, to hedge your bets, there is one way to apply the Rochester results and video that will enable you to estimate their intelligence.

Have them watch the video and tell you whether they think it tells us anything about intelligence.

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