When I was in school, I didn’t mind taking the occasional test. I’d buckle down and study for a few days and then be good to go—but that isn’t the case for everybody. My old roommate Abigail is a prime example. Two to three weeks before an exam she’d start to stress out. Every day she would open her notes and study the material, but she still didn’t get the grades she worked so hard for. Abigail always wondered what she was doing wrong and what she could do better—but it was quite possibly out of her control. As it turns out, her brain might not be on her side when it comes to taking tests; and a look at her brain activity while at rest could have predicted that.

New research published in Brain Imaging and Behavior says there is a link between our level of brain activity while at rest and our performance abilities on cognitive tests. More specifically, this study “The relationship between voxel-based metrics of resting and state functional connectivity and cognitive performance in cognitively healthy elderly adults” found that one’s brain activity while resting predicted how well they would perform on language recall and memory tests.

Perminder Sachdev—lead researcher, professor, and co-director of CHeBA—further explains the team’s findings: “We found that the human brain is already somewhat pre-determined to do well or perform poorly in testing. Brains differ from each other in terms of resting state activity, and it’s not an even playing field. If there is activity in certain brain networks when the brain isn’t doing anything, then that person is predisposed to do better than others on the tasks that rely on that network.”

To reach these findings, Sachdev and other researchers from the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) at UNSW Sydney took MRIs of 67 study participants’ brains. These individuals were “cognitively healthy” and between 73 and 90 years of age. The MRIs allowed researchers to observe their brain activity while at rest (meaning they weren’t performing any specific tasks); meanwhile, the individuals had their eyes closed and didn’t think about anything in particular. Then, they completed three neuropsychological tests.

After conducting the above experiment, the research team found that an individual’s ability to perform well on language and executive function tests was associated with brain functioning during rest in the frontal and temporal cortices: both of which play key roles in speech comprehension. Additionally, an individual’s memory performance was directly related to the resting state activity in the inferior temporal cortices, an area important to memory processing.

According to Sachdev, “the next stage in research would be to examine if this resting state activity of the brain can be modified by training.” He goes on to say that brain training may make a notable difference: “There is a possibility that training could boost the brain’s intrinsic network, improving overall mental performance and possibly prevent cognitive decline or even dementia.”

Zhang, H., Sachdev, P. S., Thalamuthu, A., He, Y., Xia, M., Kochan, N. A., Crawford, J. D., Trollor, J. N., Brodaty, H., & Wen, W. (2018, February 20). The relationship between voxel-based metrics of resting state functional connectivity and cognitive performance in cognitively healthy elderly adults. Brain Imaging and Behavior. Retrieved on March 7, 2018 from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11682-018-9843-y

UNSW (2018, March 7). Brain Activity at Rest Provides Clue to Intelligence. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved March 7, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/intelligence-brain-rest-8595/