We all take pride in being good at different things. I, for example, like to think I’m a good writer, decent cook, and an abnormally exceptional gift-giver. My good friend Shelby, on the other hand, isn’t the most creative individual—instead, she excels at memorizing theories, analyzing research papers, and comforting a friend on a rough day. Now, these interests and these talents have aided us in different ways but ultimately, they led us down very different career paths: I took the journalistic route, and she ran after her dream of becoming a scientist.

It’s true that we typically enjoy doing the things we’re good at, as demonstrated by Shelby and I’s corresponding talents and career choices. But sometimes we’re also really passionate or motivated to succeed at more difficult feats. And in these cases, we are encouraged to, “keep pushing and never give up.” We’re told that, “practice makes perfect,” and our smarts will surely guide us in the right direction. Now, this is a great ideation to believe in and preach; sometimes, however, our smarts and our motivation just might not result in success—at least not when our visual skills are lacking.

A new study “General object recognition is specific: Evidence from novel and familiar objects” from Vanderbilt University says that just because an individual is well-motivated and smart doesn’t mean they can learn visual skills needed to excel at visual-specific tasks such as analyzing medical X-rays or keeping track of aircrafts on radar displays. In sum, this research implies that our visual ability is not associated with our general intelligence (or IQ). What’s more, is that we may think our visual abilities match our IQ, but they probably don’t: “People may think they can tell how good they are at identifying objects visually,” says Isabel Gauthier, David K. Wilson Chair of Psychology and Professor of Radiology, who led the study. “But it turns out that they are not very good at evaluating their own skills relative to others.”

To reach these findings, the research team first surveyed 100 people and gauged public opinion on visual skills; they found that, in general, participants believed there to be less variation in people’s visual skills as compared with nonvisual skills (e.g., verbal skills). Then it was time to put some skills to the test—only there was one big problem: performance on visual recognition tests that use familiar images are a mix of one’s visual ability and their experience with the images. So, Gauthier and her research team used original computer-generated creatures called “greebles,” “sheinbugs,” and “ziggerins,” and they developed a new test specifically designed to measure one’s ability to identify foreign objects such as these.

The primary test involved a participant simply studying six main creatures. Then, they were presented with several more tests, which displayed creatures in sets of three—one of which was also displayed in the primary test, and two of which were new, unfamiliar creatures. The participant was then tasked with picking out the familiar creature. After analyzing results from over 2000 participants, the researchers found that the ability to recognize one kind of creature correlated with how well subjects could recognize the other kind—even though all of the creatures varied visually and significantly so. This confirmed that their innovative test could determine visual ability, which indeed differs from general intelligence, as supported by performance on IQ-related tests also administered by the researchers.

“This is quite exciting because performance on cognitive skills is almost always associated with general intelligence,” says Gauthier. “It suggests that we really can learn something new about people using these tests.” Now, it’s just time to figure out how: “A lot of jobs and jobbies depend on visual skills. Because they are independent of general intelligence, the next step is to explore how we can use these tests in real-world applications where performance could not be well-predicted before,” she explains.

“General object recognition is specific: Evidence from novel and familiar objects” by Jennifer J. Richler, Jeremy B. Wilmer, and Isabel Gauthier in Cognition. Published online May 26 2017 doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2017.05.019

Vanderbilt University “Visual Intelligence Not the Same as IQ.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 8 November 2017. <http://neurosciencenews.com/iq-visual-intelligence-7897/>.

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