Are brains of high-achievers wired differently?

In 2008, Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell attempted to dissect the methodology behind high achievement in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Interestingly, he credited an individual’s cultural legacy and societal influences as primary precursors when he wrote: “It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it’s the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage’.”

A research team from Oxford University’s Centre for Functional MRI of the brain has new findings to add to the continuing search for the ever-elusive secret of success. In a study called ‘Wiring diagrams’ link lifestyle to brain function published in Nature, these scientists posit that it’s all there in the brain’s wiring to begin with. 36

The researchers studied data collected from over 1,200 brain scans of individuals aged 22-35, looking specifically at ‘connectomes’, measurements of how different regions of the brain are communicating with each other.

“You can think of it as a population-average map of 200 regions across the brain that are functionally distinct from each other,” said lead author Stephen Smith. “Then, we looked at how much all of those regions communicated with each other, in every patient.”

The results? As writer Sara Reardan puts in the Nature article: “”The team was surprised to find a single, stark difference in the way brains were connected. People with more ‘positive’ variables, such as more education, better physical endurance and above-average performance on memory tests, shared the same patterns. Their brains seemed to be more strongly connected than those of people with ‘negative’ traits such as smoking, aggressive behaviour or a family history of alcohol abuse.”

Ironically, the team conducting the research is working with data from the Human Connectome Project (HCP) a research project awarded $40 million US–a significant fact that leads back to Gladwell’s theory that “special opportunities lead to further success.”