• Paul W. Smith

It Doesn't Take a Brain Surgeon


For many of us, college is that season of life when we are compelled to choose a career path, long before we have any idea of who we are or what we want. Back in my college days, many of my fellow students were the progeny of doctors, lawyers and engineers who saw no other viable option than to follow in the footsteps of their parents. Others who had a propensity to argue chose to pursue the law, while those geeky types who were always taking things apart as kids went into engineering. And those rare students with a 5.0 GPA (how is that even possible?) and whose faces were always buried in a book? They were destined for Med School.


Regardless of our initial choices, or of how many times we may have changed course along the way, most of us realized at some point that the scale with which Academia measures “smart” is broken, and that success in any of life’s endeavors is built on the ability to think outside the book. Nevertheless, we persist in the belief that some professions are just inherently smarter than others.


Take brain surgeons for example. Considered by many to be the pinnacle of the medical profession, brain surgeons are often held up as the smartest of the smart. Believed to be the very first medical specialty, neurosurgery dates back to ancient times. Originally called “trepanation” , it involved any intentional cutting open of the skull by a recognized practitioner. History provides few clues as to how smart these early practitioners may have been. The first modern brain surgery in the U.S. is credited to Drs. Hirschfelder and Morse, who removed a patient’s brain tumor in 1886.


The use of the phrase “it’s not exactly brain surgery” isn’t found in print much until the mid-twentieth century, but it may have originated with the career of Dr. Harvey Cushing, a writer, polymath, and pioneering neurosurgeon. Dr. Cushing was known for being extremely smart, outspoken, medically daring, and enormously prolific in developing new neurosurgical procedures.


While brain surgery may be challenging, the science behind launching and guiding rockets is no walk in the park either. This fact was never more apparent than in the aftermath of WWII, when a group of German rocket scientists, led by Wernher von Braun, were brought to the U.S. When the Russians launched their Sputnik satellite in 1957, many Americans were able to see it passing overhead in the starlit night. Thus began a new sense of urgency for the space race. The belief that rocket scientists (at the time predominantly German) were tremendously smart was bolstered by the reputation of another smart German, Dr. Albert Einstein. Oddly enough, the popularization of the phrase “it’s not rocket science” is attributed to an American football coach, who was quoted in a 1985 article in the Doylestown Daily Intelligence - "Coaching football is not rocket science and it's not brain surgery. It's a game, nothing more."


Most of us have used these phrases at one time or another to describe what we viewed as a simple task. While there’s no good data on which is more common, there is the inevitable question of who is smarter, the neurosurgeon or the aerospace engineer. Perhaps there is another profession that eclipses them both in intelligence. Scientists at the University College London in England set out recently to find the answer.


Data for their study was obtained from the online Cognitron Great British Intelligence Test, which measures planning and reasoning, working memory, attention, and emotion processing. The results showed neurosurgeons to be significantly better at semantic problem solving, while aerospace engineers were superior at mental manipulation and attention. Compared with the general public, neurosurgeons had faster problem-solving speed, but slower memory recall speed.


Overall the cognitive signatures of aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons are very similar. The latter are exposed to Latin and Greek terms in medical school, and thus may have an edge in verbal analogies and rare word definitions. This might help with semantic problem solving. Aerospace engineers excel in attention and mental manipulation, both of which are explicitly taught in engineering school.


The conclusion was that it’s fine to say “it’s not brain surgery” for situations that don’t require rapid problem solving. If focus and mental gymnastics aren’t essential elements, perhaps “it’s not rocket science” might be appropriate. In the overall cognitive profile, neither of these two professions appears to be significantly ahead of the general population.


According to the researchers, future studies will be aimed at other specific professions, with the goal of finally identifying the one most deserving for the summit of smartness. The scientific methods utilized in this initial study should have no problem identifying a clear winner.


After all, it’s not Network Analysis.


Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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