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How Do Trivia Masters Do It? The Right Answer is ‘Brain Efficiency’

We all have that know-it-all friend who dominates any quick-fire trivia questions you throw at them. Any conversation you seem to have with them, they seem to be able to throw some interesting facts into the mix. Turns out, these smarty-pants have very efficiently paved brains, a new study indicates.

A group of neuroscientists analysed the brains of 324 people with varying degrees of general knowledge (like the sort of data that would come up in a game of trivia). These researchers gave these participants over 300 question touching on various fields, such as art, architecture, and science, to gauge the individuals’ level of general knowledge. This is often referred to as semantic memory.

Investigators used a kind of magnetic resonance imaging known as diffusion tensor imaging to track the water that flows through the brain, this water typically follows along the paths paved between brain cells. So, by following the water during brain scans, the researchers were able to observe the connections.

Results showed that those subjects who had retained, and could recall, more general knowledge had much more efficient brain connections. With stronger and shorter connections between brain cells. But the researchers did not discover any correlation between more general knowledge and more brain cells.

From an intuitive standpoint, it makes sense that people who are great with general knowledge have more efficient brain connections. Different bits of general knowledge get stored in various spots throughout the brain. Imagine a question like: What year did the moon landing happen?

We could have had “moon” in one region, “moon landing” somewhere else and even the year and the event happened in another one. So, in order to get our answer, the brain has to link up “moon” to “moon landing” to “year,” and it does so through these connections. It stands to reason that if the connections are more efficient, that information can travel quickly, with less resistance.

But it is not clear why some people have more efficient brain connectors than others. Perhaps some people are born with a more efficient brain architecture, or perhaps someone who acquires more general knowledge generates more efficient connections, because they have been conditioned to absorbing knowledge. It could even be a mix of nature and nurture, with those who might have had a natural disposition but had not had that thirst for knowledge sated, could lead to less efficient connections in the brain.

In order to do that research researchers would need to track an individual people across time to see how the neurochemistry in their brain changes based on external stimuli. Some neuroscientists have suggested observing the developing minds of larger groups of children as they age, paying close attention to their ability to remember trivia as they grow.

Many scientists are excited to experiment with this sector of neuroscience in the future but because of the logistical issues surrounding testing methodologies, it might be a long time before we can accurately correlate how people are trivia machines.

Being able to retain general knowledge does not necessarily mean that you are smarter. That is another kind of intelligence, called “fluid intelligence,” which is more about being able to problem-solve in new situations. However, there is a slight correlation between smartness and greater general knowledge. But further research will need to be conducted to draw any definite parallels.

It is amazing how much scientists and researchers are discovering about the brain every day. Perhaps, at some point, when we unlock the secrets of the human mind, we will all be trivia masters! It seems that the more we come to understand the human mind, the less we seem to know about it. But that is exactly why the field of neuroscience is so exciting for those working in the field.