The expressions “it’s not rocket science” and “it’s not brain surgery” are widely used to describe tasks that any old pleb could complete, yet new research suggests that these old adages may be somewhat inapt. Appearing in the Christmas issue of The BMJ, the new study indicates that neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers are in fact no more intelligent than the general population, and may therefore be given undue credit for their mental abilities.
It goes without saying that patients in need of brain surgery should continue to seek out trained doctors rather than simply asking a friend to have a crack at the job, although these findings do at least imply that one doesn’t have to be especially gifted to take up the profession. Likewise, rocket science may be something that many of us could master with the right training.
To reach these conclusions, the study authors assessed the smarts of 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons using Cognitron’s Great British Intelligence Test, which consists of a series of validated tasks. Collectively, these challenges can be used to analyze six different domains of cognition, including memory, spatial problem solving, semantic problems solving, mental manipulation and attention, problem-solving speed, and memory recall speed.
Overall, the neurosurgeons displayed higher average scores than the aerospace engineers for semantic problem solving, yet the rocket scientists trumped the brain surgeons when it came to mental manipulation and attention. The two professions were evenly matched for the four other domains tested.
The study authors then compared their participants’ scores with those of 18,257 members of the general UK population, and found no difference between these average Joes and aerospace engineers. Neurosurgeons, meanwhile, had faster problem-solving speeds than the typical British bloke or lass, yet slower memory recall speeds.
According to the study authors, the excellent problem-solving speed displayed by brain surgeons may reflect the “fast paced nature of neurosurgery, which attracts those with a pre-existing flair for rapid processing.” They, therefore, conclude that the expression “it’s not brain surgery” may be applicable when referring to challenges that don’t require fast thinking, but that it is less appropriate in relation to other aspects of intelligence.
Reflecting on their findings, the researchers propose that “it is possible that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers are unnecessarily placed on a pedestal." "'It’s a walk in the park' or another phrase unrelated to careers might be more appropriate.”
“It is also possible that other professions might deserve to be on that pedestal, and future work should aim to determine the most deserving group,” they write.