As It Happens

Brain surgeons and rocket scientists are no smarter than the rest of us: study

A new study has found that neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers are equally smart in different ways — but no smarter than the general population, which is why researchers suggest it may be time to ditch the phrases "It's not exactly rocket science," and "It's not exactly brain surgery."

‘I hope one of the messages is that science is for everyone,’ says lead author 

Two aerospace engineers talk while looking at a laptop screen. Aerospace engineers are no smarter than neurosurgeons, and vice versa — nor are any of them any smarter than the rest of the population, according to a new study. (Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

Story Transcript

Neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers are equally smart in different ways — but no smarter than the general population, a new study has found.

So it may be time to ditch the phrases "It's not exactly rocket science," and "It's not exactly brain surgery," say the researchers behind the findings.

"These are probably the only two phrases that indicate that something is easy … that are related to professions, as compared to, 'walk in the park' or 'it's a piece of cake,' " lead researcher Inga Usher, a neurosurgery PhD candidate at the University College London, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"So I think it was inevitable that they would be compared — especially given you can pit two groups against each other."

The researchers performed a series of cognitive tests on 329 aerospace engineers, 72 neurosurgeons and about 1,800 members of the general U.K. population who had no expertise in either field. The results were published last week in the British Medical Journal.

As It Happens has reached out to several Canadian neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers for comment, but so far, none have responded. 

Brain surgeons vs. rocket scientists

Usher says she and her colleagues were initially driven to find out who is smarter — brain surgeons or rocket scientists. 

But she admits that as a team of mostly neuroscientists and neurosurgeons, they had a pretty obvious bias.

"While we had collaborators that were rocket scientists, none of us are rocket scientists," Usher said.

"Of course, as neurosurgeons, we were hoping to have some evidence on which to base our smugness in the company of the other party."

But they didn't let their personal feelings get in the way of their science, she said. Ultimately they discovered the two professions are pretty much on equal footing — albeit in different ways. 

Inga Usher is a neurosurgery PhD candidate and clinical fellow at University College London. (Submitted by Inga Usher)

The neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers performed equally on most cognitive tests, with just a few noticeable differences.

The brain surgeons largely performed better at semantic problem solving, which means tests involving definitions and other word-based problems. 

"Learning lots of really long Latin and Greek words and recalling these words is pretty central to learning medicine," Usher said.

But the aerospace engineers performed better on the mental manipulation tests — for example, rotating a shape in one's head.

"In some engineering courses, my understanding is that this is taught. So it's a skill that's actively nurtured by training," Usher said. "But it's also something that perhaps people have a flair for if you go into engineering, and that's probably quite a useful skill."

Scientists vs. everyone else

While there were clear differences in how the two groups of scientists performed, that mostly wasn't the case for the scientists compared to everyone else.

There were no significant differences at all between rocket scientists and the general population, the study found.

Neurosurgeons were able to solve problems faster than the average person, but they also showed a slower memory recall speed.

"Overall, there was a broad range of cognitive abilities in all three groups," Usher said.

"I guess I hope one of the messages is that science is for everyone and that these stereotypes should be questioned. Obviously, we often say this in jest, but these phrases do link to quite durable stereotypes."

Two neurosurgeons look at brain scans. While the study showed clear differences in how neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers performed, that mostly wasn't the case for the scientists compared to everyone else. The researchers said each group displayed a 'broad range of cognitive abilities.' (lenetstan/Shutterstock)

Questioning stereotypes important

She noted that children are often interested in science, math and technology at a young age — but as they get older, more and more of them tend to drop away from the field. 

That attrition rate, she says, disproportionately affects women and people of colour.

"So I think it's important to question these stereotypes for that purpose, to try and encourage some of these disadvantaged groups to continue considering a career in these specialities," she said.

"The problems we face are complex and we're going to need diverse workforces to deal with them."

Usher is currently working toward her own goal of becoming a certified brain surgeon.

"Who knows? Maybe with the media furore that's come from this and saying that neurosurgeons aren't smarter, perhaps I won't get my place in neurosurgery," she said with a laugh.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge. 

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