Does having keen visual abilities mean you’ve also got conventional smarts?
Not necessarily. A new study shows that visual ability is actually its own kind of intelligence that’s entirely unrelated to IQ, and that people vary widely in how visually intelligent they are. That means that some people’s powers of observation are simply more developed, making them far better at tasks like matching fingerprints or interpreting X-rays–or, say, being able to differentiate between slightly different typefaces or sense when the alignment of an interface element is just a bit off.
The research, which was recently published in the journal Cognition, initially focused on how widely visual skills vary among people. Vanderbilt University professor Isabel Gauthier created a test to see how well people could identify objects they’ve never seen before. It’s hard to assess someone’s visual intelligence by showing them images of well-known objects like dogs and cats, because their ability depends mostly on how much experience the person has had with that object. So instead, Gauthier invented entirely new, computer-generated types of “creatures,” playfully called greebles, ziggerins, and sheinbugs. The pink “greebles” have rubbery protrusions in varying places, while “ziggerins” resemble wooden joints, and the “sheinbugs” look like, well, bugs, with lumpy bodies and a varying numbers of legs.
Gauthier showed the study participants two of each of the three creature types. Then, she and her team presented each participant groups of three slightly different creatures, one of which they’d seen in the first part of the test and two of which were new, and asked them to identify which object was most familiar to them.
More than 2,000 people took the test, and the results showed that if someone could pick out one greeble they’d seen before from a group of greebles, they did similarly well with ziggerins and sheinbugs–despite how different the pink creatures look from the others. In essence, someone’s ability to differentiate between greebles was an accurate predictor of their overall visual ability. The researchers also asked participants to take an IQ test, and they found that visual intelligence was independent from general intelligence.
Why is this finding unusual? “It is surprising because it is rare,” Gauthier tells Co.Design in an email. “General intelligence is by definition the common abilities that are relevant to a lot of different tasks, so it is pretty rare for an ability to be fairly independent from general intelligence.”
Gauthier’s study didn’t address how you might improve your visual ability, but she says that based on previous work, it’s likely that your high visual intelligence is based on a mix of genetic and environmental factors. She believes that her findings will enable better testing of visual intelligence, which would be useful in predicting people’s performance. For instance, maybe aspiring doctors should be asked to take a visual intelligence test, in addition to the MCAT.
Despite the results, visual intelligence remains a mysterious ability. But for those who work in visual jobs–and those who hire and manage workers who rely primarily on visual intelligence–this research is a step toward understanding how it works and how it relates to the rest of our brains’ capabilities. And for those blessed with high visual intelligence, maybe one day you’ll be able to boast a visual ability score, similar to an IQ, to quantify just how sharp your eyes are.