Cognitive Neuroscience The I is a myth

Neuromyth # 6: Brain Activation and Mental Performance

Brain activation and mental performance

A widespread neuromyth is the assumption that there is a positive proportional relationship between the extent of neuronal activation and mental performance. Accordingly, the following applies: the more areas of the brain are activated, the greater the mental performance.

In fact, however, many neuroscientific studies from expert research suggest that such a connection does not exist. People who have acquired a great deal of knowledge as well as practical practical knowledge in a certain content area - and are therefore considered experts in this area - have organized their extensive knowledge in a problem-solving manner that allows them to use this knowledge with much less cognitive and to use neural resources than is the case with people with less knowledge of the content - the so-called novices. This relationship between expertise and lower neuronal activation is referred to in psychology and cognitive neuroscience as neuronal efficiency: the more knowledge a person possesses in a field and the more intelligently this knowledge is organized, the lower the activation of their brain when performing tasks from this content area.

So what matters when it comes to intellectual performance is not the extent of neural activation, but the extent and the intelligent organization of knowledge. The brains of experts are organized cognitively and neurally more efficiently than the brains of novices, who show significantly higher metabolic activities and higher energy consumption than the brains of experts when performing the same tasks. This connection is illustrated very clearly, for example, by the studies by Roland Grabner (ETH Zurich) and his colleagues:


  • Grabner, R., Stern, E., & Neubauer, A. (2003). When intelligence loses its impact: Neural efficiency during reasoning in a highly familiar area. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 49, 89-98.
  • Grabner, R., Neubauer, A., & Stern, E. (2006). Superior Performance and Neural Efficiency. Brain Research Bulletin, 69, 422-439.