Building dioramas can make you smarter

Several scientific studies have explored the relationship between motor coordination skills and intelligence. Neuroscientists are still in the process of unravelling the workings of the human brain, and our understanding of this organ—the most complex in the human body—is far from complete.

It never occurred to me that developing hand-eye coordination could have a positive effect on intelligence. If this were the case, we’d expect to see great athletes and musicians turning into brilliant scientists and philosophers. Clearly it’s not a simple case of cause and effect.

What the studies are showing instead is a spill-over effect in neural development. In other words, developing one part of the brain results in positive effects in other parts of the brain. This article from Psychology Today describes how neural activity in the hand-eye coordination centre of the brain stimulates neural growth elsewhere.

So it could be that all those plastic model airplanes we put together as kids, with misaligned wings, fogged canopies and broken landing gear, actually left us with a positive legacy we didn’t realize: more neurons. The same effect would hold true for taking piano lessons at an early age, or any other activities requiring hand-eye coordination. All these activities stimulate neuron production.

Quantifying the spill-over effect is notoriously difficult. Setting up a test subject and a control subject is never an easy thing when the experiment involves human beings. Even if you started with genetically identical twins at an early age and had one building dioramas and playing the violin while the other watched TV all day, and then compared their IQs many years later, you couldn’t be sure if any observed difference in IQ was due to their different activity rosters (assuming that intelligence is trainable in the first place). Many other factors, not all identifiable, could have contributed to the difference.

But in the end, if the brain is indeed the interconnected maze of neural pathways that scientists think it is, the spill-over effect makes sense whether it can be measured or not. Wouldn’t it be something if the person you met at your next Mensa meeting turned out to be a diorama artist!