‘Eyes are a window to the brain?’ Pupil size emerges as a marker of intelligence

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Credit: Wikimedia
Credit: Wikimedia

Our pupils respond to more than just the light. They indicate arousal, interest or mental exhaustion. Pupil dilation is even used by the FBI to detect deception.

Now work conducted in our laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology suggests that baseline pupil size is closely related to individual differences in intelligence. The larger the pupils, the higher the intelligence, as measured by tests of reasoning, attention and memory.

In fact, across three studies, we found that the difference in baseline pupil size between people who scored the highest on the cognitive tests and those who scored the lowest was large enough to be detected by the unaided eye.

But why does pupil size correlate with intelligence? To answer this question, we need to understand what is going on in the brain. 

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One hypothesis is that people who have larger pupils at rest have greater regulation of activity by the locus coeruleus, which benefits cognitive performance and resting-state brain function.

Additional research is needed to explore this possibility and determine why larger pupils are associated with higher fluid intelligence and attention control. But it’s clear that there is more happening than meets the eye.

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