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Hardwired To Choose A Career

Researchers belonging to a field known as behavioral genetics have found a link between genetics and career choice, which may explain why some individuals seem predisposed to become engineers. Such research may also help to explain why there is a high rate of autism among the families of engineers.

Wendy Johnson, a University of Minnesota postdoctoral research fellow, and her colleagues are using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to view the gray matter of the brain in an attempt to discover what has more influence: genetic or environmental factors. The preliminary results of their work suggest that while most brain functions are found in nonspecific areas throughout the brain, spatial ability seems to be concentrated in one central brain location. Spatial ability is the capacity to use the mind to imagine objects as though they were turning about in space, so that each angle is visualized within the mind. This special ability is central to the work of the engineer.

Hugely Heritable

Earlier studies found that the volume of gray matter in the brains of identical, as opposed to fraternal, twins was two times as likely to be identical than that of the fraternal twins. The conclusion of this previous study was that gray matter varies according to genetic factors. "The volume of gray matter in the brain is hugely heritable, like height. That's the only other trait I know that's shown that kind of pattern of similarity," said Johnson.

This genetic link may also share a role in predicting which families will bear children who are autistic. Simon Baron-Cohen reported in a 2006 issue of Archives of Disease in Childhood that autistic children are two times more likely to have fathers and grandfathers who are in the field of engineering as opposed to any other career.

A professor of developmental psychopathology and the director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, Baron-Cohen explained that engineers have a facility called hypersystemizing which involves understanding complicated technical instructions at a faster pace and remembering them with more detail than most people. Baron-Cohen says there are eight levels of systemizing. At the higher end of the systemization scale, an individual's coping ability relative to sudden change undergoes a severe decrease.

Unpredictable Cocktail Parties

An example of this is seen by imagining a digital camera which needs to have three buttons depressed in the same sequence, each time, to elicit the same response. This type of performance can be predicted if it is systematically remembered. But this doesn't work in social situations. For instance, you cannot predict the way people will mingle at a cocktail party, so this is an unpredictable situation. You cannot predict how long people will stay and chat, and with whom they will chat next. This type of situation cannot be systemized since it doesn't follow any rules.

Baron-Cohen believes that autism may be the result of two high systemizer parents. Research shows that the parents of autistic children have higher than average ability to systemize, higher rates of occupations requiring systemizing, and also show what is deemed hyper-masculinized brain patterns during systemizing tasks, as seen during functional MRI. "We found that there is a sex difference on this task, with females on average showing more activity in the visual cortex than men. On this task, a hypermasculinized pattern of brain activity would correspond to even less activity in the visual cortex than typical males show," he said.


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