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Image by Antoine Dautry

On 1st January this year, Dr. Michael Mosley announced the launch of the Great British Intelligence Test

A collaboration between BBC Horizon and Dr. Adam Hampshire of Imperial College London that is designed to explore how changing behaviour and lifestyle can affect our brain function. 


In his introduction, Dr. Mosley explains the thought process behind it:

When I was at medical school we were taught that we were born with all the brain cells we would ever have, and that after middle age it was downhill from then on. But we now know that this isn’t true. Today technologies like MRI and MEG scanning mean that we can peer inside the living brain and take a look at how it functions in ways that were not possible even a decade ago. This research is shedding light on something that scientists call ‘neuroplasticity’ - the idea that our brains keep on changing, and that we go on growing new brain cells, and making new brain connections, throughout our lives.

What’s more, we now know far more about the extent to which these changes are influenced by the world around us, and even by the choices we make in our day to day lives. This presents us with the tantalising possibility that we have more control over our brains and our cognitive prowess than was conceivable when I was young.

He continues:

Amongst other things, I’m hoping The Great British Intelligence Test will show us is what we can do, not only to maximize but also to protect our brain power. Like many middle aged people I worry about the fact that I find it harder to remember names and details as I get older, and I’m disconcertingly aware that I rely on my smartphone to remind me of phone numbers and diary appointments. I want to understand why my memory is getting worse with age, and what I can do to improve it.

I also want to find out how our ever-changing world could be affecting our cognitive function. Over the last few decades the internet, smart phones and social media have utterly transformed the way we absorb information and interact with one another. In The Great British Intelligence Test we’ll be able to take a look at how this explosion of technology could be affecting our brains and what it might mean for our intelligence – both now and in the future.

The test itself consists of a series of cognitive challenges, designed to measure your planning, reasoning, working memory and attentional abilities. The data collected will generate a detailed picture of the UK’s intelligence, the first results of which were presented in a special Horizon episode on BBC2 earlier in May. 

Having taken a few eye-opening IQ and personality type tests previously, I was keen to participate in the experiment (you can too by visiting this link) - not least because the results will be used by the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial for academic research. 

Going into it, you might expect to face a series of history questions, brainteasers or complex maths equations but the reality is very different. 

The first test focuses on “spatial planning” – removing blocks from one image to match the silhouette depicted in a second image. It’s reminiscent of Tetris, but much more stressful. Can you imagine that?!

It took me a couple of tries to get my head around it. By about number 3 or 4 I hit my stride, as if a switch flicked in my brain in the way it would with those Magic Eye books from the 90s. Side note: a Magic Eye website is still live today – complete with new images to try - looking as old school as you would expect for a “craze” that is approaching 30 years old. 


The second test – entitled “Tower of London” – shows two sets of pegs with coloured blocks on them. The aim of the game is to calculate the fewest number of moves required to replicate the second image. I found this to be a far simpler task than the first, which considering “Tower of London” is often used as a test for dementia is reassuring to say the least. 


The third challenge is called “Digit Span”. An easy numeric memory test… or so I thought. If you’ve ever watched Crystal Maze or the like, you’ll likely have screamed at the TV a few times – berating the poor bespectacled chap who seems incapable of remembering a seemingly simple sequence. But add even the smallest amount of pressure – something as inconsequential as wanting to perform well in an online experiment – and you’ll soon become unstuck too. The first few consist of two or three digits at a time – no issues there. But things escalate quickly, and suddenly it feels less “easy as pie” and more “easy as Pi”….  


“Spatial Span” comes next followed by “Verbal Analogies” – you know, “lion is to feline, as cabbage is to vegetable”… I like to think I’m well-read with a comprehensive grasp of the English language, but this activity (and the later “Word Definitions” test) had me questioning that. I performed ok, considering, but the likes of “rage is to fury as fast is to race car” left me pondering for longer than I’d care to admit.

Then came “Target Detection”. Years of working with computers and complex code had primed me for this one. Either that, or a misspent youth playing Whac-a-Mole at the arcade… In an ever-changing grid of similar-looking shapes, you are asked to click the symbol that matches the one on the left – 120 times! 

To say I was “surprised” by the next challenge – “Emotional Discrimination” - would be very apt. A series of hilarious stock images – Joey’s “re-acting” in Friends puts these to shame - are presented two at a time. All you have to do is decide whether the emotions are the same or different. It’s worth taking the test for this section alone! To think all those cheesy Wallace (of Wallace & Gromit) smiles and faux shocked expressions form part of a serious intelligence experiment made me laugh way more than it should. 

After “Word Definitions” comes “2D Manipulations” the final of nine rounds in which you have three minutes to match as many rotated layouts as you can. You’ll then be asked to fill in a few demographic questions – your age, how much you use your smartphone, the amount of time you spend on the internet etc. etc. 

Then, the results…

You’ll be presented with a spider web chart detailing how you performed versus the national average in: Spatial Intelligence, Planning, Verbal Working Memory, Spatial Working Memory, Verbal Reasoning, Attention, Emotional Discrimination, Verbal Comprehension and Mental Rotation.

If you’re friends and family members have taken the test too, it makes for a fascinating exercise to compare your strengths and weaknesses.

I was pleasantly surprised with my results, having performed better in certain areas than I’d anticipated during the test itself. As a perfectionist, I’d love to have achieved a 100% score across the board but that’s just not realistic. I doubt anyone short of Johnny 5 could achieve full marks on a first attempt.

It’s not a test in the usual sense, anyhow – it isn’t a pub quiz with team pride or a monetary prize on the line, nor is it an exam to get that coveted spot on a course. The only winner here is science.


The data collected through this experiment will contribute to world-class research into neuroscience and cognition. How exciting, then, that us mere mortals have the opportunity to play such a pivotal part! What are you waiting for?

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