Letter | Published:

Fluid intelligence is supported by the multiple-demand system not the language system

Nature Human Behaviourvolume 2pages200204 (2018) | Download Citation


A set of frontoparietal brain regions—the multiple-demand (MD) system1,2—has been linked to fluid intelligence in brain imaging3,4 and in studies of patients with brain damage5,6,7. For example, the amount of damage to frontal or parietal, but not temporal, cortices predicts fluid intelligence deficit5. However, frontal and parietal lobes are structurally8 and functionally9,10 heterogeneous. They contain domain-general regions that respond across diverse tasks11,12, but also specialized regions that respond selectively during language processing13. Since language may be critical for complex thought14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24 (compare with refs 25,26), intelligence loss following damage to the frontoparietal cortex could have important contributions from damage to language-selective regions. To evaluate the relative contributions of MD versus language-selective regions, we employed large functional magnetic resonance imaging datasets to construct probabilistic maps of the two systems. We used these maps to weigh the volume of lesion (in each of 80 patients) falling within each system. MD-weighted, but not language-weighted, lesion volumes predicted fluid intelligence deficit (with the opposite pattern observed for verbal fluency), indicating that fluid intelligence is specifically tied to the MD system, and undermining claims that language is at the core of complex thought.

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A.W. was supported by Australian Research Council Fellowships (Discovery Early Career Researcher Award grant no. DE120100898 and Future Fellowship grant no. FT170100105) and an Australian Research Council Discovery Project research grant (DP12102835). J.D. was supported by the Medical Research Council (United Kingdom) intramural programme (grant no. SUAG/002/RG91365). E.F. was supported by an R00 award HD 057522 from National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and by grants ANR-11-LABX-0036 (Brain and Language Research Institute) and ANR-11-IDEX-0001-02 (A*MIDEX: Initiative d'excellence Aix-Marseille). We thank N. Dermody for help with analysis. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Perception in Action Research Centre (PARC), Department of Cognitive Science, Faculty of Human Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

    • Alexandra Woolgar
  2. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders (CCD), Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

    • Alexandra Woolgar
    •  & Facundo Manes
  3. Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • John Duncan
  4. Department of Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • John Duncan
  5. Laboratory of Experimental Psychology and Neuroscience (LPEN), Institute of Cognitive and Translational Neuroscience (INCyT), INECO Foundation, Favaloro University, Buenos Aires, Argentina

    • Facundo Manes
  6. National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), Buenos Aires, Argentina

    • Facundo Manes
  7. Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA

    • Evelina Fedorenko
  8. Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown, MA, USA

    • Evelina Fedorenko


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E.F did the conceptualization, E.F. and A.W. did the methodology, A.W. did the formal analysis, E.F. and A.W. wrote the original draft of the paper, J.D., E.F. and A.W reviewed and edited the paper, A.W. did the visualization and E.F. and J.D. supervised. F.M. traced the patient lesions.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Alexandra Woolgar or Evelina Fedorenko.

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