A few weeks ago, a new study from Harvard Medical School concluded that, on average, people with more mechanical aptitude are more likely to develop mental health problems and, consequently, to be more likely, at some point in their lives, to become addicted to prescription medications.
Now, in a paper published online on July 12 in PLOS ONE, a team of researchers has used a new brain imaging technique to study the neural underpinnings of people with higher mechanical aptitudes and the effects of those aptitudes on their behavior.
“Our study has found that people with an aptitude for mechanics tend to exhibit a more robust brain activity when they are experiencing negative emotions,” said lead author and neuroscientist Anupam Bhatia, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical Center.
“This is consistent with a biological mechanism underlying a range of neurobiological disorders, including depression and anxiety, and chronic pain.”
The team also found that mechanical aptness is related to other personality traits and personality characteristics, including openness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and neuroticism, all of which are associated with mental health.
The team analyzed the brain activity of 16 men and women, who were all between the ages of 22 and 60, who reported that they were high-tech mechanics.
In addition to analyzing brain activity during their task, the team also assessed their mood.
For instance, the study asked participants to imagine they were a robot who had been stuck in a room for an hour.
After a few minutes, the researchers asked them to rate how pleasant the room was.
The researchers then used the robot’s emotions to predict its actions and whether or not it would continue to move forward.
When participants reported higher mechanical intelligence, they also reported higher levels of happiness and satisfaction with their lives.
“These results suggest that a high-level aptitude may be related to enhanced processing of emotions,” the authors wrote.
They added, “Although the neurobiologic and neuropsychological substrates for this relationship are not yet known, the present study suggests that a sense of mechanical intelligence may have a neurobiologically-based component, with a link to emotional processing.”
The study was based on data collected from 36 participants, who participated in a two-week, online study.
The participants completed four personality assessment questions, as well as a series of self-report measures, such as their perceptions of themselves and others, their satisfaction with themselves and their relationships, and their emotional reactions to positive and negative stimuli.
For each question, the participants were asked to describe themselves and other people in terms of their mechanical aptivity, which was measured with the question, “Would you describe yourself as a mechanical aptier?” and was scored on a 0 to 100 scale.
They also completed measures of openness to the world and their positive affect, which were scored on the same scale.
The final measure was a battery of eight personality questions, which assessed the participant’s tendency to use their mechanical intelligence in their everyday life.
The results showed that high-technology mechanics were more likely than their non-technical peers to report higher levels, on a scale of 0 to 10, of openness, and higher levels (on a scale ranging from 0 to 6) of conscientiousness.
“The findings indicate that higher levels and greater levels of mechanical aptiveness are associated not only with a higher likelihood of mental health outcomes but also with heightened emotional processing in the context of positive emotions,” Bhatias said.
“Although we do not know whether these results represent a causal association, they may be an important indicator of how high-skill professionals use their cognitive ability to benefit society.”
A study published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that high levels of aptitude can help people who are high-functioning and have high self-esteem.
However, Bhatiya cautioned that this is just one study and that more research is needed to explore the relationship between mechanical intelligence and these outcomes.
“We need to see how the brain, and specifically the ventral striatum, and other brain regions involved in empathy, self-regulation, and motivation, are involved in these processes,” he said.
He added that it would be helpful for future research to explore how this might be modulated by other psychological factors.
“More research is necessary to understand the neural mechanisms that mediate this relationship, and the implications of this for future clinical practice.”
The new study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and by the John A. Paulson Foundation.
For more information about the research team, contact Anupaj Bhatya at [email protected] or 206-221-4095.