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Testing the "Executive Brain"

Posted by: Jena McGregor on October 26, 2007

I wrote a piece this week in our “BTW” section (the old “UpFront”) about a management assessment tool that’s been linked to predicting top performers. Researchers at the University of Toronto, Harvard University, McGill University and the University of Hawaii adapted tests typically used in hospitals to test patients with brain damage to their prefrontal cortex to a business setting. The prefrontal cortex, of course, is also known as the “executive brain,” for its ability to differentiate between conflicting thoughts, work towards an end goal, and determine the consequences to your actions. Good results on the test, a computerized adaptation that involves word associations, quick responses to numbers, memory tests and personality questions, were shown in a study published in the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology to be highly correlated to managers with top ratings on their performance reviews.

I asked the University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson if I could take it myself. While he warned me not to do so late at night, I was on deadline, and ended up starting the 90-minute exam at 9:30 after dinner and a large glass of wine. Apparently, I still did pretty well: Peterson said he would hire me. My big gap was on the “association learning,” which is the ability “to learn new, situation-specific standards of importance.” My guess is this was the section of the test where you had to remember patterns of circles and squares that were associated with each other. I figured out about halfway through that the patterns were the same each time, while I was trying to figure out new ones. I only scored above 18% of people who had taken the test!

I’m not sure any tests that involve matching words and reacting quickly to numbers that flash on the screen can really accurately predict whether I’d be good at making tough judgment calls, keeping projects running on time, and motivating people to do their best work. But at least I know my prefrontal cortex appears to be working just fine.

Reader Comments


November 19, 2007 9:11 AM

I play Nintendo DS's "Big Brain Academy" & "Brain Age". These two games must have something incommon with the Test you took. They say they improve your prefrontal cortex ... You should try and compare games to the test.
Is there any chance any one else can take the test you took?
Kind regards,

Jena McGregor

November 19, 2007 10:40 AM

Others can take the test, though I think they probably charge a fee. The web site is:


January 15, 2009 9:25 AM

Absolutely wonderful test. Everybody should be tested, find their weaknesses, and the good part, there's hope for making the change. Kudos to Dr. Peterson and his people.

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