How Much of Learning Ability Is Genetic?

I just saw these articles:

The study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, used nearly 1,500 pairs of 12-year-old twins to tease apart the effects of genetic inheritance and environmental variables on math and reading ability. Twin studies provide a clever way of assessing the balance of nature versus nurture.

Here’s the abstract:

Dissecting how genetic and environmental influences impact on learning is helpful for maximizing numeracy and literacy. Here we show, using twin and genome-wide analysis, that there is a substantial genetic component to children’s ability in reading and mathematics, and estimate that around one half of the observed correlation in these traits is due to shared genetic effects (so-called Generalist Genes). Thus, our results highlight the potential role of the learning environment in contributing to differences in a child’s cognitive abilities at age twelve.

This is interesting:

“If you found genes for reading,” Plomin said, “you have over a 50% chance that those same genes would influence math.”

Any thoughts?

There are some important things to bear in mind when interpreting this study (and others like it), which the media usually gets wrong.

First, they are not measuring innate “ability”; rather they are measuring skills (like reading and math) that are developed with practice. One of the reasons why genetically similar people (eg identical twins) might be similar in reading and math skills is that they tend to practice these skills similar amounts. That is, if one identical twin tends to pay attention in class and work hard, the other will tend to as well too.

That means that the fact that these skills are connected with genes does not tell you that they are determined by genes. In the study, genes explain roughly half the differences in skills. Compare that with similar studies looking at how genes contribute to whether people are fat or thin (measured by body mass index). They find a similar result - half or more of the variation in whether people are overweight or underweight is explained by genes.

It would be totally wrong to conclude that because your weight is strongly influenced by your genes, that you have limited control over it. The vast majority of people can become more or less as fat or thin as they want to be by varying their diet and exercise.

Similarly, it would be totally wrong to conclude that because your mental abilities, such as your abilities to read, do math, or remember phone numbers, are strongly influenced by genes, that you don’t have control over these abilities. By practicing more (or less), ordinary people can dramatically improve (or worsen) these skills. Skilled memorisers are an excellent demonstration of this.

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I am wondering this too. I am pretty good at memory, Im no Alex Mullen or elite level but I have come a long way in 9 months. I was a 75 student in high school/university, good but nothing special. Do you think there is a genetic component to how good the elite level memory athletes or do they just train harder?