When you think of the intellectual archetype, who comes to mind? Maybe Stephen Hawking or Noam Chomsky, eyes strained over piles of books and whiteboards scribbled with notes. Or Woody Allen or Malcolm Gladwell, intelligent people revered for their brains over their physical attributes.
What do they all have in common? They all wear glasses, and, for reasons better or worse, we have long associated intelligence with glasses. Who hasn’t told a friend when they don a new pair of eyeglasses that it makes them look “smarter”? Or to be sure to wear glasses to a job interview because it will make them look “more intelligent”?
However, is there a scientific correlation between a person’s intelligence and nearsightedness? It’s not a simple question to answer; associations have never been well understood and prior results are often contradictory.
Relationship Between Myopia and IQ
It has been found that a higher proportion of university students worldwide are shortsighted than among the general population. Numerous studies have analyzed the correlations for the past couple decades. Early on, scientists hypothesized that increased reading as well as a “visual exploration of the near environment” from birth promoted nearsightedness later in life. Another theory is that occipital lobe damage in the brain may cause overcompensation in the frontal lobe. However, there is no widely agreed reason for the relationship, even if scientific data has proven that people with myopia have a higher IQ compared to people with hyperopia (farsightedness).
Another way to look at the association is psychological. Since nothing in the distance distracts a person with nearsightedness, the person, hypothetically, would have fewer distractions and have an easier time focusing. A person with reduced eye function also recreates events differently. Since people and items may appear blurry, the brain creates features more from memory data than the objects standing right in front of the person. Last, many studies have shown that myopic children and adults without increased IQs have greatest academic success. Why? People with nearsightedness have proven to be less likely to take risks. This is attributed to the fact that since myopic children and adults can’t see in the distance, they try harder to be successful to avoid any risks.
The Eyewear Stereotype
I must point out, none of the cause and effect relationships I’ve just mentioned are clear, even as studies continue to pop up every few years, and I think the mystery of the link is what draws most researchers. While a study could predict the percentage of myopic people in a group of given intelligence and schooling, researchers still have not been able to prove whether the myopia is causing the intelligence or vice versa. As an Israeli study concluded in 1987, “There can be no doubt about the reality of the correlation between myopia and intellectual performance … further research is needed to clarify the nature of this relationship.”
No matter whether this is proven or not, the cultural stereotype of eyewear associated with intelligence is ingrained in today’s society. In a 2008 Ohio State University study, eighty kids aged six to ten were shown pictures of both bespectacled and plain-child children and asked to rate attractiveness, sports performance, and whether they’d make good friends. Over 66 percent of the children stated that children who wore glasses were smarter.
The stereotype doesn’t end with children. A 2009 survey by Essilor of America of 3,000 surveyed adults found 40 percent admitting that glasses made people look smarter, as well as 74 percent associating bespectacled individuals with the librarian profession (teachers a close second at 71 percent).
It’s difficult to dismiss that people who are nearsighted are smarter as false, but, then again, there’s little evidence to argue for it. Culturally, I believe the stereotype will hold strong for many years to come, and maybe, one day, will be proven by science.