Objective: To compare cognitive testing scores in neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers to help settle the age old argument of which phrase-"It's not brain surgery" or "It's not rocket science"-is most deserved.
Design: International prospective comparative study.
Setting: United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and Canada.
Participants: 748 people (600 aerospace engineers and 148 neurosurgeons). After data cleaning, 401 complete datasets were included in the final analysis (329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons).
Main outcome measures: Validated online test (Cognitron's Great British Intelligence Test) measuring distinct aspects of cognition, spanning planning and reasoning, working memory, attention, and emotion processing abilities.
Results: The neurosurgeons showed significantly higher scores than the aerospace engineers in semantic problem solving (difference 0.33, 95% confidence interval 0.13 to 0.52). Aerospace engineers showed significantly higher scores in mental manipulation and attention (-0.29, -0.48 to -0.09). No difference was found between groups in domain scores for memory (-0.18, -0.40 to 0.03), spatial problem solving (-0.19, -0.39 to 0.01), problem solving speed (0.03, -0.20 to 0.25), and memory recall speed (0.12, -0.10 to 0.35). When each group's scores for the six domains were compared with those in the general population, only two differences were significant: the neurosurgeons' problem solving speed was quicker (mean z score 0.24, 95% confidence interval 0.07 to 0.41) and their memory recall speed was slower (-0.19, -0.34 to -0.04).
Conclusions: In situations that do not require rapid problem solving, it might be more correct to use the phrase "It's not brain surgery." It is possible that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers are unnecessarily placed on a pedestal and that "It's a walk in the park" or another phrase unrelated to careers might be more appropriate. Other specialties might deserve to be on that pedestal, and future work should aim to determine the most deserving profession.
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