Why some places might have better cognitive skills than others.

In the knowledge age, "smart" cities and metros have a considerable economic advantage. Economists like Harvard's Edward Glaeser have shown how urban and regional economic growth turn on education levels or so-called "human capital" (measured by the share of adults who hold college degrees). Others show the connections between knowledge and creative jobs, innovation, and economic growth. Still others focus on the role of specific skills — knowledge, social, and physical — in economic and urban development (a subject I covered back in October 2011 for The Atlantic.)

But what about more direct measures of "brain performance"?

Last year, I mapped America's "brainiest" metros, using new measures and rankings developed by Lumos Labs via their online brain-performance program, Lumosity. Since Lumosity allows you to track your performance, you can actually see if you're improving or backsliding.

This year's analysis is significantly expanded, based on data from 2.4 million users. The rankings cover five key cognitive areas: memory, processing speed, flexibility, attention, and problem solving. (See their cool interactive map here.) The data was normalized into a basic brain performance index controlling for age and gender. Location data comes from the players' IP addresses, and scores were aggregated to the city and metro level.

Only regions with 500 or more users were included and the full data set covers 478 core-based statistical areas, which include metropolitan and micropolitan areas. It's important to point out that the data are based on Lumosity users and likely skew toward more highly educated and affluent individuals.

My Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Zara Matheson mapped the rankings data.

The map above shows the pattern for metros; the list below shows the top 25 brainiest CBSAs based on Lumosity rankings. Ithaca, New York, takes first place, followed by State College, Pennsylvania, and Lafayette-West Lafayette, Indiana, in third; Iowa City, Iowa, is fourth, and Ames, Iowa, is fifth.

Top 25 Brainiest Metros (Core-based Statistical Areas)

  1. Ithaca, New York (Cornell University)
  2. State College, Pennsylvania (Penn State)
  3. Lafayette-West Lafayette, Indiana (Purdue University)
  4. Iowa City, Iowa (University of Iowa)
  5. Ames, Iowa (Iowa State University of Science and Technology)
  6. Ann Arbor, Michigan (University of Michigan)
  7. Bloomington, Indiana (Indiana University Bloomington)
  8. Madison, Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
  9. Lawrence, Kansas (University of Kansas)
  10. Pullman, Washington (Washington State University)
  11. College Station-Bryan, Texas (Texas A&M University)
  12. Appleton, Wisconsin (Lawrence University)
  13. Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
  14. Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford, Virginia (Virginia Tech, Radford University)
  15. Charlottesville, Virginia (University of Virginia)
  16. Boulder, Colorado (University of Colorado Boulder)
  17. Provo-Orem, Utah (Brigham Young University)
  18. Harrisonburg, Virginia (James Madison University, Eastern Mennonite University)
  19. Rolla, Missouri (Missouri University of Science and Technology)
  20. Houghton, Michigan (Michigan Technological University)
  21. Muncie, Indiana (Ball State University)
  22. Corvallis, Oregon (Oregon State University)
  23. Boone, North Carolina (Appalachian State University)
  24. Logan, Utah-Indiana (Utah State University)
  25. Stillwater, Oklahoma (Oklahoma State University)

The top 25 are mainly smaller metros and college towns (the name of major college or university is noted in parentheses).

Lumosity data scientist Daniel Sternberg explains the prominence of college towns this way:

College towns tend to do well because education is correlated with cognitive performance. We've seen in our other research that those with advanced degrees tend to perform better cognitively throughout the lifespan. When we looked at some trends based on American Community Survey data, we found that the percentage of individuals within a metro area with advanced degrees, and the percentage of individuals within a CBSA pursuing advanced degrees were both strong predictors of the cognitive performance score for that metro area.

While we usually think of the knowledge economy as having a strong bi-coastal orientation, most of Lumosity's top 25 brainiest places are in the Midwest.

The table below shows the 20 highest ranked large metros (those with over one million people) on Lumosity's overall cognitive performance index. The table also includes their overall rank among all CBSAs on this measure. Milwaukee is the highest-ranked large metro. Minneapolis-St. Paul is second, Boston third, Pittsburgh fourth, and Indianapolis fifth. Kansas City, Rochester, Seattle, Cincinnati, and Austin round out the top 10 among large metros. San Francisco is 11th, San Jose (the Silicon Valley) 13th, and D.C. 14th among large metros.

Top 20 Large Metros (over one million people)
Rank Metro Index Score Overall Rank
1 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, Wisconsin 102.6 26
2 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, Minneapolis-Wisconsin 102.4 33
3 Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Massachusetts 102.1 49
4 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 102.0 53
5 Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, Indiana 101.9 60
6 Kansas City, Missouri-Kansas 101.6 85
7 Rochester, New York 101.5 89
8 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Washington 101.5 90
9 Cincinnati, Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana 101.4 100
10 Austin-Round Rock, Texas 101.3 112
11 San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California 101.3 114
12 Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 100.9 151
13 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California 100.9 153
14 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-Virginia 100.9 154
15 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, Oregon-Washington 100.9 155
16 Cleveland-Elyria, Ohio 100.8 162
17 Columbus, Ohio 100.7 179
18 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin 100.6 188
19 Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, New York 100.6 190
20 Philadelphia, Pennsylania 100.6 197

Sternberg explains that larger metros tend to do less well in part because of their diverse populations. "College towns may have a higher density of the types of individuals who are likely to become part of a knowledge economy (and academic researchers certainly form part of this economy), as well as advanced degrees, whereas big cities such as the New York metro, and even the Bay Area have a much more varied population," he writes.

There is likely to be considerable variation across neighborhoods within large metros, which is not possible to get at with current IP-based geolocation data.

This second map shows the top metros for people under 35 years of age, and the list below shows the top 10 CBSAs including metros and micros. Again note the strong presence of college towns, especially those with large state universities.

 Top 10 Brainiest CBSAs for People 35 Years of Age and Under

  1. Ithaca, New York (Cornell University)
  2. State College, Pennsylvani (Penn State)
  3. Kirksville, Missouri
  4. Lafayette-West Lafayette, Indiana (Purdue University)
  5. Ann Arbor, Michigan (University of Michigan)
  6. Charlottesville, Virginia (University of Virginia)
  7. Madison, Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
  8. Burlington, North Carolina
  9. Bloomington, Indiana (Indiana University Bloomington)
  10. Iowa City, Iowa (University of Iowa)

The list below details the top 10 cities on Luminosity's overall cognitive performance index. Again college towns predominate, though this time cities and towns on the coasts do much better (again we list major universities and colleges in parentheses).

Top 10 Brainiest Cities

  1. Stanford, California (Stanford University)
  2. Princeton, New Jersey (Princeton University)
  3. Storrs Mansfield, Connecticut (University of Connecticut)
  4. Evanston, Illinois (Northwestern University)
  5. Cambridge, Massachusetts (Harvard and MIT)
  6. La Jolla, California (University of California, San Diego)
  7. Amherst, Massachusetts (Amherst College, Hampshire College, University of Massachusetts Amherst)
  8. West Lafayette, Indiana (Purdue University)
  9. Ithaca, New York (Cornell University)
  10. Davis, California (University of California, Davis)

All of the top 10 cities are also college towns, not surprisingly: Stanford; Princeton; University of Connecticut; Northwestern; Harvard and MIT; University of California, San Diego; Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Hampshire College; Purdue University; Cornell; and the University of California, Davis.

The lists below show the top-five rankings for each of the five key cognitive performance categories: attention, flexibility, memory, problem solving, and speed. While there are differences across these dimensions, several metros score in the top five across multiple categories: State College (5), Ithaca (4), Ann Arbor (2), Lafayette-West Lafayette (2), and Appleton (2).

Attention: the ability to concentrate on relevant information while ignoring irrelevant information

  1. Appleton, Wisconsin
  2. Sunbury, Pennsylvania
  3. State College, Pennsylvania
  4. Brainerd, Minnesota
  5. Whitewater-Elkhorn, Wisconsin

Flexibility: the ability to switch between cognitive processes

  1. Ithaca, New York
  2. State College, Pennsylvania
  3. Boone, North Carolina
  4. Iowa City, Iowa
  5. Ann Arbor, Michigan

Memory: the ability to hold and recall information

  1. Appleton, Wisconsin
  2. State College, Pennsylvania
  3. Lafayette-West Lafayette, Indiana
  4. Stevens Point, Wisconsin
  5. Ithaca, New York

Problem Solving: the ability to make quick accurate decisions

  1. Ithaca, New York
  2. Lafayette-West Lafayette, Indiana
  3. Ames, Iowa
  4. State College, Pennsylvania
  5. Champaign-Urbana, IL

Speed: the time it takes to receive and respond to incoming information

  1. Ithaca, New York
  2. Bloomington, Indiana
  3. Ann Arbor, Michigan
  4. Corvallis, Oregon
  5. State College, Pennsylvania

My colleague Charlotta Mellander looked into whether or not Lumosity's cognitive performance index associated with various economic and demographic characteristics of metros. As usual, I point out that correlation does not equal causation. Still, several interesting findings emerge.

Cognitive performance as measured by Lumosity is closely associated with several key dimensions of regional innovation, skill and economic performance, according to her analysis. Income is one, with a positive correlation (.44) between it and cognitive performance. Education is also associated with cognitive performance (with a correlation of .60). Cognitive performance is associated with regional innovation measured as patents per capita (.63). Cognitive performance at the metro level is also associated with the kinds of work people do, being correlated with the share of workers in knowledge, professional, and creative jobs (.41), and two occupations in particular: the share of science and tech workers (.40) and the share of workers in arts, culture, media and entertainment jobs (.52). Lastly, cognitive performance is more modestly associated with density, measured as population-weighted density, (with a correlation of .23).

Top image: Dragon Images/; All maps by MPI's Zara Matheson.

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