Along with youth, beauty and wealth, our culture places a high premium on intelligence, which is generally seen as a fairly concrete trait. People are smart or they’re not, and psychologists and educators have a slew of standardized tests used to gauge a person’s intellect. The terms IQ, general intelligence, general cognitive ability and general mental ability are all used to refer to what cognitive tests measure — which is primarily an evaluation of mathematical skill, verbal fluency and spatial visualization.
But what about a musical genius who does poorly with spelling or a brilliant linguist who has a hard time with fractions? How does the standard idea of “general intelligence” account for those with obvious gifts, but who may not score well across the board on standardized tests? The general intelligence model is defined by a relatively narrow spectrum of skills, which seems really limiting when you think about it. What if intelligence could be quantified in a more qualitative and open-minded way?
This is where Dr. Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor of neuroscience from Harvard University, was going when he developed the theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) in 1983. Gardner challenged the old-school education and cognitive science thinking that says people are born with a general cognitive ability that can be easily measured by short-answer tests. In contrast, MI provided a new theory in which there are eight different kinds of intelligence that reflect different ways of interacting with the world — and each person has a unique blend of these intelligences.
The official Multiple Intelligences website describes them in the following ways:
1. Spatial: The ability to conceptualize and manipulate large-scale spatial arrays (for example, an airplane pilot or sailor), or more local forms of space (for example, an architect or chess player).
2. Bodily-kinesthetic: The ability to use one’s whole body, or parts of the body (like the hands or the mouth), to solve problems or create products (for example, a dancer).
3. Musical: Sensitivity to rhythm, pitch, meter, tone, melody and timbre. May entail the ability to sing, play musical instruments, and/or compose music (for example, a musical conductor).
4. Linguistic: Sensitivity to the meaning of words, the order among words, and the sound, rhythms, inflections, and meter of words (for example, a poet).
5. Logical-mathematical: The capacity to conceptualize the logical relations among actions or symbols (for example, a mathematician or scientist). Famed psychologist Jean Piaget believed he was studying the range of intelligences, but he was actually studying logical-mathematical intelligence.
6. Interpersonal: The ability to interact effectively with others. Sensitivity to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments and motivations (for example, a negotiator).
7. Intrapersonal: Sensitivity to one’s own feelings, goals, and anxieties, and the capacity to plan and act in light of one’s own traits. Intrapersonal intelligence is not particular to specific careers; rather, it's a goal for every individual in a complex modern society, where one has to make consequential decisions for oneself.
8. Naturalistic: The ability to make consequential distinctions in the world of nature as, for example, between one plant and another, or one cloud formation and another (for example, a taxonomist).
It’s unfortunate that Gardner’s thinking hasn’t been more widely accepted in academic circles; its detractors say it is subjective and arbitrary … among other complaints about the theory. But even if cognitive psychologists decide it doesn’t play into their set of rules about what intelligence is and is not, it remains a beautiful way to consider the people in our lives and those who we admire — even if our understanding of the deeper mechanics of psychometrics is simple. How lovely to say that Jack is brilliant because of his acute understanding of trees and clouds or that June is a genius because of her “Spider Sense” for music, even if both of them utterly tanked on their SATs.
If we were to celebrate these other abilities as components of intelligence, not only could education become more welcoming and inclusive, but the world would become a smarter and more accepting place. In the meantime, try thinking about people you know — and yourself — in light of the eight types of intelligence. Chances are, the insight will be enlightening.
You can read more about the topic in Gardner’s book: "Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences."