Theory of Multiple Intelligences

When Howard Gardner introduced his multiple intelligences theory 35 years ago, it was a revolutionary idea that challenged long-cherished beliefs.

At the time, psychologists were interested in general intelligence—a person’s ability to solve problems and apply logical reasoning across a wide range of disciplines. Popularized in part by the IQ test, which was originally developed in the early 1900s to assess a child’s ability to “understand, reason, and make judgments,” the idea of general intelligence helped explain why some students seemed to excel at many subjects. Gardner found the concept too limiting.

“Most lay and scholarly writings about intelligence focus on a combination of linguistic and logical intelligences. The particular intellectual strengths, I often maintain, of a law professor,” Gardner explains. Having grown up playing piano, Gardner wondered why the arts weren’t included in discussions about intelligence. As a graduate student studying psychology in the 1960s, he felt “struck by the virtual absence of any mention of the arts in the key textbooks.”

That doubt planted the seed that grew into Gardner’s big insight: The prevailing idea of a single, monolithic intelligence didn’t match the world he observed. Surely Mozart’s genius was partially, but not fully, explained by an extraordinary musical intelligence. And wasn’t it the case that all people demonstrated a wide range of intellectual capabilities—from linguistic to social to logical—that were often mutually reinforcing, and that ebbed and flowed over time based on a person’s changing interests and efforts?

Those hypotheses have largely been confirmed by recent studies from the fields of neuroscience. A 2015 study, for example, upends the centuries-old idea that reading occurs in distinct areas of the brain; scientists have discovered, instead, that language processing “involves all of the regions of the brain, because it involves all cognitive functioning of humans”—not just visual processing but also attention, abstract reasoning, working memory, and predicting, to name a few. And a growing body of evidence has dramatically altered our understanding of brain development, revealing that we continue to grow and change intellectually well into adulthood.

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  • Spatial intelligence refers to the ability to represent the spatial world internally in our minds--the way a sailor or airplane pilot navigates the large spatial world, or the way a chess player or sculptor represents a more circumscribed spatial world. Spatial intelligence can be used in the arts or in the sciences. If you are spatially intelligent and oriented toward the arts, you are more likely to become a painter or a sculptor or an architect than, say, a musician or a writer. Similarly, certain sciences like anatomy or topology emphasize spatial intelligence, as does geography.

    • Visual Menu: Chart, map, cluster, or graph; Create a slide show, videotape, or photo album of; Create a piece of art that demonstrates ; Invent a board or card game to demonstrate; Illustrate, draw, paint, sketch, or sculpt. 2

  • Linguistic intelligence is the capacity to use language, our native language, and perhaps other languages, to express what's on our mind and to understand other people. Poets really specialize in linguistic intelligence, but any kind of writer, orator, speaker, lawyer, or a person for whom language is an important stock in trade highlights linguistic intelligence.

    • Linguistic Menu: Use storytelling to explain; Conduct a debate on; Write a poem, myth, legend, short play, or news article about; Create a talk show radio program about; Conduct an interview of on.

  • Interpersonal intelligence is understanding other people. It's an ability we all need, but is at a premium if you are a teacher, clinician, salesperson, or politician. Anybody who deals with other people has to be skilled in the interpersonal sphere.

    • Interpersonal Menu: Conduct a meeting to address; Use social skills to learn about; Participate in a service project to; Teach someone about; Practice giving and receiving feedback on; Use technology to.

  • Intrapersonal intelligence refers to having an understanding of yourself, of knowing who you are, what you can do, what you want to do, how you react to things, which things to avoid, and which things to gravitate toward. We are drawn to people who have a good understanding of themselves because those people tend not to screw up. They tend to know what they can do. They tend to know what they can't do. And they tend to know where to go if they need help.

    • Intrapersonal Menu: Describe qualities you possess that will help you successfully complete; Set and pursue a goal to; Describe one of your personal values about; Write a journal entry on; Assess your own work in.

  • People with a highly developed logical-mathematical intelligence understand the underlying principles of some kind of a causal system, the way a scientist or a logician does; or can manipulate numbers, quantities, and operations, the way a mathematician does.

    • Logical-Mathematical Menu: Translate a process into a mathematical formula; Design and conduct an experiment on; Make up syllogisms to demonstrate; Make up analogies to explain; describe the patterns or symmetry in.

  • Musical intelligence is the capacity to think in music, to be able to hear patterns, recognize them, remember them, and perhaps manipulate them. People who have a strong musical intelligence don't just remember music easily--they can't get it out of their minds, it's so omnipresent. Now, some people will say, "Yes, music is important, but it's a talent, not an intelligence." And I say, "Fine, let's call it a talent." But, then we have to leave the word intelligent out of all discussions of human abilities. You know, Mozart was damned smart!

    • Musical Menu: Give a presentation with appropriate musical accompaniment on; Sing a rap or song that explains; Indicate the rhythmical patterns in; Explain how the music of a song is similar to; Make an instrument and use it to demonstrate.

  • Bodily kinesthetic intelligence is the capacity to use your whole body or parts of your body--your hand, your fingers, your arms--to solve a problem, make something, or put on some kind of a production. The most evident examples are people in athletics or the performing arts, particularly dance or acting.

    • BodilyKinesthetic Menu: Create a movement or sequence of movements to explain; Make task or puzzle cards for; Build or construct a; Plan and attend a field trip that will; Bring hands-on materials to demonstrate.

  • Naturalist intelligence designates the human ability to discriminate among living things (plants, animals) as well as sensitivity to other features of the natural world (clouds, rock configurations). This ability was clearly of value in our evolutionary past as hunters, gatherers, and farmers; it continues to be central in such roles as botanist or chef. I also speculate that much of our consumer society exploits the naturalist intelligences, which can be mobilized in the discrimination among cars, sneakers, kinds of makeup, and the like. The kind of pattern recognition valued in certain of the sciences may also draw upon naturalist intelligence.

    • Naturalist Menu: Create observation notebooks of; Describe changes in the local or global environment; Care for pets, wildlife, gardens, or parks; Use binoculars, telescopes, microscopes, or magnifiers to; Draw or photograph natural objects.