The Neuroscience of Intelligences

When the theory of multiple intelligences was proposed thirty five years ago, I drew on evidence from a number of different disciplines and fields.  By far the most dramatic source of evidence emanated from studies of brain functioning.  I had worked for years in a neurological clinic. In that setting, I had the opportunity both to observe individuals who had an ability destroyed, or spared, in isolation; and through the instrumentation of CT scans, to determine which areas of the brain had been destroyed or spared in cases of specific deficits or preserved strengths. If anything set apart my theory from that of other theories of intelligence, it was the culling of information about the brain basis and loci of specific intellectual capacities.

In the intervening years, far more sophisticated measures of brain activity are available, several ‘in vivo’.  Through PET scans, MRI, and other measures, we have far more detailed and specific information about brain involvement in various cognitive activities.

Taking advantage of these new measures, Branton Shearer and Jessica Karnian have carried out a very intriguing study. They have examined the cognitive neuroscience literature to find references to activities associated with each of the several intelligences; and then they have gathered the information in a paper “The Neuroscience of Intelligences: Empirical Support for the Theory of Multiple Intelligences”. The paper was presented recently at the annual meeting of the International Mind Brain and Education Society in Toronto.








As the authors interpret the data, the large body of literature provides support for the validity of MI theory.  Obviously this conclusion pleases me.  But more important than a confirmation of specific claims is the re-opening of the question of neural bases for different cognitive activities, and how that evidence relates to claims about “general” intelligence.  All scientists understand that their particular claims are likely to be modified;  we hope to have contributed a significant element to our emerging understandings. Below, please find a set of slides describing their study. Click on the images to enlarge them.

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Howard Gardner Discusses His Views on Stupidity

Howard Gardner was asked for his views on stupidity. He decided to begin by describing various connotations of the word ‘intelligent’ and then distinguished among three forms of stupidity. The following are his thoughts on the matter.


I begin with the recognition that intelligence can be defined in three separate ways:

 1) Intelligence as a property of all animals. 

Unless grossly impaired, all human beings have certain problem-solving capacities—as do monkeys, dogs, mice, and even invertebrates. This was the sense of intelligence as it was studied by Jean Piaget in the middle of the 20th century. (He wrote many books about human intelligence).

 2) Intelligence as individual difference.

On any dimension, some human beings will be ‘smarter’ than others. This is the sense of intelligence that was first studied systematically by Alfred Binet over a century ago, when he created the first intelligence (or IQ) tests.

This is the sense of intelligence which I have challenged in my own research and writing. Whereas Binet (and, for that matter, Piaget) thought that they were investigating all of intelligence, I believe that they were largely investigating only two forms of intelligence—linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence. My research has indicated that human beings have several more forms of intelligence, including musical intelligence, bodily intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, spatial intelligence, the emotional intelligence studied by Daniel Goleman, etc. An individual’s’ strength in one form of intelligence—say, musical—has little predictive value with respect to other forms of intelligence—say linguistic or interpersonal intelligence.

 3) Intelligence as the way that a person approaches problems or projects.

You can have two persons who have equally strong linguistic intelligence. They would perform equally well on a test of language comprehension or language production. But one person may constantly put his foot in his mouth, interrupt other people, say ill-considered things, write foolish letters or not write at all, choose never to learn a foreign language. The other person, with the same test performance data, may consider very carefully before he speaks, compose letters with great care, listen carefully to others, apply himself to the study of foreign languages.

So, given these three senses of intelligence, what can be said about stupidity?

With respect to the first sense, we cannot speak about stupidity of a particular person or a particular animal. What we can say is that birds are less smart than human beings in certain respects (e.g. less able to fix a broken machine) but smarter with respect to other capacities (for example, navigating their way through unfamiliar space).

With respect to the second sense, we no longer say that A is stupider than B. Instead we say that with respect to two forms of intelligence, A is smarter than B; with respect to three other forms of intelligence, B is smarter than A; and with respect to still other forms of intelligence, they are equally smart, or equally stupid.

With respect to the third sense, I would say that the first person is using his linguistic intelligence stupidly, while the second person is using his linguistic intelligence very cleverly, very smartly.

Summary: My analysis indicates that the word ‘stupid’ should not be used as a general characterization of a person, or of any other animal. We need to take into account which forms of intelligence are being discussed, and whether—given a certain degree of that intelligence—the person is using it cleverly or foolishly. I suspect that is the meaning of ‘stupid’ is the one that people usually have in mind.

But people may differ a lot in what they consider to be a smart use of a capacity. For example, to use an instance from the political scene in France today, some people may feel that Marine Le Pen is her linguistic intelligence cleverly, while others may feel that Marine Le Pen is using her linguistic intelligence stupidly. At issue here is the Value System of the person who employs the words ‘smart’ and ‘stupid.’

-Howard Gardner