Can Neuroscience Provide Empirical Support for MI Theory?

In March 2017, Dr. Branton Shearer and Dr. Jessica Karanian published a paper titled The Neuroscience of Intelligence: Empirical Support for the Theory of Multiple Intelligences? in Trends in Neuroscience and Education, Volume 6. In the paper, Dr. Shearer and Dr. Karanian use neuroscience to provide empirical support for the theory of multiple intelligences. The abstract for the article appears below:

Abstract

The concept of intelligence has been strongly debated since introduction of IQ tests in the early 1900s. Numerous alternatives to unitary intelligence have achieved limited acceptance by both psychologists and educators. Despite criticism that it lacks empirical validity, multiple intelligences theory (Gardner, H. (1983, 1993) Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences, New York: Basic Books), has had sustained interest on the part of educators worldwide. MI theory was one of the first formulations about intelligence to be based on neuroscience evidence. This investigation reviewed 318 neuroscience reports to conclude that there is robust evidence that each intelligence possesses neural coherence. Implications for using MI theory as a bridge between cognitive neuroscience and instruction are discussed.

 

To read the full publication, visit the following site: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211949317300030

Three Messages from the “MI Front”

Nowadays, most of my energies are devoted to new projects. With Wendy Fischman and other colleagues, I am studying higher education in the United States. And with Lynn Barendsen, Danny Mucinskas, and other colleagues, I am continuing work on The Good Project. In particular, we’re focused on the fostering of good work and good citizenship in young people… and in the rest of us. You can follow those lines of work at thegoodproject.org and howardgardner.com.

That said, to this day, approximately 80% of my over-the-transom mail concerns the theory of multiple intelligences—and I can confidently predict that when I die, obituaries will feature MI. As for the MI queries, I direct people to FAQ on this site, to various readings, or to colleagues who continue to work, broadly speaking in the MI tradition. And occasionally, I provide answers myself and may post them on this site.

In the last weeks, three items have come to my attention and I thought it worthwhile to mention them:

Neural networks dedicated to social processing

When MI theory was first introduced, almost 35 years ago, the most convincing line of evidence was the existence in the brain of specific neural zones that are particularly dedicated to specific kinds of contents. At the time, the neural evidence was quite schematic, because methods of monitoring the brain were still quite rough and imprecise. Nowadays, it is possible to get far more precise evidence—and in a recent article in Science magazine, we find evidence of the neural systems in monkeys dedicated specifically to the content of social information. For a non-technical summary, click here.

In this context, I should also mention the work of Branton Shearer and Jessica Karanian who have provided far more up-to-date information about the neural correlates of each of the several intelligences. See this link.

Genes for intelligence

Ever since the concept of genes were introduced early in the 20th century, at about the same time that the psychometric examination of intelligence was launched, investigators have searched for the gene or the genes of intelligence. As with the discovery of evidence for neural correlates of specific intelligences (like interpersonal intelligence), the physicality of a biological marker is persuasive particularly (as it happens) to American audiences.

It’s long been clear that there are genes for intelligence, as measured by psychologists (“g” for general intelligence), and it’s also been clear that many genes are involved—often hundreds or even thousands have been cited.

Nonetheless, as reported in Nature Genetics on May 22, it is progress in the genetics of intelligence that recently 52 genes have been identified as contributing to psychometric intelligence. It’s estimated that these genes account for 5% of the variance in measured intellect—of course, leaving 95% unaccounted for.

I have to emphasize that this discovery does not have any particular relevance to MI theory. We still have little idea of whether strength in, say, musical, or spatial, or interpersonal (social) intellect is based largely, somewhat, or minimally on psychometric intellect. And that is because psychometric intellect is primarily a measure of linguistic and logical abilities, with spatial abilities sometimes included as well.

My own speculation is that there will be some overlap, but there will clearly be specific genes or gene complex that are implicated in one intelligence, and that these will not be identical with those genes or gene complex are implicated in other intelligences. Put concretely, the genes that contribute to traditional IQ will be different from those that contribute to musical or athletic or social talent.

And even if I am wrong, even if the correlation across intelligences turns out to be quite high, this fact does not undermine MI theory. And that is because we still need to understand why specific individuals can be strong in intelligences A and B, and not in C , D, or E, while others can exhibit the opposite profile. And the explanation is likely to lie in the importance (or unimportance) attached to a specific skill in a given society, the amount of resources devoted to its cultivation, and the excellence of the teaching and modelling. Put concretely, if a society values music, teaches it well, and individuals are highly motivated, the population will be musically intelligent as a whole—think Finland, think Hungary.

I believe that we will continue to accrue evidence for the scientific validity of MI theory. But in the end, its status as a scientific claim is not identical to its significance for education. The latter goal has to be determined by teachers, and others involved in education—which, as it happens, is all of us.

An unlikely award for me

On May 26, I learned by email that I had been selected as the 2017 winner of the Mensa Lifetime Achievement Award, for “contributions to the field of human intelligence and related subjects.” It’s always pleasurable to get an award and particularly one that was not expected. Moreover, I looked over the previous winners and they are all respectable scholars of intelligence.

Still, the receipt of the award has a certain irony. Mensa is the organization for individuals who have documented high IQs—and if I am known at all within psychology, it is as a critic of the concept of IQ, particularly as a variable used to explain a whole cluster of human outcomes. Moreover, I have sometimes quipped that individuals in Mensa spend time congratulating one another on their high IQ scores—a comment that is not a sign of respect, I have to admit.

But I would never have studied cognition, and would never have developed and enunciated a theory of intelligence, if I did not think that the topic was an important one—indeed, one of the most importance in psychology. And in that vein, I am happy to accept the award and to hope that, going forward, we can continue to explore the relationship between the traditional views of intellect, and more iconoclastic ones, like the one to which this site is dedicated.

-Howard Gardner

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.

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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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