Intelligence is Not All or None

Don't be tricked into thinking that you or your child is either intelligent or not. Intelligence doesn't work on an all or none principle. Anyone can be smart in one area and not in others. Intelligence is as diverse as are our brains and there are many ways in which intelligences presents itself. I'm glad I know that as a parent, teacher, coach, and generally as someone who interacts in the world. I want others to understand it too. 

Let’s start with a brief overview of intelligence from a psychology perspective. As I progressed through my formal education in psychology (from 1992 - 2005), I was not privy to the idea that there may be multiple ways in which we are intelligent. I learned about "general intelligence", denoted as the "g factor” and measured with a few different tests, giving us the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). There was an inkling that intelligence might be more than just one thing. For example, a difference between fluid intelligence (the ability to reason and solve problems) and crystallized intelligence (general knowledge and vocabulary-type things) existed. During the 1990s a 3-layer hierarchy theory of intelligence was put forth by Cattell, Horn, and Carroll, which further included comprehension-knowledge, quantitative knowledge, reading & writing, short-term memory, long-term storage and retrieval, visual processing, auditory processing, processing speed, and decision/reaction time/speed (see below for definitions). These intelligences were also subdivided into narrow (i.e., specific) intelligences within each of those categories (also listed below). Cattell, Horn, and Carrol’s narrow intelligence is a great example of how neuroscience and cognitive psychology merge to better understand human intelligence, as a result of the neuroscience boom of the 1990s.

Multiple Intelligence

Theory by Howard Gardner

I’m particularly fond of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence because I think it has the most practical value for parents/teachers/caregivers reflecting on a child’s strengths or their own. They aren’t mutually exclusive with Cattell, Horn, and Carrol’s theory per se but Gardner’s intelligences are easier to conceptualize as a non-scientist. For example, the idea of being musically intelligent and how we understand rhythm (musical-rhythmic intelligence) or visually and how we understand the space around us (visuo-spatial intelligence). We could also be intelligent with our body (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence) or how we interact with others (interpersonal, social, or emotional intelligence) or how we understand ourselves (intrapersonal and self-awareness intelligence). We could also be intelligent about the natural world (naturalistic intelligence) or about how we exist in the universe (existential or spiritual intelligence) or through our understanding of morality (moral intelligence). Or course, the theory also included some of the traditional intelligences like mathematical-logical intelligence and verbal-linguistic intelligence. See below for specific descriptions. Together, these intelligences can form a unique picture of intelligence for any given person, with each of showing more or less of each. 

This idea that intelligence is diverse jives well with me as a neuroscientist who appreciates the different brain capacities that exist too. And this theoretical understanding of intelligence was reinforced as I began to apply it to some real people in my life. I remember one good friend I played hockey with, whom I often referred to as an “athletic genius”. If she’s reading right now, she knows who she is! I also remember a long-term boyfriend who I watched struggle in the traditional school setting while also demonstrating business savyness and entrepreneurship early in his youth. He later went on to become a very successful business executive combining his superior interpersonal/social intelligence and his verbal-storytelling intelligence. I also remember those kids in school who were always drawing stuff and were really good at it. Like ridiculously good. Artistically brilliant in some cases, which demonstrated strong visuospatial intelligence.     

I learned about multiple intelligence as a life coach, offering the theory to clients as an opportunity to consider their own often undervalued intelligence, like the designer who is visual-spatially brilliant — he can remember snapshots of a scene or image with almost photographic memory — but also struggles with a learning disability and has trouble reading. This intelligence of his was not fostered in the traditional academic environment and he spent too long thinking he was not smart. But give him the same information in picture form and he shines brilliantly and has grown into his natural role as a furniture designer. Or the person who is devastated by the injustices of the world and hasn’t yet recognized that this type of deep social understanding is a reflection of their moral intelligence and interpersonal intelligence. Or the person who can’t help but understand the cause-and-effect of a situation, giving them incredible insight into scenarios that unfold around them often frustrated with why others can’t see what they see. I have also spent a significant amount of time self-reflecting on my own intelligence and in the process put into perspective how I felt like a dumb kid in school before going to university yet went on to excel in psychology and neuroscience at the post-secondary level because the school system before then didn’t cater to me. The popular TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson is another way of explaining all of this.

As a parent, considering multiple intelligence has also been useful as a way of both understanding and nurturing a child’s brain and being. As a result, I can confidently say that my child IS very intelligent and not because I am bragging or because I think my child is better. With multiple intelligences as a lens to look at our children or our self we should all be able claim some kind of intelligence proudly. 

I began to notice my child’s bodily-kinesthetic and visuospatial intelligences almost from the day he was born. He was a very busy baby!!! Actually, the technician during one of his ultra-sounds mentioned his busyness, come to think of it! As a baby (and still) he rarely slept. His eyes were often VERY open. We would joke that he never blinked and if he did it was so fast we didn’t notice. People would comment on his odd “altertness” from a very early age. It was constant reinforcement for the fact that we were exhausted by his perpetual awakeness! His body was also always moving. He had strength in his neck early and at 2.5 months I had to put him in the jolly jumper to give myself a break from his exhaustive-to-me energy. He would never settle in any of those things that didn’t allow him to move. Eventually, by 2.5 months, I could get him into a jolly jumper and it was a life saver. He was overjoyed at being able to stand and have greater agency in his world. I would hang things all around him so he could learn how to move his body to get to them. 

By 5.5 months, he was walking with our assistance. He would grab our fingers and lead us away letting himself move his feet and walk his body where he wanted to go. We were helpless to stop it even if we wanted to. By the time he was 8.5 months old, he had taken his first steps unassisted. He was running before he was a year old. I was convinced he did all this because he watched us and could match what our walking bodies were doing. He never crawled and I think it was because he never saw us crawling so had no ability to mimic us. There are many examples that made it clear that he was good and learning to use his body with great skill.

Now in his toddlerhood, we see these intelligences emerge in new ways. His body always seems to know the direction that we go in. He asks to know where we are going and if we deviate in anyway on our route he knows and promptly tells us so, getting agitated if we don’t align his body with what we said we were doing. This is problematic when we are driving or strollering him around simply because we are trying to get him to fall asleep (which, coincidently he does very easily when moving!). The other day, we were in the bus heading North. As we neared the subway station that we were getting off at, the bus turned East and the announcer announced the next stop. Just then he opened up his arms for me to pick him up knowing that we would be getting off soon. He couldn’t see out the windows so I was a bit surprised that he knew we were approaching our stop and so I said to him "do you know that we are getting off soon because you heard them say it or because you feel it in your body?". He replied, “I feel it in body". I was shocked at first but then realized that he probably DID feel it in his body because this is his intelligence. When I quiz him on his sense of direction as we are moving around, most of the time he is right. Similarly, we had recently rearranged his bedroom room leaving his bed now aligned East-West, instead of North-South, which it has been for almost 2 years. For the first 3 nights in this re-arranged room, he slept perpendicular on the bed, which meant that he was laying in the same North-South direction as he had been laying in before. I was convinced that this was because his body naturally aligned itself with what had become his norm for sleeping. 

Knowing where we are in space is a very specific brain skill mediated by the parietal cortex’s sense of body awareness and combined with place cells in the hippocampus and the occipital cortex’s visual skills. It is very clearly represents intelligent brain skills. But my point is not to focus on bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. My point is to engage others with the idea that intelligence is not one single entity but rather, there are multiple intelligences that exists, which are reflected through our unique brain skills.

Thinking about intelligence in a different way can be empowering. The more we know about how our or our little one’s brain thinks, the more we can cater to particular learning styles. For example, I’m so glad that I taught him sign language because he picked it up so easily and continues to use his hands and gestures to explain fairly elaborate concepts. Being able to facilitate the use of his bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to communicate was a gift that I didn’t even know I was giving him at the time. Or maybe my keen interpersonal and self-reflective intelligence did. 😉 

So how do you know what gifts your child possess? Howard Gardner himself claims that there is no one single way to measure these intelligences, although he does refer readers to one website that he thinks is doing a particularly good job (listed below). I like the Index of Learning Styles, listed below, which I use with my university students. I also recently found a good one that combined a personality inventory with cognitive testing. The questions alone I found informative. Like when it asked if I was sensitive to the smoothness and roughness of objects. It made me think about my child and maybe a dark side to his bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence is an over sensitivity to the fabrics he wears. We also recently switched his mattress and he began sleeping through the night for the first time in 2 and a half years. Can’t help but wonder…

Gardner also suggests that self-reflection is a possible way of understanding one’s own intelligence profile and/or combining that with what a teacher/parent/caregiver would say. The inability to properly measure these intelligences is one of the major criticisms of Gardner’s work. But as a scientist myself, I can also appreciate how difficult it is to measure these constructs and how all science begins with simple observation. 

I’ve been working on this problem of how to capture different kinds of intelligences and learning styles in our children with a good friend of mine, Jennifer Chan. You can hear about us discussing the issue on an episode of my Mandyland podcast. 

The issue we are trying to solve is helping parents capture the HOW of learning, recognizing that the WHAT is often the focus. Knowing what someone has learned certainly has value but knowing how someone learns is like teaching someone to fish. It’s about skill development and supporting life long learning skills. Our goal in trying to help parents capture the how is so that parents can be more informed about their child’s learning style and ultimately helping them cater to that learning style and intelligence. This is a strength-based focus on skill development, which has become a popular way of nurturing individual life and learning skills.

For me, capturing idiosyncratic learning comes naturally through deep self- and other-reflection, discussing it, and writing about it… likely because I exhibit signs of interpersonal, intrapersonal, and linguistic intelligence. Jenn, on the other hand wants to visually capture the learning, probably because she is visuospatially intelligent. As we continue to pilot and iterate and test and reflect and document in attempts to capture learning and intelligence, we welcome other people to share their experiences and attempts at this too. If you are equally intrigued by this and want to help us make a tool, please, send us your reflections, documentations, interpretations, photos, videos, etc. of you capturing how your child is learning and what intelligence you are detecting in them.

Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences:

  1. musical-rhythmic - sensitive to sounds, rhythms, patterns, tonnes. Think dancers, composers, choreographers, 
  2. visual-spatial - ability to visualize, remember pictures, judge distances, hold and manipulate images in the mind, navigate through environment, sense of direction.
  3. verbal-linguistic - words, languages, reading, writing, telling stories, poetry, memorizing text and dates, understand written text
  4. logical-mathematical - reasoning, numbers, critical thinking, judgment, abstraction, logic, cause-and-effect
  5. bodily-kinesthetic - ability to control one’s body, know one’s body, know where one’s body is in space, fine more control, gross motor control, ability to handle objects well, makers, athletes, dancers, acting. 
  6. interpersonal - empathy, sensitivity to others, feelings, motivation, cooperation, emotional and social intelligence.
  7. intrapersonal - adept at introspection and self awareness, reflective, understanding of self including strengths and weaknesses, ability to predict self’s actions.
  8. naturalistic - ability to understand the natural world and to work with it, ecological intelligence, understanding humans role within the ecosphere, laws of nature, understanding change and systems. 
  9. existential/spiritual - this one is less clear as Gardner did not include it in his original set of MI. Possibly: deep understanding of energetic and physical laws that govern despite our conventional thinking?
  10. moral - apparently he suggested this one too… but I can’t find much information on it.

Cattell, Horn, and Carrol Broad Intelligences (from Wikipedia)

  • Comprehension-Knowledge (Gc): includes the breadth and depth of a person's acquired knowledge, the ability to communicate one's knowledge, and the ability to reason using previously learned experiences or procedures.
  • Fluid reasoning (Gf): includes the broad ability to reason, form concepts, and solve problems using unfamiliar information or novel procedures.
  • Quantitative knowledge (Gq): is the ability to comprehend quantitative concepts and relationships and to manipulate numerical symbols.
  • Reading & Writing Ability (Grw): includes basic reading and writing skills.
  • Short-Term Memory (Gsm): is the ability to apprehend and hold information in immediate awareness and then use it within a few seconds.
  • Long-Term Storage and Retrieval (Glr): is the ability to store information and fluently retrieve it later in the process of thinking.
  • Visual Processing (Gv): is the ability to perceive, analyze, synthesize, and think with visual patterns, including the ability to store and recall visual representations.
  • Auditory Processing (Ga): is the ability to analyze, synthesize, and discriminate auditory stimuli, including the ability to process and discriminate speech sounds that may be presented under distorted conditions.
  • Processing Speed (Gs): is the ability to perform automatic cognitive tasks, particularly when measured under pressure to maintain focused attention.
  • Decision/Reaction Time/Speed (Gt): reflects the immediacy with which an individual can react to stimuli or a task (typically measured in seconds or fractions of seconds; not to be confused with Gs, which typically is measured in intervals of 2–3 minutes).

Supplementary Information


Fun examples of Bodily-Kinaesthetic Intelligence, IMO: