Theories of Multiple Intelligences – Which Kind of Clever Are You?

An exploration into the theory of multiple intelligences

Some of us are exceptional at math but wouldn’t even know where to look for a semibreve. Some of us can play Rachmaninoff’s Third with our eyes closed, yet can’t recall the eight times table. Everyone has different strengths , or as these are sometimes scientifically termed, intellects. One of the best-known documentations of intelligence types is Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Here, we look into Gardner’s much-quoted work, the eight types of intelligence he defines, and how the theory has stood up to criticism over time.

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences

In 1983, American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner released his theory of multiple intelligences. It describes his belief that there is an extensive range of cognitive abilities, between which correlations are often tenuous. Gardner explains intelligence as “the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural settings” (Gardner & Hatch, 1989), and he used eight criteria for identifying a characteristic as an intelligence: “potential isolation by brain damage; the existence of idiot savants , prodigies and other exceptional individuals; an identifiable core operation or set of operations; a distinctive development history, along with a definable set of ‘end-state’ performances; an evolutionary history and evolutionary plausibility; support from experimental psychological tasks; support from psychometric findings; and susceptibility to encoding in a symbol system.” Below are the seven abilities originally marked out by Gardner to meet his criteria (with an eighth addition and ninth consideration), and a short description of what each means. See which one is most applicable to you.



The kind of intelligence most associated with scientists and mathematicians, logical-mathematical people are adept at analyzing problems logically, recognizing patterns which may seem obscure to others, and having the ability to work out complex calculations. Perhaps this is recognized as the most “traditional” form of intelligence, and repeatedly conjures a “nerdy” stereotype.



Attributed to many designers and architects, spatial intelligence is simply that the ability to understand and appreciate space, often in the mind’s eye. Interestingly, it has also been said that this is the type of intelligence pilots often possess; presumably this comes particularly useful when positioning a plane for landing on a runway.



It wouldn’t be hard to draw up a list of famous people whose major intelligence falls into this category. Rhythm is a key learning device when growing up, and those with musical intelligence never let go of this understanding sometimes even craving for it, along with tone, pitch, and sounds in general.



Those with interpersonal intelligence are not necessarily the most effervescent in any given group; rather, they can empathize with others and bring out the best in them by adjusting their approach as needed. Teachers, politicians and sales people are among those with excellent interpersonal intelligence.



Words and languages are the fixation for people with linguistic intelligence; they are often able to express themselves beyond satisfactorily, sometimes even poetically, and can often string together an excellent story. Gardner cites writers, poets, lawyers and speakers among this group.



Here is Gardner’s group for the sportsmen, dancers, soldiers, construction workers and various others who best express themselves through physicality. These are the people who frequently learn best through doing rather than being told.



This intelligence was added to the list in 1999. If you love the great outdoors, feel on a par with your pets, or hold great concerns about the future of the environment, your main intelligence type may well be naturalistic.



A potential ninth addition to the list, and perhaps the least understood type of intelligence (for people who don’t possess it themselves), existential intellect involves a capacity to contemplate phenomena that are as yet not understood by science or other worldly knowledge. Career paths of those with existential intelligence sometimes follow cosmologist, psychologist, shaman, and interestingly, mathematician and scientist.

How useful is Gardner’s theory?

Gardner’s theory has always been met with mixed critical response. At the positive end of the spectrum, it has been fully embraced by some. As a piece on claims: “A number of schools in North America have looked to structure curricula according to the intelligences, and to design classrooms and even whole schools to reflect the understandings that Howard Gardner develops.” Indeed, New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, has been preaching Gardner’s theory since 1988. However, the theory has its doubters. “To date there have been no published studies that offer evidence of the validity of the multiple intelligences,” says a 2006 study of Gardner’s theory, going on to claim that “the human brain is unlikely to function via Gardner’s multiple intelligences.” Gardner’s theory has its rivals as well as its critics; American psychologist Robert Sternberg prefers a “triarchic theory” in which intelligence is divided into the analytical, the creative and the practical. In another theory, Andreas Demetriou decides that Gardner’s theory fails to fully address factors that might affect the eight intelligences, such as speed of processing, working memory, and self-awareness and self-regulation.

Having read about the multiple intelligences, you may have found that either you were compatible with many of the classifications, or maybe that you didn’t feel comfortable fully partnered with any at all. Conversely, you might have felt relieved to discover that a presumed lack of intelligence on your part actually meant you were looking for it in the wrong place. There will almost certainly never be a conclusive investigation into what intelligence really is, simply because it will always be categorized differently by different people. But if nothing else, Gardner’s theory is reassuring evidence that we’re all good at something.