The Neuroscience of Intelligences

Notes by Howard Gardner

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.

New Research Supports Existence of a Music Center in the Brain

Natalie Angier's article New Ways Into the Brain's 'Music Room' discusses new findings from Dr. Nancy Kanwisher and Dr. Josh H. McDermott that suggest that there are neural pathways that react almost exclusively to music. Unlike previous studies that failed to find a distinct, anatomical music center in the brain, Kanwisher and McDermott's study showed that music circuits occupy a different region of the brain's auditory cortex than speech.

When I proposed the theory of multiple intelligences many years ago, one of the most important criteria for the identification of an intelligence was its localization in the brain. To be sure, this was not the only criterion:  some abilities (e.g. face recognition) that are localized are insufficiently broad to qualify as an intelligence;  and some intelligences have a broad or varied representation in the brain.

It’s long been known that musical abilities have a cortical representation that differs from language abilities:  that is why one can have aphasia without amusia, or amusia without aphasia.  But the new approach to brain imaging developed at MI has made a notable discovery; there are distinct neural pathways in the auditory cortex which respond preferentially to the sound of music, and those pathways are clearly different from those that respond to preferentially  to linguistic sounds.  Notable is the testimony of Elizabeth Margulis of the University of Arkansas. She points out that proponents of musical intelligence used to have to claim that music’s specialness derives from its integration of parts of the nervous system that had evolved for other purposes.  But now, says Margulis, “when you peer below the cruder level seen with some methodologies, you find very specific circuitry that responds to music over speech”.

I have always maintained that no single line of evidence can prove or disprove MI theory; there are no decisive experiments. Rather, what determine the validity of the theory is the steady accumulation of empirical evidence from a variety of sources and a variety of sciences.  This research, from the laboratory of distinguished MIT research Nancy Kanwisher, is one more brick of evidence in favor of the edifice of multiple intelligences.

Is the Brain a Computer?

In June of this year, Gary Marcus, an NYU professor and contributor to The New York Times, published a piece entitled "Face It, Your Brain Is a Computer". What follows is Howard Gardner's response to this article.

Notes by Howard Gardner

When I am describing my view of intellect,  I often contrast it with the standard view of intelligence. And I invoke a computer metaphor. The old view posits a single all purpose computer: if it computes well, you are smart in everything; if it compute poorly, well, you are out of luck—all cognitive doors are closed.

My view, in contrast, posits the existence of several computers.  Each computes a certain kind of information in a way appropriate to that computer.  And so the musical computer deals with sounds, rhythms, timbres,  harmonics, while the spatial computer deals with the arrangement of objects or movements in local or global space.  A corollary is that the strength (or weakness) of one computer does not entail similar or different evaluations of the strength of another computer. Person A can be strong in spatial and weak in musical intelligence;  person B can display the opposite profile.

Clearly, the invoking of computers is a metaphor.  No one believes that an IBM computer (or several) or a microchip (or hundreds) is literally located in the skull.  Rather, the argument between Marcus’ view, on the one hand, and my view, on the other, is whether it is more helpful to think of one all purpose computer, or several more specific and more dedicated computers.

An analogy may be helpful . We all learn about the world through our sense organs. But there is a big difference between the claim that all sensory organs work in basically the same way, and the claim that each sensory organ has evolved so as optimally to handle certain kinds of inputs in certain ways.  I find the latter view much more useful.

Marcus raises a broader question (“Does it make sense to think of the brain as a computer?”) and has a simple answer (“Yes it does”).  But as he himself points out, we now recognize different kinds of computer with different kinds of computations. MI theory simply extends this form of conceptualization to the variety of cognitive processes of which human beings are capable.

The Teaching Intelligence: Clues from the Brain

Notes by Howard Gardner

In defining the original intelligences, I laid out a set of eight criteria, deliberately drawn from several research traditions. I evaluated intelligence candidates on the extent to which they fulfilled these eight criteria. Originally, I delineated seven intelligences that became the components of MI theory. Some years later, I became convinced that an eighth intelligence, a naturalist intelligence, warranted inclusion in the list, and I spoke and wrote somewhat whimsically of a possible ninth intelligence—existential intelligence: the intelligence of big questions.

Unless the situation changes, I am no longer in the process of identifying and evaluating candidate intelligences. It is more important that the plurality of intelligences be established than that I put forth the ultimate or final list.

That said, I have been speaking informally about the possibility of an additional intelligence. I’ve termed it the ‘pedagogical intelligence’ or, less formally, the ‘teaching intelligence.’ We all know that two individuals can be equally skilled or knowledgeable in an area, but only one of them proves able to teach it effectively to others. Probing a bit more deeply, we can classify individuals in terms of what they can teach, how they can teach it, and how flexibly they can deploy their pedagogical tricks, depending on the nature and degree of success of a particular occasion of learning.

But there are two factors that I find more compelling. First of all, there is the recent discovery that even very young children are able to teach. The demonstrations are quite compelling. An apparatus or game is presented to the child, and he is given the chance to master that entity. He is then asked to ‘teach’ that game or apparatus to children of two ages: one clearly younger, the other clearly older. Contrary to what many of us would have predicted, even a toddler is aware of the core requirements of teaching: adjusting your pedagogy to the knowledge and skill of the learner(s). We know this to be true because the toddler—say, a child of three or four—will provide far more detail and explanation to a younger child (say, a two year old) than to an older child (say, a five year old). This demonstration fulfills one of the requirements of an intelligence: its existence across all humans, and its variable strength across the human species.

The second factor, even more recent, are brain studies of individuals involved in the act of teaching/learning. This is work described by Lisa Holper and colleagues in their article “The Teaching and the Learning Brain.” Not only does teaching activate quite specific brain structures. More importantly, you can gain evidence on whether teaching is effective by noting the amount of activity in the pre-frontal regions of the cortex and, intriguingly, the consistency of neural patterns between the designated teacher and the designated learner (or, as the authors put it, “dancing at the same pace”). Presumably, an individual with high pedagogical intelligence will more readily adjust her teaching strategies, in light of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the current teaching strategy. In the future, the teacher may be able to draw on neural as well as behavioral evidence. To read this article in its entirety, click here.

Reference: Holper, L. et al. (2013). The teaching and the learning brain: A cortical hemodynamic marker of teacher-student interactions in the Socratic dialog. International Journal of Educational Research (59), pp. 1-10.