The theory of multiple intelligences opens the way for the belief that we may all be equally intelligent in different ways…

Gardener’s theory sounds very plausible, attractive, and more than anything else, egalitarian...

Who was more intelligent — Srinivasa Ramanujan or Miyan Tansen? If ever posed this question, most Indian primary school students would likely have no hesitation in naming the legendary Indian mathematician as having possessed a higher IQ than T ansen, if indeed, they had even heard of the legendary musician. And they would probably have been technically correct, for, I’m fairly certain that, had anybody assessed them, Ramanujan’s IQ would have been far higher than that of Tansen. Or Einstein’s higher than, say, Mozart’s. And since the IQ is the most standardised measure of intelligence and intellectual capability available to us today, one would have to conclude that the Einsteins and the Ramanujans would be way higher on the totem pole than the Tansens and Mozarts. But is Tansen any less of a genius than Ramanujan or Mozart less than Einstein? Obviously the genius in each of them was innate and each of them has contributed substantially to their fields of endeavour and each has left equally lasting legacies. However, since the Intelligence Quotient primarily measures logical and analytical ability, those who are low on these (like I am assuming Tansen or Mozart might have been, although I have no evidence to base this on; I’m just using them as examples, so don’t please quibble on this assumption) are unlikely to be considered highly intelligent regardless of any other extraordinary capability they may possess.

Thorny issue

This obvious inequity has actively engaged the minds of psychologists, academics and educators for ages and long polemics exist on this controversy in the literature. In 1983, Howard Gardner, a Harvard-based psychologist and educationist, turned the concept of intelligence on its head when he published his Theory of Multiple Intelligences in his classic book, Frames of Mind. His theory was simple and elegant. He proposed that Intelligence was not a unitary phenomenon and contained several elements, each of which could predominate in a given individual depending on a variety of factors, more related to nature than nurture. He originally suggested that seven types of intelligences could be seen in the human race: Verbal-Linguistic (related to words and language), Logical-Mathematical (related to numbers and logical analysis), Spatial-Visual (imagery and space), Bodily-Kinaesthetic (body movement and coordination), Musical (music, rhythm), Interpersonal (relationships, sensitivity) and Intrapersonal (self awareness and self actualisation). He had also suggested three more — Naturalist (related to nature and the environment), Spiritual-Existential (religion, philosophy) and Moral (ethics and human values). The last two — Spiritual and Moral — are considered too subjective, culture-bound and context-anchored for universal applicability and have been set aside, but Naturalist has been accepted as an area of intelligence, thereby resulting in a total of eight intelligences that are applicable to all mankind. The basic postulate was that each of us would have multiple areas of intelligence, some predominating more than others.

Egalitarian

Gardener’s theory sounds very plausible, attractive, and more than anything else, egalitarian, for, it provides for the possibility that all human beings, other than those who are severely handicapped by lack of development of the brain, have the possibility of being equally intelligent, but perhaps, in different ways. It takes the competitive element out of intelligence and places all of us on an equitable grid, enabling us to take different paths to self-actualisation. Accepting the theory means making fundamental changes in the way we perceive each other, the way we educate our children, the kind of scholastic ability we test school students for and so on. Unfortunately, any theory that puts jocks and nerds on the same platform is bound to invite detractors, as has this one. However, there are some serious scientific issues in the theory and these have been systematically dissected, ever since it was formulated. The principal grounds for dissonance has been that the theory was not based on empirical evidence and has not necessarily stood up to the test of research scrutiny. In other words, although it appears universal, it may not actually be so and what’s more, standardised measurements of multiple intelligences are hard to derive. There are several websites that offer you a quick assessment of your Multiple Intelligences, but most of these scales are idiosyncratic, the questions are not standardised and you’re likely to get different results on each of them. Although, the theory has not been rejected, it is not universally accepted either.

I’m going to leave the contentious debate aside, for, the way I see it is that whether or not the theory of multiple intelligences actually refers to cognitive intelligence, it provides a useful approach to understand where our strengths lie, thereby finding ourselves career paths that optimise our capabilities. For instance, if you score high on Spatial-Visual Intelligence and Musical Intelligence, you might do well in Art, Architecture, Design, Music etc. If your Interpersonal Intelligence and Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence scores are high, you might end up as a psychiatrist who writes books or in other people-oriented careers. And so forth. Please don’t ask me to provide a comprehensive list of career options matched to intelligence area. I’m limited by word counts and things like that. Ask Google, if you must. But, if you want to get a proper assessment of Multiple Intelligences, I’d suggest you visit a trained clinical psychologist for optimal results.

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist and can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com