colorful graphic wheel showing the eight intelligencesThe theory of multiple intelligences as developed by Dr. Howard Gardner has received a drubbing over the past 15-20 years for not being ”evidence-based.”  Elsewhere I described my objections to this term as it is being used in education.  But suffice it to say in this post that when we look at the Latin etymology of the word ”evidence” it is related to the word evidens:  ”obvious, apparent.” Now the so-called ”evidence” that the ”evidence-based” people are generally talking about is statistics based on students’ test scores, out of which a statistical figure called an ”effect size” is derived, which is the difference between the standard deviation of two groups, one a control, the other an intervention group.  Got that?  I didn’t think so.  Nothing ”obvious, or apparent” from that!  On the other hand, multiple intelligences offers a number of pieces of ”evidence” to support its theory.  Here are 8 of them:

  1. Evidence from neuroscience and brain injury:  the idea is that brain damage to one area of the brain will knock out an intelligence (or aspects of it), indicating that these intelligences are ”apparently” built into the brain.  Phineas Gage, for example, had a metal pole that pierced his frontal lobes, which devastated his social and self-reflection abilities, but in other respects he functioned normally, leading us to believe that the frontal lobes have a lot to do with People smart and Self smart (there’s a ton of other evidence from neuroscience to support this).
  2. Evidence from the study of symbol systems:  The field of semiotics (the science of signs and symbols) is combined with cognitive psychology in suggesting that each intelligence has its own unique symbol system(s).  Word smart, for example, has symbol systems like the Latin alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet, Chinese and Japanese characters (which also have a bit of Picture Smart).  Music smart has musical notation systems.  Logic smart has computer programming languages and mathematical symbols.  This evidence is very clear.
  3.  Evidence from developmental psychology: Gardner says that aspects of each intelligence have a sort of developmental trajectory where it begins in early development, peaks at some point in the life span, and then either gradually or rapidly declines as we age.  Music Smart seems to develop earlier than any of the others.  Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of eight.  And it stays robust into old age (Verdi was composing opera into his eighties).  Here the evidence is to be found in the biographies and autobiographies of great men and women.
  4. Evidence from the study of savants.  Savants are people who have developed to an exceptional degree in one or more intelligences but have relatively poor ability in all the others.  The most famous savant is probably Kim Peak, who had incredible Logic smart capabilities, but had significant social deficits.  Gardner says we can study each intelligence standing alone like a peak (no pun intended) against the background of many valleys in the lives of these exceptional individuals.
  5. Evidence from archaeology.  Gardner says you can see evidence of the different intelligences in prehistoric humans.  Archaeologists, for example, have unearthed primitive musical instruments (Music smart), astronomical ”observatories” (e.g. Stonehenge)(Logic smart), cave drawings (Picture smart), and so forth. There is in fact, a special field called cognitive archaeology dedicated to this sort of investigation.
  6. Evidence from non-human life.  Gardner suggests that we can study the intelligences in other animals, including tool use in anteaters (Body smart, or ”hands-on”/”nose on” intelligence), Music smart in birds, People smart (or in this case Bee smart) in how bees construct hives, Word smart in how chimpanzees develop an actual vocabulary of words, and so forth.
  7. Evidence from psychometrics.  There are a wide range of tests that assess aspects of each of the intelligences:  music aptitude tests, spatial reasoning tests, word association tests (Self smart), social maturity tests (People smart), and the like.
  8. Evidence from studies of creative behavior.  Gardner suggests that a person can be creative with words but not necessarily with pictures (e.g. art, drawing), or creative with physical expression (say, a mime), but not with musical ability.  We’ve all known individuals who’ve not done well in school, but can fix everybody’s washers or refrigerators when they break down.  Multiple intelligences theory helps explain how you can be so good in one area of expertise, and yet so poor in another.

So, eight different fields within which we can find evidence of the different intelligences in Dr. Gardner’s model.  Put that up against, say ”effect sizes” of .4, .56. .12, and .55 or other statistical artifacts.  Who are you going to believe?  Who has the best evidence?  I rest my case.


For more information about Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, get my book 7 Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Multiple Intelligences

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education - https://amzn.to/2KAxT8F.

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