Brain-based evidence for multiple intelligences?

Is there any brain-based evidence for the theory of multiple intelligences? From my viewpoint, the answer seems clear: Yes….and no. (Germans have a nice colloquialism for this in ‘jein’, pronounced yine.)

The theory of multiple intelligences was originally proposed by the psychologist Howard Gardner to account for the fact that there appear to be many cognitive abilities that are not subsumed by the concept of general intelligence.

(Tangentially, it’s fascinating that the IQ test is still largely synonymous with intelligence in popular consciousness. Originally developed by Alfred Binet as a tool to identify specific learning deficiencies in children – arguably still it’s best use in contemporary form today – the IQ test has been mistaken time and time again as a single metric of intelligence. Historically misused, for example, in both World Wars to assess and assign conscripts to intelligence-relevant positions, to screen new immigrants to the States, to predetermine academic/career paths for young children, and for general hiring practices in many sectors including emergency responders, the IQ test still often misused and misinterpreted in contemporary societies. The internet is littered with emotionally-driven, and often painfully amusing, related discussions. Nonetheless, as some psychologists today point out, the evolution of the IQ test has resulted in more reliable tests, with some interesting predictive power, which focus on multiple cognitive attributes instead of a single general metric of ‘intelligence’.)

It is typically accepted that the eight multiple intelligences are: Spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Though the theory has been attacked from many angles (often pointing out the ambiguities or potential circularities inherent in the use of such broad, fuzzy, concepts), many believe it to be of high practical value when used appropriately – especially within the education sector. But the question remains, is there any brain-based evidence for multiple intelligences (MI) theory?

Now, for the no part…

The broad conclusion from the argument between localizationalists (those believing that the brain was mostly subdivided into areas which performed separate functions) and equipotentialists (those believing that psychological processes were spread out roughly evenly across the brain) is that both were correct to some degree. Although the details are still largely debated, no respectable brain expert lies strictly in one camp. For example, though some regions of the brain are more involved in processing semantic (e.g. hippocampus) vs. motor (e.g. cerebellum) memories, all types of memory processing are distributed across intricate brain networks. However, this applies to a fundamental principle of brain function like learning or memory and cannot necessarily be mapped one-to-one onto broader psychological concepts (which can be confusing because we often use terms like memory as a catch-all for every process related to the basic principles).

So the idea, for instance, that musical intelligence is contained within a brain network is tantamount to a category error. There is no evidence that the disruption of processing in any brain region (due, for instance, to some sort of brain damage) will cause a direct and predictable change/loss in ‘musical intelligence’. Of course, there are case studies which describe the loss of musical abilities or characteristics following distinct brain lesions - such as the loss of emotional connection/enjoyment associated with listening to music following a stroke affecting a region of the right parietal cortex. However, this should not be confused with implicating the right parietal lobe as being a key component of the ‘musical intelligence’ network (an example of such an approach can be seen here.

Now, for the yes part…

Nonetheless, along this same line of thought, the idea that damage to the right parietal lobe can impair musical ability in some specific way is consistent with the idea that a global measure of musical ability (or musical intelligence) will also be affected. Research into the neural basis of music-related emotions is still in its infancy, but we’re beginning to learn more about which circuits might be involved in regulating associated aspects such as emotional contagion, expectancy, and memories by exploring this relationship.

So, in both a metaphorical sense as well as in an attempt to measure global musical ability (as well as the other purported intelligences), the theory of MI can be useful. In may be particularly useful at the early stages of development, for instance, where Early Childhood Educators can use MI as a rough guide for how to engage children in all aspects of learning through their particular interests / learning styles. Nonetheless, because there is no direct relationship between MI theory and brain functioning, the best overall future approach is likely to move away from the metaphorical and toward looking for indicators of abilities/traits which most closely reflect the principles of brain function (e.g. exceptional/impaired ability to acquire motor memories). In this way, each of us throughout our personal and professional lives may be able to best regulate and support our own brain and behaviour.

Selected references

Collins JW (2007). The neuroscience of learning. The Journal of neuroscience nursing : journal of the American Association of Neuroscience Nurses, 39 (5), 305-10 PMID: 17966298

Koelsch S (2010). Towards a neural basis of music-evoked emotions. Trends in cognitive sciences, 14 (3), 131-7 PMID: 20153242

Miller L (1986). 'Narrow localizationism' in psychiatric neuropsychology. Psychological medicine, 16 (4), 729-34 PMID: 3823292

Satoh M, Nakase T, Nagata K, & Tomimoto H (2011). Musical anhedonia: Selective loss of emotional experience in listening to music. Neurocase PMID: 21714738

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