Most people these days acknowledge that intelligence can take different forms. Musical, linguistic, intrapersonal, etc. The concept has been around since Leonardo Da Vinci or before, but society didn’t really run with it till a Dr. Thomas Gardner built a theory around multiple intelligence in the 1980s. Then everything changed. Intelligence is no longer a number over 100 on the IQ test. Career assessments are measuring categories like artistic and investigative skills. Top universities are dropping the rigid SAT requirement. You’ve probably seen the New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence while perusing airport bookstores or your friend’s coffee table. People suddenly feel more confident even though they don’t get the standardized test score they wanted because they recognize their strengths lie in other domains.
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However, there is one potential, dangerous pitfall to embracing the multi-category view of intelligence. We can feel like pigeonholing ourselves into our specialized categories and not exploring other categories of intelligence.
A kid might not want to try out for sports because they’re naturally a better musician. A working professional might not want to try technical aspects of their job because they’re naturally more creative. We have to ask ourselves if we’re using the concept of multiple intelligence to limit or expand ourselves.
There’s a lot of good in focusing what we’re naturally good at. The economic principles of specialization and comparative advantage explain how society runs best when people hone their areas of expertise instead of trying to excel at everything. However, that doesn’t mean we completely denounce areas we’re weak on. We do ourselves a disservice by saying: “I’m just not a math person, so I won’t even study for my class” or “I’m not book smart, so I don’t read.”
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I don’t mean to diminish the hurdles people face in specific areas. Specific learning disorders are real. I can testify to that as a mental health professional. However, as a therapist, I’ve also seen how people’s hard work and practice can overcome them, which leads us to the next point.
Continuing research in neuroplasticity shows that the human brain is capable of a lot more than we usually think given enough practice–not the intelligence you’re born with. Neuroplasticity, in a nutshell, is the ability for our brains to create new neurons, form new connections, and, frankly, increase our intelligence in different areas. In Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s study, a college student with average working memory (a subunit of general intelligence) underwent an extensive series of memory training. He started out being able to repeat back a maximum of 7 digits after hearing them read out loud, which is basically remembering a phone number. At the end of the study’s training module, he was able to to repeat back 82 digits. Neuroplasticity is wild.
Photo Credit: CogniFit (separate from the study specified above)
You may not have the practice time at your disposal like this student did, but neuroplasticity says it can be done. It doesn’t say you can become the next Stephen Hawking. But if you think you can’t complete your math assignment or improve your athleticism, research says you probably can–even if it’s not your specialty. Which is exciting. Who knows what other areas of intelligence are waiting for you to excel at? I don’t mean to wave a pom-pom in your face. But if the concept of neuroplasticity looks like a pom-pom, then I guess that’s fine.
Perhaps you say, “I am not a technical person. Therefore, I would rather use my time to perfect my skills in creative advertising.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Time is a scarcity. Good for you in finding your niche. As long as you see it that way rather than: “I am not a technical person; therefore, it’s impossible for me learn a basic programming language.” Neuroplasticity states that you probably can learn Python code, but the principle of opportunity cost says it’s okay if you devote your energy elsewhere.
Photo Credit: Somebody’s microeconomics course
The different categories of intelligence should inspire people to explore them—not license us to limit ourselves. A disadvantage in music doesn’t mean we give up an instrument we’d like to play. Poor interpersonal skills aren’t a life sentence—although Jane Austen’s Darcy tried to get away with it in front Lizzie Bennet. And let us all remember her response as she drums her fingers on the piano keys:
“I do not play this instrument as well as I should wish to, but I have always supposed that to be my own fault because I would not take the trouble of practicing.”
Photo Credit: Stolen from the BBC
Darcy retaliates affirming that she was better off dedicating her time elsewhere, hitting the points of specialization and opportunity cost. But let’s remember, he’s completely taken with her when she kills it flawlessly playing Voi Che Sapete in Episode 5. (Yes, I’m venturing from the book to BBC.) A huge chunk of Darcy’s character development is that he takes her advice and uses neuroplasticity to improve his interpersonal skills. So in the end, Darcy gets into exploring different categories of intelligence. As should we all.