Almost everyone nowadays acknowledges that intelligence can take different forms. Musical, linguistic, intrapersonal, etc. The concept of multiple intelligences has been around since Leonardo Da Vinci, but society didn’t really run with it till Dr. Thomas Gardner constructed a theory in the 1980s. Everything changed. Intelligence isn’t just a number > 100 on the IQ test. Career assessments are measuring categories like artistic and investigative skills. Top universities are dropping the SAT requirement. You’ve probably seen the New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence 2.0 while perusing airport bookstores. People recognize their strengths lie in different 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 principle of specialization explains that society runs best when you hone an expertise instead of trying to excel at everything. However, that doesn’t mean we should 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 try geometry” or “I’m not book smart, so I don’t read.”
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I don’t mean to diminish how some people really do struggle in specific learning 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.
Research shows that the human brain is capable of a lot more than we usually think. It depends on how much we study and practice–not the intelligence we’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 certain areas. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s study conducted a study with a college student who displayed an average level of working memory (a subunit of general intelligence). During the study, the student underwent an extensive series of memory training. At the beginning, he wasn’t able to repeat back more than 7 digits from memory after someone read them out loud. Basically he could remember a local phone number. At the end of the training module, he was able to to repeat back 82 digits. Neuroplasticity is wild.
Photo Credit: CogniFit (separate from the study specified above)
We might not have time to take the training module. (He probably got paid really well to do this long term study too). But neuroplasticity says it can be done. If you think you can’t learn Calculus or improve your writing abilities, research says you probably can. 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.” That’s a good way of looking at it. Time is a scarcity. Good for you in finding your niche. Another way to look at it which is a little self-defeating is: “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.
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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 on the piano:
“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.