The Brain's Many Mansions


Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century

By Howard Gardner

Basic Books 292pp $27.50

In 1861, Paul Broca, a French surgeon, described his studies of a man named Leborgne, who could understand what was said to him but was unable to speak coherently. He could produce isolated words and even groups of words, but the groupings made no sense. He was utterly unable to communicate.

When Leborgne died, Broca did an autopsy on him and discovered that his brain contained a lesion in the posterior portion of the frontal lobe. It was the first demonstration that one aspect of intelligence--in this case, linguistic--was located in a particular part of the brain. Broca's finding suggested that intelligence wasn't a generalized capacity scattered randomly through the cerebral cortex but instead was packaged in separate circuits in precise locations.

That view was quickly adopted by the Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner when, as a young psychologist, he decided to study the brain. He spent mornings working with stroke patients and afternoons working with normal and gifted children. "Both of the populations I was working with were clueing me into the same message: that the human mind is better thought of as a series of relatively separate faculties, with only loose and unpredictable relations with one another, rather than as a single, all-purpose machine," he says. That insight ultimately led to Gardner's 1983 book, Frames of Mind, in which he proposed what he calls the theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner's new book, Intelligence Reframed, intended to be a refresher course, actually works better as an introduction. Readers unfamiliar with Gardner's work will get a nice explanation here. But others may be disappointed by his failure to debate with his critics, whom he blithely dismisses in a few paragraphs.

The theory, a grand refutation of IQ testing, has been embraced by liberals and humanists as a guide for engaging students who might do poorly on standard tests but who shine in music, the visual arts, or even in interpersonal relations. By Gardner's lights, a mediocre student who became a brilliant political leader would, for example, demonstrate exceptional interpersonal intelligence, even though he or she might not be particularly adept at science or music. A mathematician or a chess master who prefers to spend time alone might be less gifted in interpersonal intelligence but highly endowed with the capacity to think strategically.

In Frames of Mind, Gardner proposed seven intelligences: linguistic; logical-mathematical; musical; bodily-kinesthetic (as exemplified by dancers and surgeons' or artisans' hands); spatial (characteristic of pilots, graphic artists, and architects); interpersonal; and intrapersonal (the capacity to understand oneself).

Many exceptional individuals show talents in more than one area. A musician, for example, needs not only an understanding of music but also the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to manipulate the keys on a saxophone or slip the bow across the strings of a violin. Gardner has developed strict criteria to show that these intelligences are distinct from one another--including evidence that suggests they emanate from different parts of the brain.

Gardner's theory has been broadly influential in psychology, particularly in educational psychology. If you don't know exactly how influential, Gardner is eager to tell you: Nearly 50 pages of this book are taken up with a list of writings by Gardner and others on the subject, along with contacts for groups that are using "MI" theory in one way or another. The theory has received less attention in the workplace, but Gardner is eager to correct that. "Given today's extreme fluidity of jobs, roles, and preferences, it is essential that people have an accurate, up-to-date, and flexible understanding of their...optimal ways of learning," he writes.

Intelligence Reframed surveys some of the educational experiments in which MI theory has been put into practice. Gardner also adds one more intelligence to the list: naturalist intelligence, defined as the ability to recognize members of a species and understand the relationships among species.

Gardner acknowledges that MI theory has its share of critics. Among them are some traditionalists, who see Gardner's work as an excuse for lowering standards. There are undoubtedly schools where the misapplication of the theory is proving the critics right, as Gardner acknowledges. "Some individuals and some schools may wave the banner of MI as a rationale for nonacademic goals, or they may use MI as an excuse to avoid skills and academic demands," he says. He denounces such mindless abuse of the theory. "I have always placed at the center of education the mastery of basic skills.... I am relentlessly focused on genuine learning and insistent on high standards."

That is nearly all Gardner has to say about the critics and the vigorous debate that has arisen around MI theory. In one passage, he acknowledges that "considerable criticism" has been leveled at MI theory, but without naming the critics or summarizing their arguments he simply says that "scholars are not known for responding generously to new theories."

Intelligence Reframed reads like an introduction to the meatier book Gardner should have written. Even nonspecialists will want a little more than what Gardner gives them here. But if that keeps readers away from the book, it would be a shame: Gardner's ideas deserve a wide audience.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.