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What is the Theory of Multiple Intelligences? Part 1: Biological Basis

By Michele R. Acosta

Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is based on the premise that each individual's intelligence is composed of multiple "intelligences," each of which has its own independent operating system within the brain. These intelligences include: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.

The verbal-linguistic intelligence is the use of both written and spoken language for the purpose of communication. Those possessing the verbal-linguistic intelligence are sensitive to the meanings, sounds, and rhythms of words. They love reading, poetry, tongue twisters, puns, humor, puzzles, and riddles.

The logical-mathematical intelligence is the use of abstract relationships presented in terms of either numbers or symbols. It also includes the use of logic and analysis in the sense of logically organizing an essay or analyzing poetry. Those possessing the logical-mathematical intelligence enjoy number games, problem solving, pattern games, and experimenting. They also do well with writing that involves exposition, argumentation, definition, classification, and analysis.

The spatial intelligence is the manipulation of objects within a given space, whether that space is the size of a piece of paper, a room, a building, or a town. Those possessing the spatial intelligence respond to visual cues and they like to invent and design.

The bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is the ability to use the body effectively to solve problems. Those possessing the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence enjoy dramatics, role-playing, dancing, and physical expression.

The musical intelligence is the ability to make use of the relationship between pitch, rhythm, and timbre. Those possessing the musical intelligence enjoy playing instruments, singing, and drumming, and they like the sounds of the human voice, environmental sounds, and instrumental sounds. It has been described as hearing patterns.

The interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand the thoughts, beliefs, and intents of others and the ability to respond appropriately. Those possessing the interpersonal intelligence are social and are in tune with the feelings of others. They make excellent leaders, can help their peers, and work cooperatively with others.

The intrapersonal intelligence is a sense of self-awareness used to guide individual behavior. Those possessing the intrapersonal intelligence like to work independently. They are self-motivated and self-aware.

The naturalist intelligence is an understanding of the natural world and the ability to use that understanding productively. Those possessing the naturalist intelligence can recognize and classify elements from the natural world (e.g. farming or biological science).

The exact combination of intelligences varies from person to person. For example, one person might be strong in the verbal-linguistic and interpersonal intelligences with secondary strengths in the intrapersonal, spatial, and musical intelligences and weaknesses in the logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, and naturalist intelligences. Another person could have an entirely different combination of intelligences. Each person's makeup of intelligences is very similar to DNA; no one has exactly the same combination of intelligences.

Gardner's criteria for selecting these particular abilities as intelligences include: independence from other intelligences (within the brain); having a central set of information-processing operations; having a distinct developmental history; having roots in evolutionary history; and having a cultural basis. When Gardner says that intelligences are independent, he is referring to separate sections of the brain that control each intelligence and have distinct methods of processing information. According to an article by Tina Blythe and Gardner, each intelligence has its own "distinct mode of thinking."

Gardner's research with brain-injured adults and with autistic children has indicated that the human brain has separate areas that control separate functions. For example, Gardner described a woman who suffered a brain injury and lost the ability to speak, yet she maintained her ability to sing. This example shows that the verbal-linguistic intelligence functions separately from the musical intelligence.

Gardner makes a distinction between the isolation of each intelligence within the structure of the human brain and the isolation of the intelligences when called upon to complete real-world operations. Intelligences do not work independently of one another in a real-world setting. According to the theory, most tasks require the simultaneous use of several intelligences in order to be completed successfully. Bruce Torff offers the example of a chess player who must use logic and spatial skills to plan ahead and figure out moves and must also use interpersonal skills to figure out the opponent's defense and plan of action. The intelligences are separate entities which operate in conjunction with each other to create the whole of each individual's ability.


Armstrong, T. (1994). Multiple intelligences: Seven ways to approach curriculum. Expanded Academic ASAP [on-line database]. Original Publication: Educational Leadership, 52 (3).

Blythe, T., & Gardner, H. (1990). A school for all intelligences. Educational Leadership, 47 (7), 33-37.

Campbell, L., Campbell, B., & Dickinson, D. (1992). Teaching and learning through multiple intelligences. Stanwood, WA: New Horizons for Learning.

Checkley, K. (1997). The first seven... and the eighth: A conversation with Howard Gardner. Expanded Academic ASAP [on-line database]. Original Publication: Education, 116.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1995a). Multiple intelligences as a catalyst. English Journal, 84 (8), 16-18.

Gardner, H. (1995b). Reflections on multiple intelligences: Myths and messages. Expanded Academic ASAP [on-line database]. Original Publication: Phi Delta Kappan, 77 (3).

Gardner, H., & Hatch, T. (1990). Multiple intelligences go to school: Educational implications of the theory of multiple intelligences (Tech. Rep. No. 4). New York: Center for Technology in Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 324 366).

Gray, J. H., & Viens, J. T. (1994). The theory of multiple intelligences: Understanding cognitive diversity in school. Expanded Academic ASAP [on-line database]. Original Publication: National Forum, 74 (1).

Meyer, M. (1997). The GREENing of learning: using the eighth intelligence. Wilson Select [on-line database]. Original Publication: Educational Leadership, 55.

Moll, A. (n.d.). Kentucky Department of Education. Multiple intelligences self profile.

Reiff, J. C. (1996). Bridging home and school through multiple intelligences. Expanded Academic ASAP [on-line database]. Original Publication: Childhood Education, 72 (3).

Smagorinsky, P. (1991). Expressions: Multiple intelligences in the English class. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Smagorinsky, P. (1995b). Multiple intelligences in the English class: An overview. English Journal, 84 (8), 19-26.

Torff, B. (1996). How are you smart?: Multiple intelligences and classroom practices. The NAMTA Journal, 21 (2), 31-43.

About The Author
Michele R. Acosta is a writer, a former English teacher, and the mother of three boys. She spends her time writing and teaching others to write.

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