The Vast World of Intelligence: Rethinking What Makes Us Smart

The Vast World of Intelligence: Rethinking What Makes Us Smart

In a recent blog post, we invited readers to explore Billy Collins’ poem “Genius,” a profound reflection on what makes someone intelligent and how our concept of genius changes over time. “Why do we find it so hard to agree upon who or what deserves the word?” we asked.

The word genius often conjures images of historical figures who embody traditional intelligence. Think of Albert Einstein, a man with an innate understanding of physics and logic and figures. Or maybe it’s Emily Dickinson with her mastery of language, her keenness of thought and her prolific poetry.

According to developmental psychologist and Harvard Professor of Cognition and Education Howard Gardner, Einstein and Dickinson represent what he calls logical and linguistic intelligence, both of which are valorized by IQ tests and held up as societal pinnacles of education. If you’re logically and linguistically intelligent, Gardner explains, you probably succeeded in school, and others will likely perceive you as smart.

But there are six other forms of intelligence that Gardner has identified and categorized in his research. He explains each category in a video from Big Think:

Are history’s mathematicians and writers smarter than the Mozarts and Baryshnikovs of the world, exemplars of musical and kinesthetic intelligence? What about Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s miracle worker and the epitome of pedagogical intelligence? Or Oprah Winfrey, an empathetic conversationalist who embodies interpersonal intelligence?

Gardner’s research is vital to understanding how we value each other’s – and our own – abilities and contributions. He stresses that the most important aspect of his work is not the number of categories he’s determined, but how those categories break “the monopoly of a single intelligence that labels you for all time.”

When we expose ourselves to different ways of thinking, we begin to understand that an IQ test is only one barometer of intelligence. Through social interaction, our varied abilities mingle in inspiring ways. Our board member and longtime educator Karen Nestor expanded on the idea that learning isn’t just about what you know: “Lively engagement with others fuels our desire to learn,” she writes. “We gain deeper insights when we listen carefully to our colleagues’ ideas and stories – and when they listen carefully to us.”

Karen’s point is illustrated by new research on cognitive diversity, or “how individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain and complex situations.” Cognitive diversity enables collaborative workplace teams to solve problems faster. In one study, a group of PhD scientists at a biotechnology company failed to complete a “strategy execution task” because their cognitive abilities were too similar and narrow. Cognitively diverse teams, however, completed the task with ease. It may seem ideal to recruit a team of Einsteins to solve a difficult physics problem; but teammates who are also interpersonally intelligent may provide just the unexpected observation that pushes the team toward success.

In a Books@Work discussion, each category of intelligence that Gardner defines is equally valued. But participants also share a universal form of intelligence that Gardner does not include: the wisdom of life experience. In a discussion about literature and how it makes us feel, a high IQ or a college degree isn’t required. But a full life lived can offer a wealth of insight. One participant in a program for veterans compared Books@Work to other offerings in her veterans’ center:

“[In other events I attended], nobody respected the other person’s perception of the information. [With] Books@Work, all of our perceptions, what we thought about, it was respected. . . Since I’ve been here and I’ve joined Books@Work, one of my goals was to read one book every 30 days and I’ve been doing it. It’s like wow, I’m getting smart. My head’s getting bigger. Knowledge, understanding and wisdom are very important in life. . . I gained a lot of knowledge, wisdom and understanding, and I learned how to perceive things. Everything is not always the way I see it.”

The rare opportunity to share life experience or skills that don’t fall in a category of traditional intelligence – and to see them recognized on the same plane as work history or educational background – is empowering. Intelligence is not a monolith. It is cognitive ability and musical talent and emotional agility and the wisdom of age. It’s the genius in Billy Collins’ poem who can “squire pi a hundred places out beyond the decimal point.” But it’s also the swans “who had figured out how to fly” or a neighbor who has traveled the world or an intuitive colleague who senses when others are upset. At Books@Work, every person has the chance to share their own unique genius.

Image: Jean Metzinger, Globe and Banjo, 1930, [Fair Use] via

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Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.