Wacko Wednesdays: Multiple Intelligences

Writing Tips

Twitter is a site where a person can post a message to a bunch of friends at once. Sometimes Twitter works like a bulletin board (where you pin up your notice and get no replies) and sometimes it works like an on-line chatroom with a ton of conversations going on at once.

Last night I replied to a post from my friend Laura. She questioned how it would be possible for someone named Angelina to have a high IQ score (around 136 I think). Assuming Laura was referring to Angelina Jolie, I responded that a 136 score, albeit high, isn’t uncommon and Ms. Jolie seems capable of such a score.

A firestorm erupted, and this time it wasn’t about Angelina Jolie’s shenanigans. All sorts of Tweets (i.e. posts) popped up containing anger over the concept of intelligence testing and the permanent public (and more important personal) branding that can ensue afterwards. My contacts on Twitter interpreted my Tweets as support for and true belief in the IQ test. At 12:30 a.m., after much varied discussion and much qualification from me, the storm died down enough for me to go to bed. Embers were still smoldering this morning, as I had a quite few messages waiting for me in my inbox.

As a professional, I am well-schooled in the concept of IQ testing. In developmental and educational Psychology, the practice of attempting to predict academic performance is well studied and widely used. I know the history of IQ testing, I know how it is statistically ‘normed,’ I know the design of the questions, the infrastructure of the test and subjects, the list goes on. You can’t get a decent B.S. in Psychology and a M.Ed. in Educational Psychology without studying testing (not just IQ testing) in painful depth. Furthermore, my Masters degree focused on research and measurement. In one course, I actually had to write questions. So yeah, I know about testing.

The sadness and anger that came about over one or two passing posts made me think about how misunderstood the IQ test is. The IQ test (most commonly used is the WISC) is meant to predict academic performance, nothing else (there are controversies surrounding it, the most common attack on the test being that it caters to a very specific population. That is an entirely different post!) But people who aren’t ‘in the business’ of Psychology and testing catch only the brunt of it. And indeed, in some backward districts, one bout of the flu can throw you off an appropriate academic track for your the rest of your elementary career. The psychological effects of knowing your IQ test score and the public’s view of it can be devasting and long-lasting.

Those emotions definitely came out on Twitter last night. Many parents and educators felt some relief from the pressure since 1983 when Howard Gardner published a book that proposed other types of intelligences (like Interpersonal) that weren’t measured by any IQ tests. Dr. Gardner touched a nerve, in the same way a high-level researcher does when she announces scientifically sound evidence that chicken soup helps heal the common cold; We all (especially mothers) sent up a resounding “DUH!”

Today for Wacko Wednesdays, I’ll present Multiple Intelligences. I’ll outline Dr. Gardner’s famous theory for my friends on Twitter and writers struggling over the lack of depth in their characters. Have no fear if your IQ score in 2nd grade was less than ideal! Don’t worry if your main character is a dud! Below are some interesting skills that can liven up any party, fictional or non!

Have you thought about your character’s pretend IQ scores? Is he a genius of observation (Sherlock Holmes) or is he on the very low end of the IQ distribution (Lennie Small – Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men)? Is she street smart (Stephanie Plum) or totally innocent to the ways of the world (Alice in Wonderland)? We all know the stereotype of the absent-minded professor or the waitress with a heart of gold. The mechanic that can fix anything under the sun. The painter who solves a mounting problem for the NASA space shuttle crew. The kind neighbor who truly wants to know the answer to ‘How are you doing?’ The awesome kid with the crappy parents who you wish you could just adopt, but who seems to make her own way in the world despite her horrid circumstances. The list goes on. Mix one of the ‘alternate’ intelligences in their make-ups and you’ll have a recipe for memorable characters.

According to the on-line free encyclopedia Wikipedia, “Gardner originally identified seven core intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal. In 1999 he added an eighth, the naturalistic intelligence, and indicated that investigation continues on whether there is an existential intelligence.” (I’ve read the entry and it seems accurate).

Please read the Wikipedia entry for more detail. I will give a very brief description along with some creative examples of characters who display those traits. Wikipedia quotes are in italics.

Verbal-Linguistic: Good at languages, words, speaking, etc. Bi-lingual characters would be skilled in this. Mix up the Spanish and English syntax sometimes when your character speaks to show a more common person. To write a snooty character, have him correct his Mexican mother’s syntax in both languages. “Careers which suit those with this intelligence include writers, lawyers, philosophers, journalists, politicians and teachers.”

Logical-Mathematical: Sherlock Holmes all the way. Deduction, computer coding, lie detecting, research, etc. Less about math than logical reasoning. A typical character would be a small girl who has a lisp and is terribly shy but is a crackerjack detective; she can also see through her evil grandmother’s lies. “Careers which suit those with this intelligence include scientists, mathematicians, engineers, doctors and economists.”

Spatial: Can mentally picture objects. Wait, you think, “We can all do this.” But can you turn the mental image of the object over, around, up, down, sideways and inside out? Spatial reasoning types do this at (and with) their breakfasts. They never get lost either, as they have a very keen sense of direction. Mice are also good at this. Drop your ‘stupid’ (yet spatially inclined) main character in a maze with a bunch of Harvard students and see who gets out first. “Careers which suit those with this intelligence include artists, engineers, and architects.”

Bodily-Kinesthetic: Super skilled sporty type, performers, learn more by physically doing a task than seeing it done. Imagine a character who is a member of a circus family that is mute but is the equivalent of a savant on the trapeze; he can do stunts that no-one in the world has done, and he can be soggy-wet drunk doing them. “Careers which suit those with this intelligence include athletes, dancers, actors, surgeons, comedians, builders, soldiers and artisans.”

Musical: Very aware of sounds, rhythms, patterns in sounds, tones. Can memorize hundreds, if not thousands, of melodies. The kid on the street corner who knocks out a beat with stolen drumsticks. The practically deaf composer. The temporary secretary in the office who is an amateur opera singer, struggling to get a bit part on Broadway. “Careers which suit those with this intelligence include instrumentalists, singers, conductors,disc-jockeys, and composers.”

Interpersonal: Plays well with others. Can read a face like a kid can read a ‘Snickers’ logo. Sometimes swayed in the tides of other people’s emotions. Empathetic. A way to twist the interpersonal skill is to have a creepy ESP character that knows the emotions of people just by standing next to them. Make the character blind to boot. Great stuff. “Careers which suit those with this intelligence include politicians, managers, teachers, social workers and diplomats.”

Intrapersonal: See the difference? Inter and InTRA? InTRApersonal skills have to do with self-reflection. These types are deep, man. The neighborhood philosopher who reads Plato on her stoop every night and answers every question with a metaphor for the soul. The hippie skateboarder punk who sits alone, pondering the wheel that is the universe. “Careers which suit those with this intelligence include philosophers, psychologists, theologians, writers and scientists.”

What other intelligences can you think of, like “street smarts” that are a mash-up of two or more of the 7 cited above? What is a “chicken soup” kind of intelligence that isn’t listed and can’t be measured so easily? Spiritual intelligence? Moral? Existential? Where do you, and your characters, fit in this wide and uncharted territory of the mind?

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2 thoughts on “Wacko Wednesdays: Multiple Intelligences

  1. hey, isn’t there some new one that’s been added to the list–naturalistic? I’m unsure of the name, but supposedly it has a lot to do with a person’s ability to thrive in, recognize, and appreciate their surrounding (in nature I presume).

    well, whether it is or isn’t, I hate to be a pessimist, but those multiple intelligences seem like a lovely way of further allowing Americans to think they’re special even when the grey matter’s not too solid up there, another excuse to allow for laziness in academia. I’m mainly talking about the youth.

    Now surely it’s all well and good to make little Susie or Bobby feel good, but when all is said and done, if they’re not thriving with the verbal/linguistic or the logical/mathematical, I have to say the education system or someone is failing them by simply accepting the fact that they have great intrapersonal skills. Because when all’s said and done, someone in that category to me makes for a great hermit (i.e. a lonely person) and the exotic dancer at the strip club’s a genius when it comes to the bodily/kinesthetic. What do you think?

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