Every student and parent in the U.S. knows that there’s a lot of pressure on kids to be “smart.” In fact, intelligence is very cool right now—Gen Z, or everyone born in the mid-90s or later, is the most educated generation in American history. The hashtag #BookTok on TikTok, where readers share book-related content and bond over their love of reading, has over fifty billion views. Quintessentially geeky games like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering are more popular now than they’ve ever been. If it’s brains versus brawn, brains are enjoying a winning streak these days.
But society tends towards a pretty limited view of what intelligence really means. In our public school system, it’s easy to feel like you’re not smart if you can’t hack homework or ace tests. The SAT and ACT especially are mistaken for intelligence tests, even though they’re definitely not. Being book-smart is great, but education experts say that’s not the only type of intelligence that matters.
One such expert from Harvard, Dr. Howard Gardner, proposed his Theory of Multiple Intelligences in 1983, which suggests that human intelligence isn’t just one broad quality, but several distinct “modalities” that lend themselves to different tasks. These multiple intelligences include:
- Logical-mathematical intelligence, or the ability to think abstractly and recognize patterns in numbers or information. This is what most people probably think of as being “smart.”
- Verbal-linguistic intelligence, marked by strong verbal skills and a good grasp of spelling, grammar and etymology. Reading and writing come naturally to people with this type.
- Spatial-visual intelligence, or the capacity for thinking visually. This type allows people to create accurate images of both concrete and abstract concepts in their minds, and that’s a big part of art and design.
- Bodily-kinesthetic Athletes, dancers, and trade workers rely on this form of intelligence to exercise control over their bodies, endure physical strain and manipulate tools or other objects.
- Musical intelligence, which grants a sensitive ear for rhythm, pitch, melody, and other qualities that make good music. Someone with high musical intelligence can probably compose a tune or a chord progression without knowing all the theory behind why it sounds right.
- Interpersonal and intrapersonal These types are closely intertwined, and they help us understand each other’s emotions and thought processes. Humans are social animals, and this type of intelligence is how we form bonds and maintain communities.
After publishing his initial theory, Gardner went on to propose some additional types:
- Naturalist Known commonly as “green thumbs” or maybe “tree huggers,” people with high naturalist intelligence have a talent for recognizing species of plants and animals and understanding natural processes.
- Existential intelligence, or the ability to ask and ponder deep questions about our place in the universe. This search for deeper truths may be the type of intelligence that sets humans apart from all other animals.
In my humble psychology degree-holding opinion, Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is misunderstood and often poorly explained in the classroom. You may have taken a quiz to find out which types of intelligence you’re strongest in, probably for the purposes of career counseling. But Gardner himself made it explicitly clear that his proposed intelligences are not the same thing as learning styles, and they’re definitely not hard and fast rules for what a person should do with their life. They’re not even really discrete categories—they blend together and influence each other, like how you need strong pattern recognition skills to compose music, or a strong constitution and steady hand to take care of a vegetable garden.
Anybody who struggles with textbooks or standardized tests should know that there are a lot of ways to be smart, and standardized tests only use a couple of them. If math and reading just aren’t your thing, there are other ways to show colleges how brilliant you are. You can impress them with athletics, or an art portfolio, or a witty application essay. Embrace your strengths, because that’s the first step towards using them.