As people have sought to understand the workings of the brain, our imagination has often been limited and shaped by our technology. As the industrial revolution got underway, the brain and nervous system were understood in mechanical terms. With the advent of electricity and computers, they were understood in binary terms. Things were either on or off, 1 or 0, with different combinations generating different functions and outputs. Now, however, with ever-more sophisticated models of chemical neuroanatomy, researchers are rearranging the pieces of the puzzle all over again. The brain is not a digital computer. It is a biochemical soup continuously wafting subtle energies of intelligence. If you’d like to learn how to play with the recipe, read on.
When I was growing up, intelligence could be summarized with two words: smart or dumb. We knew who the smart kids were and we knew who the dumb kids were. That binary view of the world made for some pretty unhappy and unfortunate situations. Both smart and dumb kids could be teased, but things were definitely harder for the dumb, with plenty of derogatory names and antisocial behavior.
Although there is still plenty of name calling and antisocial behavior in schools, the concept of intelligence has been broadened considerably in the past thirty years. It is no longer understood to refer narrowly to cognitive functions that can be measured with traditional intelligence tests. Although people still talk about and work with the concept of IQ, or Intelligence Quotient, first developed by Alfred Binet in 1900, everyone now recognizes that IQ alone is an inadequate measure of intelligence does not determine success. Many other factors must be taken into account.
The most famous of all theories that has broadened our understanding of intelligence has been that of the Harvard-based developmental psychologist, Howard Gardner. Starting in 1983, Gardner put forward a theory of multiple intelligences that eight, relatively independent forms of intelligence: musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Gardner speculates that there may also be a ninth intelligence, known as existential intelligence (or the intelligence of “big questions”).
Long-time readers of Provisions will understand why I resonate with the notion of existential intelligence. That’s a good way of describing these weekly reflections on the meaning and measure of life. I love to write them because I love to contemplate big question and I never have any idea where a Provision will go when I first start writing. One question leads to another which leads to another and, before you know it, we have something worth contemplating. Your reading and replies keeps me in the game, and I thank you for that.
One consequence of Gardner’s theory is no more complicated than the old adage: everyone is smart at something. I may be great at writing a weekly Provision, but I’m not much on the dance floor. You may have a knack for identifying birds but have trouble balancing your checkbook. Someone else may speak six languages but not be able to carry a tune. Each intelligence in Gardner’s view has the following properties:
- An intelligence can be isolated as a brain function.
- There will be distinct examples of prodigies, savants, and exceptional individuals.
- It will have its own, unique set of core operations.
- It will emerge developmentally as a part of human learning and growth with experts being the natural end point.
- There will be a traceable history in the evolutionary record of human beings.
- It will have a clearly definable set of tasks that can be carried out, observed, and measured.
- It can be measured through psychometric tests.
- It is encoded in a unique symbol system which practitioners use and share.
Twenty five years after developing and publishing his theory on multiple intelligences, Gardner identified five habits of mind which make use of these intelligences in different combinations and different ways and which, Gardner argues, will be needed if people are to thrive in the world during the eras to come:
- The Disciplined Mind • mastering at least one body of knowledge
- The Synthesizing Mind • pulling together information from disparate sources
- The Creating Mind • breaking new ground with new ideas, questions, and conclusions
- The Respectful Mind • valuing and working effectively with others
- The Ethical Mind • moving beyond self-interest to improve the lot of all
Dan Pink makes the same point in his book, published one year later, called A Whole New Mind. Pink argues that human thriving in the eras to come will require the development and exercise of six, right-brain directed aptitudes:
- The ability to move from function to Design that is beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging
- The ability to move from argument to Story that is a compelling narrative
- The ability to move from focus to a Symphony that is combines disparate pieces into an arresting whole
- The ability to move from logic to Empathy that understands and cares for others
- The ability to move from seriousness to Play, laughter, lightheartedness, games, and humor
- The ability to move from accumulation to Meaning, purpose, transcendence, and spiritual fulfillment
If you see as much overlap as I do between Gardner and Pink, that should come as no surprise. Great minds think alike. The habits of mind (Gardner) or aptitudes (Pink) can be invoked in any of the nine intelligences. Whether you want to become a masterful musician, athlete, physicist, linguist, pilot, therapist, meditator, naturalist, or writer in the 21st century and beyond, you will have to exercise all or some of these qualities.
Fortunately, our brains are designed to make that happen and we are only beginning to understand just how that works. For millennia, human intelligence was viewed as a mystical gift from the gods and an expression of the soul. From that vantage point, there’s not much one can do to cultivate intelligence. Either you have the gift, or you don’t.
All that changed in the 17th century, in the wake of the scientific revolution. Now the brain was seen as a machine subject to the mechanical forces of nature. At first, that machine was understood hydraulically (Descartes thought of nerves as tubes through which fluid flowed that was pumped by the brain). Later, the machine was understood electrically, with nerves serving as the wires through which the brain, functioning as a super computer, would send its signals.
These machine-like metaphors also did not lend themselves to thinking of human intelligence in resilient, developmental terms. For centuries, in fact, the brain was thought of as one of the least resilient and developmental parts of the body. When you cut your hand, the wound closes and heals. When you injure your brain, your capacities seldom come back (or so it was thought).
What else would expect from a machine! When a tire blows out on your car, the wheel doesn’t grow back and the other three wheels don’t enable you to keep on going. You pull over and wait by the side of the road until help arrives. That’s the way machines work. They have a capacity, based upon their design, and they do not exceed or change that capacity without external intervention. They also don’t transform into something they were never meant to be. No matter how hard we try, a Chevrolet will never become a Lamborghini.
Thanks to new technologies and research, however, such mechanical views of the brain and nervous system are now being replaced by biological views that have introduced new layers of complexity and hope. It is now known, for example, that the brain is part of a much larger body-brain system and that it functions much more globally in response to stimulus and desire. There is no part of the brain that corresponds to the tire on a car. There is no one part responsible solely for seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, or balance. There is no one part, or even side (sorry Dan), responsible for thinking or feeling.
The bodymind, as Candace Pert likes to refer to our distributed brain, turns out to be much more dexterous, adaptive, and plastic than anyone had earlier surmised with those older, machine metaphors. The brain really does change itself, through thinking, feeling, and exercising the body. Brain injury is not a death-sentence and the brain is never finished developing and growing new connections (think Christopher Reeves). People can compensate in surprising ways and grow new intelligences over time, if we only set our minds, hearts, and bodies to the task.
All this happens because the brain and nervous system are much more than a machine or an electrical grid. They are a soup of information-sharing charges and chemicals that is constantly brewing new capacities. Psychoneuroimmunologists study that soup, playing with the recipe of peptides, hormones, and neurotransmitters by stirring in different natural and synthetic ingredients. For all the power of pharmaceutical drugs, it turns out that the best way to change the brain is through the natural things we can do ourselves. In her book, Everything You Need to Feel Go(o)d, Pert highlights the following examples:
- Eating simple, non-processed food
- Losing weight if you need to
- Staying warm and sweating often
- Exercising regularly
- Practicing forgiveness
- Reducing stress
- Keeping a dream journal
- Visualizing success
- Connecting with nature
- Laughing and playing
- Engaging in positive, self-affirmations
Those may not sound like rocket science, but the science behind such traditional practices is exploding with documentation as to the impact of such practices on brain waves and the bodymind. What we once thought of as commonsense is now being documented as extraordinary wisdom for anyone who wants to thrive personally or lead others in the 21st century. May it be so for you.
Coaching Inquiries: What practices do you engage in most frequently that help you to feel good? What practices would you like to try? How would you know if they were starting to have an effect? What would change about your mood and emotion? What kinds of intelligence might be evoked?
To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
I was just referred to this site about •Nine Stubborn Brain Myths That Just Won’t Die, Debunked by Science• and I thought of you. You may have already seen it, but if not, you may enjoy it’s presentation. Blessings on your Christmas season.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
Phone: (757) 345-3452 • Fax: (772) 382-3258
Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
Subscribe/Unsubscribe: Subscriber Services