Kagan's Articles - FREE Kagan Articles

Dr. Spencer Kagan

Can Intelligences be Located?

Dr. Spencer Kagan with Response by Dr. Howard Gardner

To cite this article: Kagan, S. Can Intelligences be Located? San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Summer 1998. www.KaganOnline.com

Editor's Note: A more recent and more detailed answer to the question of brain localization of intelligences appears in the article: Trialogue: Brain Localization of Intelligences

I have been writing a piece for our MI Trainer's institute on my responses to the most frequently asked questions in MI workshops. On many points I find myself in complete agreement with Dr. Howard Gardner. On one point, though, I found myself parting company with Dr. Gardner. The issue is brain localization as a criterion of intelligence. I sent my thoughts on the topic to Dr. Gardner who gave a very thoughtful and interesting response. What follows is the piece I wrote indicating problems with brain localization as a criterion for intelligence, and Dr. Gardner's response.

Brain Localization — An Unworkable Criterion

Dr. Spencer Kagan

Teachers at workshops often ask me where in the brain a particular intelligence is located. This question may be stimulated by Howard Gardner's statement in Frames of Mind that he took brain localization to be the most important criterion for an intelligence. Or perhaps the question is stimulated by older, now outdated views of the brain. There was a time when educators thought some people were left-brained and others right-brained and that some functions like language were located in the left brain and others like art were located in the right brain.

Modern brain science reveals a far more complex picture. For some time we have known that when we look at a picture, relations of objects are processed by certain parts of the brain, details by others. New brain imaging technology has recently revealed that "seeing" a picture (or processing any information) is a miracle of cooperation among millions of neuron groups in different parts of the brain. As we look at the world, some neurons respond to color, others to lines of certain angles, others to shapes, others to the direction of people's heads, others to the features on their face, and yet others to emotional expressions their features portray. The experience of reality as we know it is assembled. Only if certain different neuron groups are firing simultaneously (lets say red and triangle) do other groups fire, letting us experience an integrated reality (a red triangle). Every intelligent act we observe in a student is the result of an incredible number of different parts of the brain working in cooperation. Intelligences do not reside in any one place; they are the by-product of a fantastically large number of interactions among neurons in different parts of the brain.

What then can we make of the claim that the most important criterion for an intelligences is brain localization? We must conclude that that notion is outdated. There are two things which can be intended by the phrase "brain localization." We can mean either that the behavior is associated with activity in one spot in the brain (narrow localization), or we can mean that the behavior is associated with activity anywhere in the brain whether it is narrowly located or located in a number of places (broad localization). Either interpretation, however, does not support the notion that there are eight intelligences.

Every cognitive event is associated with neurons firing and neurotransmitters acting on receptor sites. That everything can be "located" in this broad sense makes broad localization an impossible criterion for an intelligence. A criterion which includes everything is no criterion.

If we turn to the narrow notion of localization, localization in one site, the criterion Gardner originally described in Frames of Mind, we find support for an incredible number of intelligences. We can locate sites responsible for receptive speech apart from sites for expressive speech, and within each we can locate many discrete "intelligences." The features of a person's face (leading to face recognition) are processed by different parts of the brain than the emotions portrayed by the face. Brain studies show we can lose the ability to process proper nouns without losing the ability to process common nouns, and within the domain of common nouns we can lose the ability to name tools while retaining the ability to name animals. There are literally millions of different "intelligences" which can be located in this way. The brain imaging technology is progressing at a rapid rate; there will come a time that we will find for humans what we have already established for other primates — that single neurons respond to stimuli as specific as the shape of a hand, or the position of a head.

With either notion of localization, broad or narrow, we do not end up with just eight intelligences. In the face of advancing brain science we find "brain localization" is not a workable criterion for a human intelligence. Intelligences cannot be localized because intelligence is the by-product of an incredible number of interactions within and between the hundred billion neurons in the brain.

Response from Dr. Howard Gardner:

Thanks for running your "usual answer" by me and for requesting my "take" on it. Here is my brief response, which you have my permission to share with interested parties, provided that you do so in toto. I ask that you not excerpt the material.

Any scientific position needs to be considered in the context of the circumstances under which it was developed and the uses to which it is being put. When I was doing my research for Frames of Mind, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many scholars and laypersons still believed that the brain was an all-purpose devise, with zones and lobes virtually substitutable for one another. It was important to make the case, once and for all, for the highly localized nature of brain functioning and against the classical "equipotential" position. Nowadays, that battle has been fought and settled for most of the scientific community, though skirmishes occasionally arise on both the scientific and the lay front.
The evidence that has accumulated in the last two decades points to far greater localization of function, on the one hand, and to intriguing kinds of dynamic interactions among different columns, and zones, on the other. Any up-to-date account of brain functioning, particularly with reference to psychological functions, needs to convey these points.

Even at the time when I was preparing Frames of Mind, it was evident to me that some brain functions are far more localized than others, and some are far more uniform across individuals than others. Indeed, in Frames of Mind, I contrasted the highly differentiated and localized nature of linguistic intelligence with the more diffuse representation of personal (and even spatial) intelligences. And I also made the point that language is represented far more similarly among right handers than, say, musical intelligence which can be quite distinctively represented depending upon the mode in which music was first encountered and the kinds of music that exist within a culture. All of this was recognized even twenty years ago.

The question arises about whether the vast amount of neurological, genetic, and psychological information about human functioning profits from being organized in terms of a small number of relatively autonomous systems the phrase that I have always used. Not only do I believe that it is profitable to do so. I also believe that, in a broad sense, the discoveries over the past twenty years have been extremely hospitable to my recent division among kinds of intelligence; and that writings from evolutionary psychology (Pinker, Tooby and Cosmides), cognitive archeology (Mithen), and cognitive studies (Astington, Damasio, Rosnow) are consistent with the particular intelligences that I proposed.

There are, of course, contexts in which it is plausible to say that the human brain is a single information processing device. There are also contexts in which it is plausible to talk about dozens or even hundreds of different human faculties that may be individually described, studied, and perhaps even localized. Yet for both scientific and practical reasons, and particularly for educational purposes, there are still strong reasons for aggregating faculties in a small number of clusters, which I call the "intelligences." I believe that my list of intelligences remains a strong contender for the best such cartography. And I note with interest that Spencer Kagan continues to organize his own writings around the list that I've put forth.

Howard Gardner
Cambridge, MA.
July 1998