George Lucas Educational Foundation

Brain Imagery Probes the Idea of Diverse Intelligences

MRI scans show that human abilities come in many combinations.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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Editor's Note (2015): Additional research is needed to understand the applications of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences in educational settings. Furthermore, a clear distinction should be made between multiple intelligences (how people process information) and learning styles (how people approach tasks differently). Research, however, does suggest that providing students with multiple ways to learn content improves learning (Hattie, 2011). Read more about the research on multiple intelligences and learning styles.

Every perceptive teacher sees a diversity of strengths and weaknesses in each of her students: There is the child who loves math but has trouble playing well with classmates, the one who makes friends easily but struggles to stay focused on written tasks, and another who creates beautiful paintings but can't seem to retain much of what she's read.

Recent brain research shows that the complex abilities apparent in individual kids are reflected on the inside, as well as the outside. Parts of the brain involved in reading, math, music, and personal relationships are different -- larger or smaller, more or less active -- in every child. These circuits are independent, so even if a child struggles in one domain, like reading, he may have a neurological advantage in others. And perhaps most surprising, scientists have established that learning and practicing certain skills can cause the corresponding brain areas to morph and grow. In other words, by helping a child hone her abilities, you can actually change her brain.

One camp of psychologists has long touted a single kind of smart, called fluid intelligence, which involves the ability to reason and solve problems. Some studies have shown a link between this trait and activity in certain parts of the brain. The new research doesn't disprove this, nor does it prove Howard Gardner's theory that we in fact have multiple intelligences. (The idea of "intelligence" is too subjective to be proven.) But it shows that a kaleidoscope of ability is mapped in our brains, and that, with the help of brain-imaging technology, these are variations of "intelligences" we can actually see.

"A lot of people have this intuition that if you're bad at one thing, then you're going to be bad at other things," says Bruce McCandliss, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University, who has published multiple studies on the subject. "But here's a really strong case that shows these things are dissociated from each other, and we should think of all children as a mosaic of things that they're exceptional at and things they might struggle with."

A Bright Bunch:

These images, from a 2005 study in Cognitive Brain Research, show horizontal slices in the brains of adolescent boys, as measured while they were doing a spatial math problem. The pictures are composites from multiple boys -- those shown in a) having average math ability, and those in b) being gifted in math. The brighter the color in these fMRI pictures, the stronger the brain activity. The c) images show the active areas unique to the math-gifted brain.

Credit: Reprinted by permission of Elsevier and Michael W. O'Boyle.

Imaging studies have shown differences in brain architecture and activity that correspond to a host of capabilities: reading, math, music, athletics, and interpersonal relations. If we see all these abilities as aspects of intelligence, then intelligence has no single address in the brain. Each skill involves multiple gears that are spread out across the brain and that work together through intricate networks. For a child to successfully perform a skill, such as reading, all the areas involved in reading must work in concert, linked by well-built, lightning-fast neural connections. And the brains of individual children will respond to challenges in different ways, even when presented with the same problem.

In a 2005 study published in Cognitive Brain Research, researchers gave a difficult problem to boys who were gifted in math and to others with average math skills. The task involved mental rotation -- the ability to create and manipulate an image in your head. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the scientists saw several areas of the brain become active in the average-ability boys while they did the task. In the math-gifted boys, those areas and additional ones lit up like a Christmas tree, showing significantly more activity.

A year later, a study by McCandliss and Sumit Niogi that focused on brain structure found a connection between reading skills and white matter, the bundles of electricity-conducting tissues that link parts of the brain together, like the fiber-optic cable network to the Internet.

McCandliss and Niogi showed that the stronger the white matter tract in a particular mid-left area of the brain -- the thicker its electrical insulation and the more well organized its fibers -- the higher the reading scores of children they tested. The white matter variations accounted not only for the range of scores among typical readers but also for the differences in performance between these children and others with a likely reading disability. In the same study, the researchers found that the strength of kids' reading circuits was unrelated to that of their circuits for another skill critical in school: short-term memory.

The imaging confirms that there are differences in the brain between people who learn one way and those who learn another way, says Sally Shaywitz, Yale University's Audrey G. Ratner Professor of Learning Development, who studies dyslexia. "It explains what seems unexplainable," she says. "Why should a very bright child not be able to read? But it also tells us that other areas of the brain aren't affected."

Yet neurological profiles are not, as McCandliss puts it, "manifest destiny." Even though scientists don't know yet how much of our brain diversity is inborn and how much is shaped by experience, they have shown that the act of learning can change the brain.

"One should not think of intelligence as a single thing that's fixed and that nothing can be done about," says Michael Posner, founding director of Cornell University's Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychology and now a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon. "Just as there are multiple individual differences in different areas, there are ways of training these different brain networks, and that might change the brain processes underlying them."

In musicians who play stringed instruments, for instance, the brain areas that affect the fingers of the left hand are larger than other people's. This effect, described in Science magazine in 1995, is strongest for the four fingers -- which do the bulk of the work manipulating the strings of, say, a violin -- and weakest for the thumb. The earlier in life each musician had started to play, the more distinct were the differences in those parts of the brain.

Scientists have seen evidence like this for mental, not just physical tasks. In studies with strong implications for school, Shaywitz, codirector of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, has shown that teaching can alter the brains of disabled readers. She and colleagues spent a year helping children with reading disabilities build their phonological skills. Afterward, the children's reading improved, and fMRI pictures showed that activity in parts of their brains crucial for reading had jumped.

What does all this mean for educators? First, a caution: Neuroscientists insist there is no concrete proof that certain teaching practices are best for the brain. But we can make some inferences based on brain research, and in time our understanding will grow.

Judy Willis, a neurologist, middle school teacher, and author of several books on the subject, says educators can achieve a lot just by designing lessons that appeal to multiple senses. She suggests that teachers lead a child into a new subject through his particular strengths and interests. Once he's engaged, a teacher can challenge him to use a different, weaker skill set for another part of the lesson, helping him develop those parts of his brain.

Shaywitz advocates personalization as a key to nurturing children's growth. She encourages teachers to allow struggling readers, for example, to use dictation or to tell and experience stories through pictorial storyboards and videos. Reading is the bedrock of almost everything that happens in schools, but Shaywitz urges educators to recognize and reward other skills, too, as she has found that many kids with reading disabilities have a flair for the creative and the visual.

"Schools like to talk about individualizing, but it's within very narrow parameters," says Shaywitz. "So if we can show that children's brains are different -- that they need different nutrients, if you will -- that's a tremendous step to say, 'It's not trivial; they're built differently.'"

The next step for scientists is to directly link brain changes to the broad experience of school. McCandliss is researching the difference that a year of school makes in the brains of first graders compared with peers who just missed the birthday cutoff for enrollment.

Of course, educators don't usually have to look inside a child's brain to see that she has learned something. But a deeper understanding of how education shapes the brain could give us new insights into what and how children can most successfully learn. Who knows: Maybe in some far-off future, we could supplement the narrow results of standardized tests with images of changes in the brain.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Kee Liang Yeo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Previously, I held the belief that some kids are born smart, regardless of environment. I have also observed that the same kids may not know how to do certain things well, and some even become less clever as they grow older.
How a kid is brought up has a big impact on his ability to handle his adult life. A normal child can evolve into a "monster" and become destructive to his own life, if he is subject to long period of mental-torture by his parents or guardian. It is a natural process that takes place inside the brain and the subconscious section of the mind. The brain automatically develop a defense-system to safe-guard the child from abuse, and this will continue to work within the mental and psychological behavior for the rest of his life.

FUSEingFamilies's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love this information! It really gives you much to think about and this needs to be brought to the attention of Parents everywhere.

Kelly Sackmann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a student at Walden University. I am studying mathematics and reading at the elementary level.I was really surprised by this article. Our brains are more amazing than I thought. Learning new things will actually change our brain. Our brain will work with the new skills we learn. I was shocked to hear about how the brain can be changed by playing an instrument. I have always told my students, our brain is a muscle, we need to work it out each and everyday.

Melinda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always thought that my strengths and weaknesses would be the same through out my life. I have never been good at math. I can't do math problems in my head. I have to see it or touch it to believe it. After reading this article, I can see now that the brain is like a muscle..the more you use certain parts of it, the stronger it gets. We, as teachers, have to challenge our students to get out of their comfort zones so they can work harder on their weaknesses instead of avoiding them. Like the old saying goes, "If you don't use it, you'll lose it."

MattB's picture

There are so many similarities in the works of Vygotsky, Cambourne, Gardner, Tomilson, Marzano, etc. that it is surprising how much of a disconnect exists in todays public schools between what we know about how the brain learns, and how we are actually encouraged to teach. The paragraph citing Judy Willis describes in part schema theory, which has been around for decades, and multiple intelligence theory. In fact, recent books on differentiated instruction have become so bogged down with the "research," that they have become almost useless to many teachers. I have witnessed this first hand several times over the last few years.

Beth B's picture
Beth B
Academic Advisor, Certified School Counselor

I agree with MattB. Gardner and the others proposed their theories and they are believed and backed up anecdotally. Now we have the hard science to support this kind of learning and it's still not used in the classroom.

Our schools are failing our children because their structure is based on an outdated model. Updating to the 21st century does not just mean bringing computers and technology into the classroom, it means changing our ideas of education. Now, we just start earlier and try to pack more assembly-line classes into the day for more seat time. The alternative does not have to be politics-laden, service learning either. There really can be deep change, focusing on what the students need.

Chris McA's picture

I can't begin to describe how disappointed I am that Edutopia would join in the promotion of this baseless fad. While Mult Intell sounds scientific, and has great emotional appeal (both important signs of pseudoscience (e.g., astrology, communication with the dead, etc...)), honest, knowledgeable people know it has no evidence.
A few years ago when I was a professor, (I've since returned to the public school classroom) I would offer students $50 at the start of the semester if they could find even one study that simply provided valid, public, observable evidence that Mult Intell is a valid empirical notion (never mind the higher standard of it actually helping school children) I never had to pay. I'm glad to read that I still don't.
So I still don't understand, why would Edutopia promote this 25 year old idea that has never been scientifically supported?

Quint Rahaman's picture

@Chris: First, I'd like to know how long, in your opinion, a "fad" lasts? Apparently 25 years, (actually it's closer to 30 years since MI was introduced) still qualifies as a "fad" in your world. The OED defines this word as "an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived; a craze" where the key temporal qualifier is "short-lived". You very well could still be correct if you live a few hundred years. You can tell my descendants, "I told you so!".

Look, all kidding aside, the sort of evidence you're looking for requires a different lens, a build up of the "terministic screen", be employed. How about you run a CoRT 1 (from Dr. Edward De Bono) against the theory and then decide whether this "quantifiable evidence" that would flip your flag is necessary. You really don't need to take a leap of faith, or come to terms with the "possibility" that there is a "there there". All that need be done is to view the person from a "student-centric" vs a "curriculum-centric" point of view. You're probably already doing that but using the kind of tools that meet your criteria. For me, MI is a vector, a sort of tuning fork that seeks out and enables just the right frequency for engaging excellence and a sense of self-worth from that student.
Whatever this young lady has experienced at her school is something to be bottled up and sprinkled everywhere and I'll take that over any white-paper any day:

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