Are we getting smarter?

See “The Flynn Effect,” below…



Intelligence is something that we all want to have, but what is it? There is often a tendency to think of “intelligence” as one quality which you either have or do not have a lot of. The field of psychology has traditionally measured “general intelligence,” or “g,” as an overall quality. Yet intelligence tests administered by psychologists measure verbal, math, visual-spatial reasoning, psychomotor skill, judgment, and logical reasoning and analysis. In addition to the one overall score, these “IQ tests” also come up with subscores, such as verbal, processing speed, and memory. Still, the tendency is to think of intelligence as one thing, and schools emphasize verbal and math skills in their curriculum.

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

In 1993, Howard Gardner published a book which promoted the idea that there are multiple intelligences, and he listed seven: Visual/Linguistic, Visual/Spatial, Logical/Mathematical, Bodily/Kinesthetic, Musical/Rhythmic, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal. Intrapersonal refers to having understanding and insight within oneself: within the person.

Gardner later added an eighth intelligence, Naturalistic  – those who understand and work well with animals and plants.

Dr. Gardner’s book got a great deal of attention around the world, both for and against his ideas. The idea that people have multiple intelligences they are not aware of, that they may have many talents that can be useful and are not usually measured by tests, intrigued many people. Since the publication of his book, numerous schools have sprung up based on the theory of multiple intelligences.

A research team studied 41 of those schools. It was called the SUMIT project (Schools that Use Multiple Intelligence Theory), it reported impressive results: 78% of the schools reported improved standardized test outcomes and improved performances by students with learning difficulties; 81 reported improvement in student discipline problems.

One well-known example is Francis Scott Key School, in Indianapolis, IN. Consistent with Dr. Gardner’s theory, students at each grade level choose one of the “intelligences” to create an original piece of work. They also do group work, community service and study trips around the seven intelligences. The organization, grading and programming are completely different from a traditional school.

Key school became so popular that, after their elementery school was established in 1987, a middle school was added in 1997 and a high school in 1999, all using the same principles. The school is open year round with four three-week breaks; but, rather than hearing complaints about this, there is a waiting list to get in. Based on state test results, Key Learning Community got a greatschools rating of 1 out of 10, which is the highest rating.








Criticism of the Multiple Intelligence Theory

Critics of Dr. Gardner’s theory say that the theory does not have a sound scientific basis. One could ask why he chose those seven, to start with. Some say that perhaps music and math ability should be grouped together, because many who are talented in music are also good at math. Others might suggest putting the “interpersonal” and “intrapersonal” as all one intelligence, because they are so closely related. And why not add artistic talents of various kinds, postulate a “creative” type of intelligence, or the capacity for imagination. Some criticized the SUMIT project, because it was headed by an associate of Dr. Gardner’s who already believed in the theory of multiple intelligences.

Whether you think there should be five, or seven, or 10 intelligences, and whether you agree with the particular ones chosen by Dr. Gardner, the fact remains that his ideas hit a nerve, for both professionals and for the general public. It really sparked people’s imaginations and got them thinking. The fact is, that we do have many different abilities, and people are good at different kinds of things. If someone is not especially adept in one area, it is likely they will be adept in another area, where someone else does not do as well.

Looking at it from this viewpoint, and bringing in more kinds of activities for youngsters to take on, even giving them a choice of which of these special areas they wish to pursue, can only benefit the group and each individual. If each person feels there is something that he or she is good at, and he is able to practice it every day, this would help his confidence in other subject areas.








Intelligence is not a static quality

It might also interest people to know that intelligence can change over time, especially in children and teenagers. Those who have a more enriched environment will tend to have higher IQ scores than those from an impoverished background. Many schools now provide enrichment studies, many of which are optional after-school programs, which children can choose, based on their interests. At home, just having books and educational toys gives children an extra boost in their development, and many parents make a point of doing so.

What would you say if you learned that Mozart’s music could increase your IQ score? In one study, college students increased their IQ scores in the area of visual-spatial reasoning after listing to 10 minutes of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (5, page 162). When the brain is processing things more fluidly, all tasks will be performed better and more easily. A study in 2005 showed that college students with exposure to music significantly increased their SAT (“college boards”) scores (5).

The Flynn Effect

Perhaps even more interesting are observations that intelligence goes up 5 to 25 points every generation. This is called the Flynn effect, because it was discovered by James R. Flynn in 1994. What this means is that, if we were to give an outdated IQ test to someone today, such as test designed in 1950, people today would, on average, get much higher scores on it. IQ tests have to be frequently redesigned to account for this steady increase in intelligence.

This essentially means that intelligence test scores have gone up 20 points in the last 70 years. 100 is considered an average IQ score.  The average person’s IQ score in 1930 would be 76, by today’s standards, rather than 100.

There are different types of IQ scores: verbal and nonverbal. Nonverbal IQ tests require the person to recognize and reason from visual patterns and pictures without words. These nonverbal tests attempt to avoid the effects of culture and education, in an attempt to get at the person’s actual ability. It is interesting to note that the Flynn effect has been found in both verbal and nonverbal tests.

The Flynn effect has been found in 20 countries across the world, not just the U.S. Kenya has made huge IQ gains recently, while the island of Dominica made more modest gains.

No one is really sure why this happens. Some speculate that, as our world becomes more complex, we grow intellectually as we learn  about it and how to deal with it.  The important thing to know is that no one is “stuck” with any particular level of abilities. By expanding our awareness and our skills, even IQ scores can change, and that can happen at any age.




3. Gardner, Howard, Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice (1993) New York, New York: Basic Books.

4. Gardner, Howard, Intelligence Reframed (1999) New York, New York: Basic Books.

5. Hannaford, Carla, Playing in the Unified Field: Raising and Becoming Conscious Human Beings  (2010) Salt Lake City, Utah: Great River Books

6. Myers, David (2010) Psychology (9th edition)  Worth Publishers: New York, NY, p. 420.

7. Winerman, Lea “Smarter than ever?” APA Monitor on Psychology, Marcy, 2013, pages 33-33.