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More than Knowledge: An Argument for Holistic Intelligence



More than Knowledge: An Argument for Holistic Intelligence

Intelligence has generally been considered to be a largely cognitive activity, described as the rational thought to think clearly about an issue, and the knowledge and information stored in the working memory. But there are other, richer aspects of intelligence as well, including the capacities for direct insight, developing a clear internal picture of one’s world, exploring the boundaries of thought and memory, and achieving the mental flow state that spurs creativity.

This more integrated view of intelligence is not a brand-new concept: two well-received works from the recent past made effective arguments. Daniel Goleman’s global bestseller, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (2005) makes a case for humans having, essentially, two minds: the rational mind, and the emotional mind— which encompasses such qualities as self-awareness, self-discipline, and empathy. Howard Gardner’s popular Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983) asserted that humans possess a number of different types of intelligences, such as visual-spatial; verbal-linguistic; bodily-kinesthetic; logical-mathematical.

But in the digital age, these qualities that mark a more holistic sense of intelligence are potentially at risk. Dwelling primarily in the cyber world can have negative effects on our attention span, a stream of thought, working memory, and fully developed emotive life. One way to offset the loss is to acknowledge that these aspects of intelligence are equal to those we more commonly list. They are the complements to rational thought and working memory, and ought to be more understood and far more valued.

Once we know the measure of something, it’s harder for it to slip through our fingers. These three arguments make the case for holistic intelligence:

1. The brain and the body are connected.

We need to recognize that our emotions and the thoughts that follow from those emotions possess a deeply embodied basis. Often when we experience some emotion, and then begin to pursue thoughts that follow from that emotion, both of those things have originated with a particular physiological response to something in our world.

The nineteenth-century philosopher-psychologist William James showed that not only does the brain communicate with the body, but the body also communicates with the brain. He postulated that the conscious experience of emotion often takes place after the body’s physiological response to something. Using the example of encountering a bear in the woods, he put forth the idea that we experience the emotion of fear only after we have experienced the physiological responses of increased heart rate and respiration.

If that’s true, then it means our emotions and our thoughts are often connected by a common source — our physiological reactions to events in our lives — and therefore may be more deeply connected to each other in an embodied manner than what previously believed. That connection creates another possibility: that we might be able more fully fuse thought and emotion.

2. Our worldview keeps changing.

The internal picture we make of our world is anything but static: we need to allow for the fact that on the contrary, it may be constantly changing. We carry the spatial map of our environment within the hippocampus region of our brains. Essentially, this is an internal representation of our external environment: by formulating this internalized picture, we can better focus on the details of our world. This is also what allows us to not only create long-term memories but also to have access to them later. Needless to say, this image is highly dependent upon the validity of those long-term memories, which feed its knowledge and information about our world.

But neuroscientists and others who have studied the matter know that our memories are extremely fluid entities. They can be easily changed over time with our thoughts. So the act of remembering something perfectly may in fact be a labor in vain. Marcel Proust’s iconic multivolume novel, In Search of Lost Time (also known as Remembrance of Things Past), focuses on a particular time from his youth. In the process of writing, Proust realized that the very act of remembering something caused him to invariably change it. Thus he made endless revisions to his manuscript, right up to the time of his death.

If our internal picture of our world is constantly changing, then quite possibly that might also mean that knowledge, personality, formative life experiences, and our particular view of our own conditioning might in fact be far more fluid than what we previously imagined. Therefore, how might those qualities be integrated into some larger intelligence — which could give them greater clarity by putting them in their proper perspective?


3. Insight requires both attention and memory.

Those Aha moments we have about situations or people stem from a well of attention and memory. Our capacity for such direct insights is necessarily dependent upon a heightened awareness in which our interior life exists without any barriers — physical or mental, conscious or unconscious — that separate us from the details of our world. In this pure state of heightened perception, the observer and the observed are one and the same. At the same time, this state of heightened awareness is highly dependent upon a fully focused capacity for selective attention, itself dependent upon the clarity of one’s long-term memories.

Intelligence is seen this way is a conception that expands far beyond a simple combination of rational thought, knowledge, or even the capacity to imagine situations creatively. It embraces the possibility that our intelligence includes qualities like direct insight, and the ability to access a flow state in which we grow more connected to certain elements of our world. In other words, we need to look at intelligence not only in terms of cognitive abilities, or even as separate categories. To avoid doing so could significantly limit it; thus limit what we as humans might become.

Lyn Lesch founded and directed his own democratically run school for children ages six to fourteen for twelve years, one that received widespread attention in the Chicago area as a unique approach to education. He has written four books on education reform, all of them emphasizing the importance of what occurs inside a young person while they learn. He has a lifelong interest in pursuing a larger consciousness. His new book is Intelligence in the Digital Age: How the Search for Something Larger May Be Imperiled. Learn more at