from "Writing and Multiple Intelligences," A Working Paper

by Gerald Grow, Ph.D.
School of Journalism, Media & Graphic Arts
Florida A&M University, Tallahassee FL 32307 USA
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Spatial Intelligence

Writing is clearly related to the intelligences discussed so far--linguistic, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. The relation of writing to spatial, musical, and kinesthetic intelligence is likely to be controversial and may vary widely among writers. Based on my own experience as a writer, I will argue that these three intelligences also play a role in writing--perhaps a metaphoric role for many, but for others, these may be close to the center of the writing experience.

The spatial intelligence manifests in a variety of ways. Transforming mental images is a spatial skill that engineers and designers depend on. When a hiker pauses with map and compass, it is the spatial intelligence that conceptualizes the path. Through the spatial sense, a painter "feels" the tension, balance and composition of a painting. Spatial ability is also "the more abstract intelligence of a chess master, a battle commander, or a theoretical physicist" (194), as well as the familiar ability to recognize objects, faces, and details.

Some of the key features of spatial intelligence mirror key features in writing. The ability to see at all is an act of spatial intelligence, and intelligent perception lays the foundation for all writing that is based on observation or description. Writers create a wide variety of mental images in readers--an expression of the spatial intelligence sometimes discussed under the label of "visual thinking" (as used, for example, by Arnheim; Samuels; McKim). In a eye-opening piece of information (the kind of tidbit that makes this book fascinating), Gardner reports that spatial intelligence is not exclusively tied to the visual sense; it can develop even in a blind person (174). One of Gardner's recurring themes comes back to mind at this point: "In no case is an intelligence completely dependent upon a single sensory system, nor has any sensory system been immortalized as an intelligence" (68). "Spatial" is therefore more than "visual" and includes abstract, analytical abilities that go beyond seeing images. This knowledge suggests that the standard advice--"write for the eye"--may be usefully elaborated into something like: "write so the reader's spatial intelligence can construct the scene from clues you have provided." Studying this chapter, I often thought of that aphorism in which William Blake emphasized the role of imagination in seeing: "The mind sees through the eye."

It is in the spatial intelligence that Gardner locates one of the activities most central to writing: the "ability to discern similarities across diverse domains." He praises Lewis Thomas's expressive analogies between biological phenomena and human concerns. He connects this to the "images" underlying many scientific theories, such as "Darwin's vision of the tree of life, Freud's notion of the unconscious as submerged like an iceberg, and John Dalton's view of the atom as a tiny solar system." (176-7)

In writers, the product of this ability is metaphor-- not only one of the prime expressions of the creative process, but perhaps the single most important technique for communicating. Through metaphor and metaphoric thinking, we communicate new thoughts by linking the unknown with the known by means of the spatial intelligence. (Much later in the book, Gardner suggests that metaphor can be spread among many domains, not just the spatial [292-3]).

The spatial intelligence may play an important role in organizing writing. "Mind maps" and outlines are spatial methods of displaying the organizational structure of a thought. Through this kind of visual thinking, one can perceive how thoughts are related to one another, how realms of thought stack, overlap, or stand side by side. The terms used in outlining are generally spatial terms: Headings are placed "under" or "above" one another. Thoughts are arranged in "higher" and "lower" levels. In a more vivid form of spacial organization, some writers describe seeing a scene like a 3-D movie, then writing about it.

Gardner's account of the spatial intelligence touches upon another ability that is crucial to good writing: the ability to convey a sense of the "whole" of a subject or of a piece of writing--a "gestalt" organization, different from the logical-mathematical kind of organization used, for example, in this article. The ability to impart a non-logical wholeness to the form of a piece, Gardner suggests, may be a function of the spatial intelligence.

Sex differences are more pronounced in tests of spatial skills than for any other intelligence. Males score more highly than females. Gardner speculates that genetic selection, dating to hunting-gathering days, may be the cause.

To exercise the spatial intelligence in a writing class, one might examine alternate endings to see which give a sense of wholeness. One might examine the language of architects, sculptors, and other visual thinkers, to see how it differs from common usage. Look at slides of scenery, art works, advertisements, cultural artifacts, and people. Work with perceptual puzzles of the kind Gregory details. Different meanings associated with the word "space" make an interesting discussion and lead to topics for writing. The spatial images imbedded in daily speech suggest the depth of our visual thinking: understand, inadvertent, advertisement, under the weather, beside himself, feeling low, a tall order, go fly a kite. (Lakoff's analysis of the spatial dimensions of thought and language is a powerful place for a writer to start.) Students could try using such expressions as the driving force for a piece of writing.

The appearance of writing on the page can be a central part of its expressiveness. Compare a dozen different typefaces and write characterizations of their "personalities." To see the effect of type, set a passage in a typeface whose expressive qualities clash with those of the text.

It should be interesting to find out whether stimulating spatial awareness can stimulate the use of description, metaphor, or a sense of organic form.

Spatial intelligence is easly to find in any community--architects, contractors, and engineers have it. So do most carpenters and many other tradespeople. See if an artist can come talk to your class. Look for a local crafts person with unusual spatial ability--perhaps someone who carves interlocking wooden chains. Visit a work of architecture that creates a special space and, perhaps with the help of photographs of Greek temples and medieval cathedrals, discuss and write about the power of spaces.

Forward to Musical Intelligence