Right/Left Brain? Not in This Hemisphere!

Alternatively, we have the biological view of polymathy. According to this perspective, different parts of our brain are responsible for their own unique functions. Our ability to write is dictated by one part of our cerebrum, while the capacity to comprehend writing is controlled by another part. A polymath is someone with an exceptionally developed brain whose cerebral lobes have matured beyond the average.

So which of the two is accurate? The truth is that both of these theories are highly flawed and unsupported by any kind of scientific research. Gardner’s multiple intelligences is simply a theory that can’t be proved scientifically, while the idea that specific parts of our brain alone conduct certain functions is patently false.

Now that we’ve laid out what kinds of intelligence exist, we come to how these categories relate to becoming a polymath. By one possible view, being a polymath involves becoming proficient in at least three of these multiple intelligences. For example, a counselor may treat his or her patients effectively through their interpersonal intelligence. However, to be a polymath who excels in this field, they may also want to develop their linguistic, intrapersonal, and logical-mathematical intelligences.

Similarly, an artist might well be high in spatial or musical intelligence, but developing their interpersonal, linguistic, and intrapersonal intelligences might help them achieve greater success than what they would have managed by just being good at art.

Adherents of this view hold that increasing your skills or knowledge can primarily be done in a compartmentalized fashion, wherein training your various intelligences one by one helps one achieve polymathy. For detractors, It’s unclear how distinct these intelligences really are, or whether science shows that they actually exist. Nonetheless, Gardner’s ideas remain an influential theory that is particularly popular among educators. Besides this, there is another prominent view of what makes a polymath, and this perspective is described in the next section.

This next view of what makes a polymath has some things in common with both the traditional view of intelligence as well as Gardner’s multiple intelligences. We’ll refer to it as the biological view of intelligence, since it is heavily dependent on the structure and development of your brain. The human brain is one of the most complex organs in our entire body, with close to 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections all interacting with each other to coordinate our daily functions.

Different parts of our brain are responsible for managing their own separate functions, and being a polymath requires these parts to be well developed individually, as well as in connection to the whole. As you’ll see, one part of your brain is responsible for logical thinking, while another controls your ability to interpret language.

According to the biological view of intelligence, to become a polymath, you need a brain whose distinct parts are developed beyond the average in ways that facilitate higher order logical or linguistic intelligence. To find out more about this theory, read on.

You might have come across the notion of some people being left-brained whereas others are right-brained. If you’re the kind of person who is methodical and always thinking rationally, you fit into the former camp, whereas more artistically oriented individuals fall into the latter category. (Healthline, Weatherspoon 2019)

This theory is partly based on the way scientists have formulated the function of specific parts of our brain. To understand this in greater depth, we need to familiarize ourselves with some basics on brain biology.

Our brains consist of three overarching parts: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. The cerebrum is divided into two hemispheres, which control processes like movement, speech, hearing, vision, regulation of emotions, reasoning capabilities, etc. Each hemisphere is then divided into four lobes, which individually perform the aforementioned, along with other functions. These are called the frontal, temporal, occipital, and parietal lobes. (Healthline, Seladi-Schulman, 2018)

The frontal lobe can be found in the forward region of our head and is responsible for many essential functions of our brain. This includes emotional regulation, reasoning, planning, and most importantly, determining our personality. Its role in controlling the way we express ourselves, memory, language, impulse control, sexual behaviors, and more makes it central to the way others perceive us.

The temporal lobe, located on the sides of our head near our ears, is primarily engaged in two distinct roles. The first role is controlling visual memory, which helps you remember people’s faces, objects, etc. The second is managing your verbal memory, which helps you interpret language and speech. Besides these functions, the temporal lobe also plays a part in the formation of long-term memories and the retention of smells.

The parietal lobe is largely responsible for our spatial intelligence. Moreover, it also plays a role in interpreting sense data that is related to vision, hearing, pain, and other sensations. The parietal lobe combines all the various inputs it receives from our senses to facilitate cognition and thinking. (KenHub, Shahid, 2020)

Lastly, the occipital lobes, which can be found at the back of your head, are mainly responsible for processing visual information. This includes colors, shapes, lighting, etc.

As you can see, these four lobes that together make up the cerebrum are involved in functions related to interpreting various forms of sensory input to allow for our cognitive processes. However, the cerebellum and brainstem, the two other main parts of the brain, are also significant for our routine functioning.

The cerebellum can be found below the cerebrum and is crucial in coordinating operations that are related to physical movement. It helps us maintain our posture and balance while walking, allows motor functions such as riding a bicycle, and facilitates motor learning-related activities like learning how to play an instrument. It also plays a part in regulating our speech. (MedicalNewsToday, Fisher 2018)

While the cerebellum makes many of our voluntary movements possible, the brain stem is in charge of controlling our involuntary processes. This includes our breathing, regulation of our heartbeat, sleep and eating cycles, sensitivity to pain, etc. The brain stem is particularly important because all information to the cerebrum and cerebellum passes through it first, making any damage to it the most catastrophic of any part of our brain. (KenHub, Crumbie, 2020)

You would be forgiven for thinking that you have mistakenly stumbled across a biology textbook, but this information is essential to our purpose—the distribution of functions across different parts of our brain might tell us something important about being a polymath. If we were to reject Gardner’s multiple intelligences as being the root of polymathic abilities in favor of this biological view, a polymath would be someone with a well-developed brain with a particularly advanced cerebrum.

We know that the brains of intelligent people have more folds in them, which increases their surface area and allows for a higher density of neurons overall. Thus, if specific parts of your brain, such as the frontal lobe or the parietal lobe, were to have a higher number of folds, that might explain the source of polymathic ability. The former being denser would point to improved reasoning skills, which the latter could indicate heightened linguistic abilities.

One might be tempted to accept this proposition given that Gardner’s theory appears more abstract, while the biological view seems more scientifically grounded and thus reliable.

Alternatively, we could also combine the two theories to understand what it takes to become a polymath. A person with high spatial intelligence might just be someone whose parietal lobes have matured extensively. Similarly, an individual who is strong in logical-mathematical intelligence could simply be someone whose frontal lobes have grown beyond what might be considered the average.

This points to a similarity in both theories, which is their delineation of specific functions to either a particular type of intelligence, or a specific part of our brain. However, it’s important to note there is a difference between talking about various types of intelligences in a way similar to Gardner, and actually believing these intelligences to exist.

Saying that someone is musically intelligent does not mean that Gardner’s idea of musical intelligence exists. Someone could simply be prolific at music composition by virtue of possessing a well-developed brain.

So which is it? Is Gardner right, or does the biological view paint a more accurate picture of what makes a polymath? Or is it a combination of both?

You might be relieved to know that, in truth, both of the preceding theories about polymathic abilities are deeply flawed and fail to do a good job of explaining what makes someone a polymath. It might be tempting to think that polymaths simply have more developed brains than we do, or that they are smarter in ways that we just aren’t, but neither of these possibilities is accurate.

While both theories sound perfectly reasonable in their own right, neither has been sufficiently backed by scientific research to be taken seriously. To take Gardner’s multiple intelligences, there is nothing to suggest that there are actually distinct “intelligences” at play when individuals show proficiency in a certain field such as music or debate. The types of intelligences as Gardner lays them out are also hard to measure and evaluate. Some, like intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence, can be hard to define at all.

One factor that makes these barriers significantly worse is that Gardner has refused to outline specific components of each intelligence type or suggest ways in which they can be verified. Instead, he has chosen to simply describe them extensively, which brings his theory on par with any other abstract theory on intelligence. (PsychologyToday, McGreal 2013)