The Eighth Intelligence – Naturalistic Intelligence


Naturalistic Intelligence – What is it?

© Leslie Owen Wilson

Background: As many readers may know already, in 1983 Multiple Intelligence Theory was first put forth by Professor Howard Gardner in his ground breaking book, Frames of mind. For his work on broadening our understanding of human intelligence Gardner received one of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship Awards. While his original theory included descriptions of 7 intelligences, in the mid-1990s he began to propose that there was an eighth kind of smarts — naturalistic intelligence

Gardner’s career has had many facets. He was the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and an adjunct professor of neurology at Boston University. He is also the Director of Project Zero at Harvard and has many other degrees and prestigious awards and positions. By combining his areas of interest and expertise, one of the great strengths of Gardner’s work is that he accurately pinpointed parts of the brain as these correlated to each of his described intelligences. Gardner used this neurological evidence to help justify the credibility of his theory by noting that humans could actually lose an ability or intelligence through disease or injury.

Over the past 40+ years Gardner’s MI theory has become popular with both teachers and parents as a tool for explaining and differentiating the talents and gifts of children. The dissemination of this important theory to non-academic audiences owes its success to a number of secondary authors who have been helpful in interpreting Gardner’s works specifically for teachers and/or parents. These secondary authors have given readers information so that they might easily recognize the array of talents in children and students through descriptive narratives, case studies, and observational checklists. This information has helped many teachers and parents better understand how to use children’s strengths to improve or heighten cognition and learning.

While initially Professor Gardner described seven aspects of human intelligence as being verbal/linguistic; mathematical/logical; spatial; musical; kinesthetic; interpersonal; and intrapersonal, in 1994 he began to herald, describe, and publicize the addition of an eighth intelligence, “naturalistic intelligence”(or “nature smarts”). Naturalistic intelligence was then more fully described and officially added to his original array of seven intelligences in 1999 in his book Intelligence Reframed.

It has been speculated that naturalistic intelligence was undoubtedly the one that aided our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors in identifying which flora and fauna were edible and which were not. Too “nature smarts” may have helped early humans in noticing patterns and changes in their surroundings and environments so that they could thrive and survive. This intelligence is seated in the parts of the brain responsible for recognizing patterns, for making subtle connections, and is specific to those areas of the brain responsible for acute sensory perceptions, as well as object discrimination and classification.

General Descriptions and Indicators for Being Nature Smart

For parents and teachers interested in recognizing “nature smarts” in children, here is a summary of some of Gardner’s ideas and core concepts, as well as an observational checklist of possible indicators.

General Description: Naturalist intelligence deals with sensing patterns in and making connections to elements in nature. Using this same intelligence, children possessing enhanced levels of “nature smarts” may be very interested in human behaviors, or the behaviors, habits, or habitats of other species. They may have a strong affinity to the outside world or to specific animals, and these interests often begin at an early age. Children possessing naturalistic intelligence may enjoy subjects, shows, and stories that deal with animals or natural phenomena, or they may show unusual interest in subjects like biology, zoology, botany, geology, meteorology, paleontology, or astronomy.

Children displaying “nature smarts” are often keenly aware of their surroundings and changes in their environments, even if these shifts are at minute or subtle levels. This awareness is due to their highly-developed levels of sensory perception. Their heightened senses may help them notice similarities, differences, and changes in their surroundings more rapidly than others do. Kids with “nature smarts” may be able to categorize or catalog things quite easily. As children they often like to collect, classify, or read about things from nature — rocks, fossils, butterflies, feathers, shells, and the like.

In a nutshell – Often from early ages:

  • These are the children who see both the forest and the trees
  • They must be outside playing, looking, seeking, getting their hands dirty
  • They spend time exploring — splashing in streams; looking at and under rocks; peering through magnifiers or microscopes to look at soil or sand, or to scope water samples
  • They like to watch clouds, stare at sunsets, and count the colors in the prism of each new  rainbow,
  • They are attuned to the phases of the moon, and readily read and understand the mysteries and patterns of the night sky
  • These children are the ones who know folks or pets are not feeling well, and
  • They are the ones who wonder about the things they see around them and ask endless questions about what they observe

A dozen signs – Your student or child may be “nature smart” if he or she consistently displays some of the following behaviors:

  1. Notices patterns and rhythms from their surroundings easily – observing likes, differences, similarities, or anomalies
  2. Can pinpoint things in their surroundings or environments others often miss
  3. Has a sharp memory for details, often observing and easily remembering things from his/her environment and surroundings,
  4. Has keen senses (sight, hearing, sense of touch and smell, and may even have a well developed “sixth sense”)
  5. Likes animals and likes to know and remember things about them,
  6. Really appreciates being outside and doing things like gardening, camping, hiking or climbing, exploring, and even just like sitting quietly and noticing the subtle differences in the world of nature
  7. Makes astute observations about natural changes and emerging patterns, natural phenomena, human populations, and the existing or possible connection or interconnections
  8. Loves books, shows, or videos about nature or natural phenomena, or animals
  9. Creates, keeps or has collections, scrapbooks, logs, or journals about natural objects — these may include written observations, drawings, pictures and photographs or specimens
  10. Shows a heightened awareness and/or concern, even empathy, for the environment and/or for endangered species
  11. Easily learns characteristics, names, categorizations, and data about objects or species found in the natural world
  12. Often displays a sense of wonder, awe, or surprise for/or about the natural world or natural phenomena.

Mental constructs: The combination and interplay of specific cognitive or mental constructs that may differentiate “nature smarts” from other intelligences include:

  • Attribute Orientation – the ability to find common traits or commonalities among things, items, or arrays
  • Categorization – the ability to identify categories by attribute or characteristic
  • Hierarchical Reasoning – the ability to rank or order items by significance or relationship
  • Schematic Memory – the ability to internalize and recall information by attribute category or hierarchical classification
  • Natural orientation – the ability to identify with living organisms and their environments (this ability can offer changed or unique perspectives or encourage empathetic understanding)

Examples and professions: People who have naturalistic intelligence often find their way into professions that deal with or are focused on agriculture; horticulture; archeology; volcanology; ornithology; oceanography; geology; botany; biology; ecology; astronomy; zoology; paleontology; meteorology, or forensic science.

Some primary examples of notable people having naturalistic intelligence are John Muir, Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin, John James Audubon, Jacques Cousteau, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, Steve Erwin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, as well as a host of famous explorers like Lewis and Clark.

Some questions: As we think about the role of naturalistic intelligence some questions might come to mind:

1. If there is such a thing as “naturalist intelligence,” how will it manifest itself and develop in populations and students who are primarily urban?

2. How does, or would, naturalistic intelligence differ from a more expansive intelligence — say, cosmic intelligence or awareness? Cosmic intelligence might be defined as the ability to recognize and discern both subtle and overt patterns in the activity of natural elements, other species, and humans. Cosmic intelligence would also include the ability to recognize universal connections and patterns. Or it might include an acute awareness of universal changes and the possibility of spiritual or cosmic links in which one is both aware and respectful of the interconnectedness of all life forces.

In discussions on these types of issues, there are often mixed opinions as to whether there is a specific eighth intelligence, or if that eighth intelligence is appropriately labeled and described as “naturalistic,” as opposed to something larger like “cosmic intelligence.” There are some children who seem to possess great understanding of the natural world, and who extend the boundaries of their understanding to both micro and macro levels. Therefore, it is very important for both teachers and parents to recognize this special talent and cognitive gift and nurture its development fully.


Note: If you want to read why teachers are and have been drawn to this theory, please see an article I wrote. While it was written years ago, the reasons are still as pertinent today. What’s the Big Attraction? Why Teachers are Drawn to using Multiple Intelligence Theory in their Classrooms 

I have included a link here to Gary Zarda’s poem about students and their multiple intelligences. His offering adds a new dimension to looking a students in new ways – The reductive sum of one.


Armstrong, T. (2009) Multiple intelligences in the classroom, 3rd. edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Checkley, K. (1997) The first seven . . . and the eighth intelligence: A conversation with Howard Gardner. Educational Leadership: Teaching for multiple intelligences. ASCD V.55, #1, September 1997. 8-13.

Gardner, Howard. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

Louv, Richard. (2008) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.


Books for Kids on Nature Smarts: Literally, there are thousands of great books for kids about nature and animals like:

Armstrong, T. (2014) You are smarter than you think: A kid’s guide to Multiple Intelligences. Free Spirit Press.

Both NorthWord Books for Young Readers and Cooper Square Publishing, LLC have whole series of great books on nature topics for kids.

Tekiela, S. and Shanberg, K. (1995) Nature smart: A family guide to nature. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications.

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