Five Minds, The Big Five and the Five Faces of the Genius

Howard Gardner, is currently promoting his new book, Five Minds for the Future, and more information about the same is available here.

The five minds—disciplined, synthesizing, creating, respectful, and ethical—differ from multiple intelligence in working in a more synergistic fashion as opposed to separate categories of intelligences.

The “disciplined mind,” Gardner argues, is not simply knowing a particular subject but “learning to think the way people who are experts in the field think,” and should develop by the end of secondary school.

The second type of mind, the “synthesizing mind,” is defined by “deciding what to focus on, what’s important, what to ignore, and putting that together in a way that makes sense.” With a dearth of information about synthesizing in textbooks, Gardner has become most intrigued by this concept. Gardner considers himself primarily a synthesizer, but now as a “fish that has suddenly discovered he’s in water,” Gardner is faced with the challenge of uncovering what goes on as people synthesize, what is good versus bad synthesis, and how to enhance the process.

Discussing the creative mind, Gardner points out that today “creating is a premium and not an option.” While one needs a certain amount of discipline and synthesizing to create, too much of either will stifle creativity.

To foster creativity in the classroom, Gardner recommends that teachers “model novel approaches and answers to questions and indicate [to students] that those responses are legitimate.” Students should be encouraged to come up with innovative approaches, discussing ideas that did not work and alternative models. There should also be study of “examples of creative ideas, actions, behaviors,” figuring out how success was attained, and what obstacles had to be overcome.

While the first three minds are more cognitively oriented, the last two, respect and ethics, have more to do with personality and emotion. The respectful mind, Gardner indicated, has to do with “how we think and relate to other people, most importantly to other people around us.”

While this mind develops at a relatively young age, a kind of intuitive altruistic sense of reaching out to those around us, “attempting to understand differences and work with them,” the ethical mind is more abstract, and generally develops during adolescence. It has to do with fulfilling one’s responsibility in the world in terms of job role and as citizen, thinking in terms such as: “I’m a teacher…journalist…physicist, carrying out that role in the most professional way I can.”

Although, Gardner thinks that only the last two types of mind are related to personality and emotion, I believe that the first three types of ‘cognitive’ minds can also be related to personality types, as it is my contention that personality dimensions are just different styles of cognition and emotion.

I would thus like to draw attention to the parallels here, with the big five personality traits or the factors of the Five-factor model (OCEAN)

The disciplined mind utilizes the Conscientiousness traits of self-discipline, carefulness, thoroughness, orderedness, and deliberation to develop the thinking style marked by mastering the conventional way in which the experts familiar with the domain usually think.

The synthesizing mind, utilizes the Neuroticism traits that basically refer to an ability or inability to deal with environmental stimuli in a meaningful way. While discussions of neuroticism are usually couched in emotional terms-more reactive sympathetic nervous system, and more sensitivity to environmental stimulation – I also belive that there is a cognitive dimension here, that pertains to whether one reacts to all and every stimulus (information) or is more ‘cognitively calm and composed’ and uses deliberation in sorting the relevant information from irrelevant one rather than reacting to every little information nugget. This precisely is the synthesizing mind – able to focus on what is important and the ability to not get burdened by information overload. This is the emotional equivalent of not getting overwhelmed by environmental stress.

The creative mind, I believe, utilizes the Openness to Experience traits like unconventional and individualistic beliefs,broad interests, novelty preference and imagination to indulge in a thinking style that is marked with creativity- the ability to create something novel.

The respectful mind, utilizes the Agreeableness traits of consideration, friendliness, generosity, helpfulness and concern with cooperation and social harmony to indulge in a thinking style that is imbibed with an altruistic sense of reaching out to those around us, “attempting to understand differences and work with them.”

The ethical mind, on the other hand, utilizes the Extraversion traits of enjoying human interactions, enthusiasm, talkativeness, assertiveness, gregariousness and pleasure in social interactions to indulge in a thinking style marked with emphasis on activity and social role and responsibility – the precise recipe for the ethical mind!

Gardner also proposes a relationship/ hierarchy between the five minds.

In the latter part of his book, Gardner explores the interaction between five minds. He doesn’t see them as isolated categories, but as a general taxonomy followed by respect before ethics, discipline before synthesis, ultimately creating.

This implication of a developmental framework, in which the order of development is – discipline, synthesis, respect, ethics and creativity – maps very well to my own obsession with a five stage developmental model of cognitive, moral, perspective-taking, linguistic , symbolic, pretend-play and other abilities. I believe that Gardner has got the order wrong, and the traits (and the Five minds) develop in the following order- Neuroticism, conscientiousness, Extraversion, agreeableness and finally Openness to Experience. I may be wrong here, but I would write in detail on my rationale for this developmental path in a subsequent post.

While it is reasonable to stop here, I am tempted to take the analogies further and link this up with the Five Faces of the Genius.

To me, the Fool epitomizes perseverance and thus a Disciplined and Conscientious mind.

The Observer epitomizes ability to pick a needle from a haystack and thus a Synthesising and a low Neurotic (cognitively stable) mind.

The Alchemist, with its focus on active bridging and connection between domains, seems to reflect an ethical and extraverted mind.

The Seer, with an ability to imagine and visualize, may have a corresponding capacity to imagine and feel other;s emotions and this empathy leading it to have a respectful and Agreeable mind.

The Sage, with its ability to simplify, may find a resonance in the openness traits of ‘preferring the plain, straightforward, and obvious over the complex, ambiguous, and subtle’ and may be linked to the creative and Open mind!

Do let me know, how you find these conjectures and linkages. I hope I am not using the analogical reasoning of the alchemist to an unacceptable extreme!! Even if I am, you can be sure that it is just due to my high energy levels and my ethical concerns!!

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6 thoughts on “Five Minds, The Big Five and the Five Faces of the Genius

  1. Alvaro


    What does Gardner ground his new framework on? some of his new constructs, such as “synthesizing”, may be better understood as executive frontal lobes’ executive functions.

    Is the book worth reading? I have read all previous MI ones, plus Leading Minds and Creative Minds, but am unsure about the additional value of this one.

  2. Sandy G


    I haven’t read the book yet, (I believe its still not published), and my post was based on what information I could gather from the net (there is an RSA/edge audio lecture by Gardner at, so its premature for me to comment about the merits of the book per se.

    However, I believe that the concept of five minds is different from that of MIs in the sense that while the latter were mostly conceived of as innate capabilities (and if I may say so, more close to Gf) that could be developed and honed, five minds are the different ways/ frameworks of organizing and utilizing those capabilities to optimally achieve an effect.

    The five minds are a result of conscious and deliberate practice and effort and more skill-like in nature.

    While an intelligence is like a tool, that you posses, which can be sharpened to be used effectively in many situations; a mind is like the way in which the tool is used to produce an effect and the problems to which the tool use is applied and the knowledge of which tool to apply to which problems. Thus the five minds are the different frameworks or cultures of tool-use and more reflective of Gc.

    By way of an example, while a musical intelligence may be difficult to hone per se, the musical performance may be perfected by applying the strategies of the discipled mind (learning the music under a guru for some time to appreciate the genre), the respectful mind ( having respect for and understanding of different musical genres or gahranas), the creative mind (creating novel symphonies/ melodies, gharanas etc) and so on.

  3. Sandy G

    Hi Anonymous,

    I have visited the excellent site that you have referred to with respect to the Workplace big 5 and I am enthused by the fact that the 5 stage developmental framework is equally relevant there. Thanks for pointing me to centacs.

    As per the centacs site:

    Consolidation refers to the degree to which we push toward goals at work. People high on this are focussed and would thus have acquired the skills of their discipline and would have a disciplined mind.

    The Need for Stability refers to the degree to which a person responds to stress. While the stress is usually considered as emotional/social stress, I stick to my extension of this stress to the information/cognitive/sensory domain. Those low on this, the resilient people, would thus not suffer from information overload, but would have a synthesizing mind.

    Originality refers to the degree to which we are open to new experiences/new ways of doing things. The explorer, it is easy to see, are the creative , ‘ideas’ persons.

    Accommodation refers to the degree to which we defer to others. This is exactly the ingredients required for a respectful mind.

    Extraversion refers to the the degree to which a person can tolerate sensory stimulation from people and situations. Here I am a bit hesitant. I believe that ethics is only relevant in a social setting and this trait definitely would be correlated with the ethical mind. Maybe by ethics, we just mean how social a person is!!

    So the developmental framework remains valid and is more relevant than ever, with different people and approaches coming to the same conclusions.

  4. Jari

    I have recently read Gardner’s Five Minds. His role in this book, I think, is as a futurist, steering educators, administrators, parents, all of us, towards evaluating curricula in terms of the Five Minds, so as to meet the pressing global human challenges ahead successfully. Einstein’s adage: “Imagination is more important than knowledge” strikes me as being along the same lines. Similarly, it’s not what you say but how you say it, as in the tone of voice and the look on your face. Imagination, tone & feel & spirit of things, all these things are aspects of the right brain and are associated with “feminine values”. If you look closely at the Five Minds and what it would mean to develop and apply them as paramount in education and society, you are looking at a profound shift in cultural and commercial values. Disciplined, Respectful, and Ethical minds are all more mature and spiritually engaged than what we find in the current competitive paradigm of big business and the “military-industrial complex”. Synthesizing and creative minds are more right brain in nature and therefore considered “feminine” in their values. If you actually get to the heart of what he is saying and listen, you hear the voice of an enlightened thinker calling for wisdom. If you are also able to synthesize and extract the essence here, you meet him where he is coming from: a profound commitment to human development and the hope of realizing greater human potential through education. I’ll leave you with a quotation from the book (sorry I don’t have a page number for this): “As far as I can see, short of peace pills or widespread extirpation of those brain nuclei or genes that support aggressive behaviors, the only possible avenue to progress lies in education, broadly conceived.”

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