The Importance of Existential Intelligence

For far too long, traditional school systems have catered to narrow and limited ways of being intelligent. As a result, many students are left with the feeling they are incapable or “not smart enough”- when in reality, their true potential remains untapped and unidentified.

One of the most important components of effective 21st-century teaching, is recognizing the different forms of intelligences and catering to the unique abilities of all students. Howard Gardner, a pioneer of this perspective, differentiates intelligence into distinct ‘modalities’, as opposed to a single general ability. These include: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Based on two decades of brain research, the theory suggests that we all have all these intelligences in varying degrees.

Yet, in our schools, we continue to weigh some of these intelligences much more than against others. Many of our regular assessments and standardized tests do not go beyond the traditional verbal-linguist and logical-mathematical ways of being smart. For instance, not many students are empowered to realize that their above-average athletic (bodily-kinesthetic) or social abilities (interpersonal), are an extension of their intelligence.

In recent years, Gardner has introduced a ninth, and possibly most significant, form of “smarts” referred to as “existential” intelligence. It is also referred to by others as “cosmic” or “spiritual” intelligence.

What is Existential Intelligence?

In its essence, existential intelligence is the ability to use intuition, thought and meta-cognition to ask (and answer) deep questions about human existence. Those of us who are inherently existential ask questions such as: Who are we? Why are we alive? Do we have a purpose? Why and how are we conscious? What is the meaning of life? In many ways, it takes a certain level of courage to tackle grand questions and age-old mysteries that have taunted humanity for millennia.

According to Gardner, “These are questions that transcend perception; they concern issues that are too big or small to be perceived by our five sensory systems.” Socrates and the Buddha are examples of famous figures who exhibited an exceptional level of existential intelligence.

An element of existential intelligence, is recognizing and understand our interconnectedness with the world around us and the universe at large. Gardner argues that a key attribute of this is being able to perceive the bigger picture or in other words, to conceive our lives and every-day actions in the context of the grand cosmic arena.

Awecademy calls this having a “cosmic perspective” and learners with this ability “Cosmic Citizens”. A cosmic citizen is anyone who recognizes our place in the universe, the fragility of our planet, and the unimaginable potential we have as a species. At its core, the cosmic perspective is about zooming out and seeing the big picture. It involves acknowledging our place in the cosmos and stepping back and contemplating our purpose in the grand scheme of things.

The Importance of Existential Intelligence

In many ways, the purpose of education can and should be to inspire future generations to push humanity forward. Developing our youths’ existential intelligence is one critical way of making them more aware of our true potential as a species and understand the bigger picture.

After all we can’t deny that young thinkers who regular ponder on deep questions about their self-identities and human nature, leave room for a vast array of intellectual development. It’s why many also refer to this form of intelligence as “life smart”.

Self-reflective consciousness or “meta-wondering” boosts our ability for self-awareness and self-transformation, both as individuals and as a species. After all, our higher and self-reflective consciousness — is one of the features that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is also one of our most untapped potentials.

The future of work is yet another reason to cultivate our youths’ existential intelligence. In an era of increasing automation, we are seeing that the hardest jobs to automate are the ones that require higher-order thinking. Beyond that, we are now entering what is known as The Imagination Age or economy, which is essentially “an economy where intuitive and creative thinking create economic value, after logical and rational thinking has been outsourced to other economies.”

Now, some of us are more naturally existential than others — but at the end of the day, it is an ability that can be significantly developed in all. In the midst of a mental health epidemic, many of us are having our existential crises as we grapple with the meaning of life and our individual role in this universe. Developing existential intelligence isn’t just about inspiring people to ask deep questions but also equipping them with the tools that will allow them to tackle it in a way that contributes to their happiness and mental well-being.

Bringing Existential Wonder into The Classroom

There are many ways that educators can develop their students’ existential intelligence. Educators need to bring in content and curricula that places an emphasis on all the existential musings that many brilliant minds throughout history have grappled with: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where will we go from here?

A powerful way to foster awe in our learners is to cultivate teach them to perceive the world from an existential lens. Awecademy, for instance, hosts a series of online interactive modules that span a wide range of topics catered to existential intelligence — such as taking a cosmic perspective, understanding the value of one human life, the future of the human species and finding your purpose in this world.

An emphasis on tools such as the Socratic method, discussion-style lessons and philosophical topics are other excellent ways to stimulate existential thought. Another strategy is through multidisciplinary teaching and challenging students to see familiar ideas from unique , and possibly existential, perspectives.

Consider an example of the double-slit experiment, initially devised by physicist Thomas Young. To summarize, in this experiment, physicists demonstrated that quantum particles like electrons behave like waves (and show interference patterns) when they’re not being observed and behave like particles when they are being observed. In other words, the very act of observing the experiment, changes the outcome of the experiment. This excellent video demonstrates how this happens.

Some physics teachers might end the lesson there. In fact, back in university, my very own physics professor in college did and hopped on to the next slide and topic. At the very same time, I happened to be reading The Dancing Wu-Li Masters by Gary Zukav — a book that explores the parallels between new physics and eastern world views. What I came to realize — and what many physics educators might not highlight in their lessons — is that this simple experiment on its own opens up a world of though-provoking philosophical and existential questions.

Studying the double-slit experiment — and physics at large — from an existential lens makes for much richer and meaningful learning experience. For instance, when we demonstrate that we can have an influence on the world by observing it, what are the implications of it on our “objective” reality? Can we extrapolate and say that we create our reality by observing it? Are we doing this all the time by perceiving the world?

But then how exactly does an electron “decide” to act differently, when it’s being watched? Why is the quantum world so counter-intuitive? Even more, is it a coincidence that the results of the experiment and many other aspects of quantum mechanics align with Eastern thought and Buddhist philosophies?

Discussing such powerful questions and encouraging young minds to ask them would make for one mind-expanding physics question, indeed. And that’s what we need to do — we need to encourage our youth to ask questions — and to ask meaningful ones. We spend so much time teaching students how to answer questions that we often neglect to teach them how to ask them. Asking questions — and asking good ones — is how we move forward as a species. It is the foundation of any major scientific discovery or existential breakthrough. It all starts with a question.