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The Lines of Development According to Ken Wilber

The lines of development are a fascinating feature of human psychology, and we look at them in the context of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory.

It turns out that rather than having intelligence, we have intelligences – many sets of aptitudes and areas of competence, of which intelligence in the traditional sense is just one. Isn’t that refreshing?

Knowing about the lines of development or multiple intelligences will blow open your view of intelligence and growth. And I’m going to bring them together with what we know about the levels of consciousness, giving you a supercharged understanding of human psychology.

Let’s dive into multiple intelligence theory.

The Lines of Development: Thought Experiment

Who is the most intelligent person to have ever lived?





If your answer didn’t include a person who excelled in logical, scientific and mathematical pursuits, kudos.

And I imagine you’re in the minority.

We often equate the kind of intelligence these people had in abundance, which we could call cognitive intelligence, with intelligence itself.

This is where multiple intelligence theory comes in.

The Lines of Development: The Key Premise

It’s no exaggeration to say that multiple intelligence theory destroys the idea that booksmarts and IQ alone define our level of intelligence. They give us a much fuller idea of intelligence, growth and capability.

Its power lies in how it frames intelligence. It views intelligence as a series of somewhat separate areas that are always under construction, rather than as a single, fixed, binary aptitude.

In fact, intelligence comes in a plethora of modes that each uniquely influence our lives and define who we are.

We all have our characteristic deficiencies, too. Sorry, Albert. But those aren’t set in stone either. It claims we can actually grow in all these modes of intelligence, if we choose.

Howard Gardner coined the term multiple intelligences, claiming that we have access to eight of them: visual-spatial, linguistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, logical-mathematical, kinesthetic, and naturalistic.

But that by no means covers all of them. Since Gardner’s discovery, researchers have identified many more. Indeed, Ken Wilber claims that each model of human development studies its own line of intelligence.

Let’s look at a few them now.

Lines of Development: The Many Forms of Intelligence

We can think about Ken Wilber’s lines of development as areas of human functioning. Each of them allows us to tackle particular problems and gives us certain capabilities. While realising we have eight intelligences instead of one intelligence is a huge jump, realising that they are synonymous with areas of human functioning is a revolution.

We’re all complex clusters of the dozens, hundreds, thousands of intelligences that humans possess. More on this to come.

A well-documented intelligence I’ve yet to mention is emotional intelligence. That’s a deep topic, but in my eyes this has less to do with the emotions we experience than how we process them. This varies from rudimentary levels all the way to highly developed, skilful processing.

Another one, perhaps not as mainstream as emotional intelligence, but equally important, is spiritual intelligence, of which many consider James Fowler the pioneer.

In short, this captures our relationship to the “ultimate conditions of existence”. No matter if we’re atheist, Christian, Muslim, agnostic or put ourselves in any other category, we all have spiritual intelligence.

Then there’s Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, which describes the different levels of human needs and how they’re arranged. If we’re reaching towards fulfilling our highest needs, we’re in the upper levels of needs intelligence.

eight of the multiple intelligences in Ken Wilber's Integral Theory

In any case, realising that we’re growing across many areas at once is both exhilarating and humbling. Let’s talk about that some more.

Understanding Uneven Development

Since there are so many lines of development, it’s inevitable that we excel in some and suck in others.

Spiral Dynamics recognises this in the concept of the vMEME onion. In the various areas in our life, we tend to embody different Spiral Dynamics levels. As such, we’re all at many levels on the spiral simultaneously. This particular theory mentions politics, religious life, family life and sports.

I have an excellent example of uneven development. Making examples of other people isn’t very tactful, but I just can’t resist. This example is just too good.

I vividly remember a university professor I had. He was an excellent mathematician. His logical and deductive reasoning skills were insane. If you wanted to understand all the minute little details of a mathematical proof, he was your guy.

But he was one of the most boring people I’ve ever known. He spoke like a robot, had no personality, no emotional life, no social skills – and no dress sense. Even his name was dull.

This backfired, big time. Not only did his monotonous voice make already-fairly-dry academic topics completely detestable, his lack of social nous meant he couldn’t build relationships with my fellow students and I. He’d often outright insult people and have no clue he’d done so.

Logical and cognitive intelligence, sky high. Social and emotional intelligence, Marianas Trench low.

We see uneven development in famous figures too. Adolf Hitler: a man who roused a desperate German people into action after a devastating period in the country’s history, and then went on to kill millions because they didn’t belong to the Herrenmenschen.

Those were perhaps among the greatest leadership, interpersonal and organisational skills the world has ever seen. But he was a morally-bankrupt Devil with a capital D, with a German-centric outlook that reached delusional proportions.

There are other examples that aren’t as extreme as Hitler or my robot university professor.

Spiritual leaders often have drastic levels of imbalance in their intelligences. They may be high in spiritual intelligence and have a genuine connection to the divine that they’re able to transmit, but be frighteningly low in other areas, such as social intelligence and emotional intelligence. This is exacerbated when they spend months and years living in isolation.

And if we have a high level of spiritual development, we might be deluded into thinking that we can avoid other growth. We may even spiritually explain away our deficiencies in our lines, blocking ourselves off to criticism and feedback. Not a good recipe.

Another example, one you’re likely to have personal contact with, is autism. In fact, I’d argue that autistics have a certain intelligences profile. A tell-tale sign of autism is poorer-than-average social and verbal communication skills combined with a rare aptitude for other areas, like music and maths.

The Equalizer

I like to think of our “lines profile” as an equalizer – the ones music producers are familiar with. We all have a personal equalizer that’s flowing, moving and changing as we go through life.

In Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, this plot of our multiple intelligences on the horizontal against our level in each of them on the vertical is called a psychograph. More on that to come.

Integral Theory Lines of Development graph

Here’s a little exercise for you to help you see the intelligences in action.

The Lines of Development: A Little Exercise

Write down the two areas of life where you excel most. Then try to find the multiple intelligences underlying those two areas. It may be mathematical intelligence, or moral intelligence, or interpersonal, or aesthetic, or musical. It could even be one I haven’t mentioned here – remember there are countless multiple intelligences.

Perhaps you’ve always had a leg up in these intelligences. As Wordsworth said: “And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, trailing clouds of glory do we come”.

And the same again for two areas in life where you struggle. Most likely, multiple intelligences are behind those.

But don’t despair – these can be developed. I was once a musical troglodyte, and now I’m a reasonable guitar player with an ever-improving musical ear. Miracles do happen, it seems.

I love to talk about developmental stages and those are crucial, but appreciating that we can at wildly different levels in the various developmental lines expands our idea of how developed we are, and is both humbling and reassuring.

Let’s now look at how the lines fit in to the rest of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory.

The Bigger Picture of Human Psychology

Multiple intelligences are one of the five key elements in Ken Wilber’s AQAL model.

One unique claim that Ken Wilber makes in Integral Theory is that all developmental lines are subject to the same basic stages. And this is how the altitudes and lines come together. I can frame it another way by saying that all lines have the same fundamental levels of complexity.

This is a tantalising claim. When you study various developmental levels, their similarities are striking. Even though they address different multiple intelligences, it’s clear that their fundamental stages have something in common. And this is true for dozens of models that study the stages or levels underlying each multiple intelligence.

When I say that two multiple intelligences go through the same basic levels, it means that their fundamental levels have the same flavour or feel as one another. Each line still conserves its unique attributes.

These levels that are common to all multiple intelligences or developmental lines are called levels of consciousnesss. These are the basic levels of complexity present in all lines or intelligences.

Let’s take the Orange level of consciousness in the worldview and emotions intelligences, for example. Spiral Dynamics covers the Orange worldview in some depth. In short, here we see the world to be a playground of opportunities to grow, expand and be successful. The characteristic Orange emotions, which Cook-Greuter beautifully captures in her “Achiever” stage, are excitement, drive, and a fear of dependence on others.

As you can see, Orange worldview and emotions are different things. But they’re related: both are to do with expansion and personal success.

And according to Integral Theory, that applies to all lines and all altitudes. All lines have the same basic levels, but add their own twist.

Tap for more on the levels of consciousness in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory.

What’s more, lines are where we actually grow. Our overall growth is an aggregate of our growth in all the lines. As mentioned before, we can have huge imbalances in our lines development, and this could have serious effects.

Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory encourages Opening Up: deliberately identifying our weak lines and developing them, as well as taking advantage of our strong lines to excel in life.

So, make sure you do the exercise I recommend earlier in the article.

The lines of development are a beautiful feature of human psychology. They help us see ourselves with more humility and compassion, appreciate the fullness of others, and contribute to untangling the jumble that is human psychology.

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