Naturalistic Intelligence and the Power of Environmental Awareness

Reviewed by David Susman, PhD

Naturalistic intelligence is the ability to recognize, identify, understand, and work with elements of the natural world. People with this type of intelligence have a keen sense of observation and excel at spotting relationships and patterns in nature. Thanks to this strong affinity for nature, they often do well in activities like gardening, conservation, environmental science, farming, and wildlife conservation.

"Naturalistic intelligence is an interest or curiosity about nature, the outdoors, and our planet," explains Courtney Morgan, LPCC, a licensed therapist and founder of Counseling Unconditionally. "People with high levels of naturalistic intelligence are drawn to the outdoors and enjoy spending time in nature."

It is one of the nine different types of intelligence identified by psychologist Howard Gardner in his theory of multiple intelligences. Rather than viewing intelligence as a single, general ability, Gardner proposed that intelligence can come in many forms. While the theory has been criticized for its lack of evidence, it has become a popular way for people to think about their mental abilities.

At a Glance

People skilled at connecting with nature are sometimes said to have a high level of naturalistic intelligence. Finding ways to strengthen your link to the world around you can have many benefits, including boosting both physical and mental health. Keep reading to learn more about the characteristics of naturalistic intelligence and how to develop it.

<p>Jasper James / The Image Bank / Getty</p>

Jasper James / The Image Bank / Getty

Characteristics of Naturalistic Intelligence

According to Gardner, characteristics like being able to identify and understand elements of the natural environment are the hallmarks of this type of intelligence. Examples include:

  • A strong desire to understand how elements of the natural world work

  • A strong appreciation for plants, animals, geology, and natural environments

  • Practical abilities to work in natural settings, including growing plants and caring for animals

  • Skill in identifying plants, animals, and other natural elements

  • A love of exploring the natural world

  • An awareness of environmental issues

  • Understanding the importance of conservation, sustainability, and protecting natural habitats

People with this type of intelligence are connected to nature. They notice and appreciate the beauty and diversity of the environment. They are often at their most comfortable and fulfilled when they are outdoors in natural settings.


If you have this type of intelligence, you are probably great at noticing patterns and changes in the world around you. These changes tend to immediately draw your attention, and you are deeply curious about what causes such events.

For example, you might notice subtle shifts in weather, plants, daily temperature, and sunlight that suggest the seasons are changing. Or you might spot indicators of environmental disturbances such as habitat destruction or the appearance of invasive species that disrupt the native ecosystem.

Naturalistic Intelligence vs. Other Types of Intelligence

The other eight intelligences in Gardner's theory are:

  • Verbal-linguistic intelligence: Using language skills, including reading, writing, speaking, and understanding

  • Spatial-visual intelligence: Perceiving, manipulating, and understanding visual information and spatial relationships

  • Logical-mathematical intelligence: Thinking logically, problem-solving, and using mathematical reasoning

  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: Using one's body to perform physical activities such as sports and dance

  • Interpersonal intelligence: Communicating and relating to others

  • Intrapersonal intelligence: Understanding one's own thoughts, feelings, and emotions

  • Musical intelligence: Understanding rhythm, pitch, melody, and other elements of music

  • Existential intelligence: Reflecting on philosophical questions about the universe and spirituality

So what distinguishes naturalistic intelligence from the other eight types? It is the connection to nature, environmental awareness, and deep appreciation for the beauty of the natural world that sets this type apart.

People with a high level naturalistic intelligence have strong observational skills and are good at spotting patterns and nuances in natural settings that others might miss. They feel a connection to the world around them and are interested in helping to preserve and support the health and well-being of the world's ecosystems.

Developing Naturalistic Intelligence

Some people are just naturally inclined toward this type of intelligence, but there are also things that you can do to cultivate a stronger sense of naturalistic intelligence. This involves establishing a stronger bond with the natural world.

Morgan notes that naturalistic intelligence is something that people can strengthen and nurture at any age. Some strategies that she recommends include:

  • Spending time in different outdoor settings and climates, like parks, oceans, beaches, lakes, and mountains

  • Tending a garden or yard

  • Enjoying outdoor activities

  • Learning more about different animal species and plants

  • Expressing gratitude for the natural world

  • Going on morning walks or hiking

  • Spending your lunch break outside

Some ways that you can strengthen your naturalistic intelligence include:

Spend More Time in Nature

Start spending more time outdoors! Go to the beach, hike in a forest, or even just visit your local park. Activities you might enjoy include birdwatching or rock collecting.

You can also maximize your time outdoors by practicing mindfulness while communicating with nature. Mindfulness is a great way to cultivate a better awareness not only of yourself but of the world around you.


Getting outside is good for your mental and physical health. One review on the benefits of nature found that mental health outcomes improved in 98% of studies.

Study Natural Science

Consider enrolling in a class online, at a local university, or through a local community extension program. Such courses can be a great way to learn about environmental science, ecology, biodiversity, and life sciences. You might also find workshops, lectures, or nature walks taught by scientists or naturalists.


Local libraries, museums, conservancy organizations, and fish and wildlife services are a great place to start looking for learning opportunities in your area.

Get Into Gardening

Put your budding naturalistic intelligence skills to work in your own yard. Look for opportunities to connect with the earth (literally) and get a little dirt under your fingernails (or invest in a nice pair of gardening gloves if that’s not your thing).

Start a garden, grow flowers, or plant other vegetation types to learn more about plant life cycles and different gardening techniques. Spending time growing and caring for elements of the natural world can sharpen your observational skills and foster a closer connection with the earth. It's also a great stress-reliever.


Seek volunteer opportunities with local conservation groups. Engaging in prosocial actions can help you build empathy for the world around you, which is crucial for developing a strong sense of naturalistic intelligence. It’s all about your connection to the environment, so spending time helping the world can help you care about it more intimately.

Volunteering for causes devoted to helping nature can be a great way to gain a greater appreciation for the need to protect and preserve the environment while using your emerging skills and knowledge to help a great cause.


Research has also found that taking action to help the environment can positively affect mental health.

Get Your Kids Involved

Morgan notes that many parents want to help their kids build naturalistic intelligence, even if they might not describe it in those exact words. "Many parents will tell me, 'I just want them to play outside! I wish they had other interests than a screen!'" she explains.

As people become increasingly aware of the threat posed by climate change, it is more important than ever to help younger generations understand the importance of protecting the environment. Cultivating naturalistic intelligence in kids isn’t just a great way to boost environmental awareness–it can also be a fun way to bond with your children!

Kids are curious about the world around them, including the diversity and patterns of plants, creatures, seasons, and other natural elements. Strategies that can help kids develop a better sense of naturalistic intelligence include:

  • Visiting zoos, aquariums, or parks

  • Using binoculars, microscopes, or other tools to observe the environment

  • Planting seeds and watching them grow

The Benefits of Naturalistic Intelligence

Building your naturalistic intelligence can be good for both your body and mind. There is evidence that spending time in nature is associated with:

  • Better cognitive function

  • Increased brain activity

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease

  • Increased physical health

  • Better sleep

  • Improved mental health

Activities to Stimulate Naturalistic Intelligence

Whether you already have a strong sense of naturalistic intelligence or are trying to develop this ability, there are plenty of great activities that can help stimulate a deeper connection to the natural environment. Strategies that you (and your kids) might try include:

  • Birdwatching

  • Nature walks

  • Nature photography

  • Gardening

  • Nature scavenger hunts

  • Camping

  • Hiking

  • Arts and crafts projects using natural materials

  • Nature readings

  • Conservation projects

  • Nature journaling

If you are a parent trying to foster naturalistic intelligence in your kids, Morgan recommends opting for activities like camping, swimming, hiking, and outdoor camps. She also suggests parents should spend more time outdoors themselves, limit screen time to encourage outdoor play, and give kids a chance to get messy when they are outside.

Getting your kids outside can have lasting benefits. Research has found that kids who get more exposure to green space have a lower risk of developing psychiatric conditions later in life, including depression, mood disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.

Famous Figures With Naturalistic Intelligence

There are some famous figures from science and history who are believed to have a strong sense of naturalistic intelligence. Some famous names you might recognize include:

  • Charles Darwin: The English naturalist famous for his work on evolutionary biology

  • Henry David Thoreau: A naturalist, writer, and transcendentalist known for “Walden,” an influential work of nature writing

  • Ansel Adams: A photographer and environmentalist known for his black-and-white nature photography

  • Konrad Lorenz: A zoologist known for his contributions to the study of animal behavior and his descriptions of imprinting behavior

  • Jaques Cousteau: An oceanographer and filmmaker known for his underwater documentaries

  • John Muir: A naturalist and environmentalist who advocated for the protection of the wilderness of the American West

  • Rachel Carson: A marine biologist and conservationist who advocated for marine conservation and environmental protection

  • Jane Goodall: An anthropologist and primatologist known for her study of chimpanzees

  • Steve Irwin: A zookeeper and TV personality known for introducing people to wildlife

  • Greta Thunberg: An environmental activist known for her work drawing attention to the threats posed by climate change


People with this type of intelligence may be interested in careers in botany, geology, horticulture, ecology, environmental science, wildlife management, and conservation.

Keep in Mind

Naturalistic intelligence is all about having an appreciation and connection to nature. Even if this isn't one of your top skills, there are things you can do to build a stronger awareness of the world around you. Spending time outdoors, getting hands-on experience, and learning more about the environment can give you a richer, more intimate connection to the natural world.

In a world increasingly facing threats caused by climate change, it is more important than ever to be aware of the importance of sustainability, conservation, and responsible ecological stewardship.

Related: What Kind of Intelligence Do You Have?

Read the original article on Verywell Mind.