The Neuroscience of Giftedness
Updated: Jul 13, 2019
Neuroscience is crucial to our understanding of giftedness – it allows insight into what goes in the brains of exceptional children and helps us objectively look at how and why they behave, feel, and process information the way they do. Through this, we can discern what kinds of specialized intervention they might need and how they truly experience the world.
In short, neuroscience is the ‘behind the scenes’ of giftedness – it helps us understand it as the complex, dynamic thing it is.
In this article, I break down a comprehensive repository of giftedness research collated and written by Sharon Duncan, Corin Goodwin, Joanna Haase, PhD, MFT, and Sarah Wilson, for GHF (Gifted Homeschoolers Forum) and GRO (Gifted Research and Outreach).
7 main areas are touched upon, namely:
1. Do gifted people have bigger brains?
2. Asynchrony: Lopsided brain development and how it manifests
3. Humour and brain region connectivity
4. Math giftedness
5. Heightened sensitivity and overexcitabilities
7. Behavioral implications
Do Gifted People Have Bigger Brains?
Is exceptional intelligence correlated with a larger brain size? No, despite what the movies tell us. However, gifted brains have larger ‘regional volume’ within specific areas of their brains. This means that while the size itself is not different, there is an increased volume of grey matter in the brain’s functionally different areas, which lends itself to more efficient computation of information.
Duncan, Goodwin, Haase, and Wilson break down the brain for a better understanding of this: The frontal lobe of the brain controls cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, motivation, decision-making, and so on. Our language, emotions, problem solving, mood, personality, and self-awareness, as well as social and moral reasoning depend on this ‘control panel’. The temporal lobe helps us process auditory information and encode memory. It plays a role in processing emotions, language interpretation, and certain aspects of visual perception. The parietal lobe helps us pay attention and integrate information. This entails recognition, visuospatial abilities, environmental cues, and our senses. The occipital process takes images from the eyes and link that information with images stored in memory.
These areas of the brain have increased grey matter volume, and hence work more efficiently than the neurotypical brain. They are directly correlated with the characteristic qualities of giftedness. The National Association for Gifted Children divides these qualities into cognitive (power of abstraction, interest in problem-solving, curiosity, critical thinking, etc.), creative (humor, fantasy, intuitiveness, unconcern for social norms, radicalism, etc.), affective (emotional intensity, sensitivity, self-awareness, moral judgment, idealism, etc.), and behavioral (spontaneity, enthusiasm, energy impulsiveness, perseverance, frustration—volatile temper, etc.).
Asynchrony: Lopsided brain development and how it manifests
The brain does not develop in one go – some parts develop faster, while others take time to bloom. While this asynchronous development takes place in every brain, its prevalence and degree is so heightened in gifted children that it is considered one of the hallmarks of giftedness. This means that these children may possess some exceptional strengths, and some weaknesses.
For example, Duncan, Goodwin, Haase, and Wilson describe a child with a vibrant imagination who may desire to write down his or her ideas, but is cannot do so because of less well-developed fine motor skills. The child in question has conflicting strengths and weaknesses – often leading to frustration, or even a lack of discovery of specific skills because they are hidden behind the difficulties of asynchronous development. When asynchrony rises to the level of pathology, the child receives a dual diagnosis of disability and giftedness, called twice-exceptionality.
Indian children with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, Asperger’s, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and so on may have hidden exceptionalities – however, given the lack of attention to giftedness, this is overlooked within schools and families. Parents, children, and educators may find it difficult to navigate the complex inner lives of gifted children and may not understand how or why conditions traditionally deemed handicaps can coexist with exceptional intelligence or ability.
Intervention is complicated – but Duncan, Goodwin, Haase, and Wilson write that sometimes, we need to give the child time to grow into their brains, sometimes they need scaffolding, sometimes they need real therapies and medication but they always need us to be thoughtful about how we are approaching our parenting.
Humor and brain regions connectivity
When we think, feel, talk, interact, and perform tasks, different regions in our brains are communicating with and connected with each other.
Duncan, Goodwin, Haase, and Wilson explain connectivity across brain regions as roads on which we travel to get from place to place, except that these roads are made up of tracts of white matter. The gifted brain has more of these tracts, allowing for the possibility of more “traffic movement.” This leads to higher information processing speed. However, just like real highways, there can be traffic jams in gifted ways – leading to gifted children tripping and stumbling over their words, not being able to make sense of what is being and should be communicated, and ironically, sometimes becoming diagnosed with slower information processing speeds.
Pascal Vrtička, Jessica M. Black, and Allan L. Reiss discuss humour in this context. Gifted people are thought to have an exceptionally keen sense of the comical, bizarre, or absurd. They write about how humor engages a core network of cortical and subcortical structures, including those involved in detecting and resolving incongruity, as well as the key structures for reward and salience processing.
Duncan, Goodwin, Haase, and Wilson break this down by explaining that humor involves the expected path of thoughts suddenly taking an unexpected turn, which is a function of exceptionally greater connectivity across brain regions, given more paths to follow, a potentially more rapid processing pace, and simply many more unexpected turns available. This also explains why many times, a seemingly funny joke said by a gifted child can fall on deaf ears – because his or her more neurotypical peers cannot make the same connections needed to truly enjoy or understand the joke in a timely manner.
Math Giftedness and Increased Brain Activation
Math-giftedness entails exceptional mathematical ability and the possession of a qualitatively different approach to mathematics. Linda Parish defines mathematically gifted children as those who possess unusually high natural (or instinctual) aptitudes for understanding mathematical concepts; and who therefore differ substantively to their peers in the way they view, understand and learn mathematics.
Research shows that brains of math-gifted children are different from those of average math ability. Their brains show greater overall activation (cortical and bilateral) when performing tasks that require mathematical thinking. ‘Engaged and in flow’ and ‘working at a high capacity as a coordinated unit’, the excited brain operates more efficiently and effectively. The same activation can also manifest in physical movement. Pacing, fidgeting, appearing inattentive, etc. are not unusual because their bodies mirror their neurological activity.
This means that when presented with a mathematically challenging task, the brains of gifted children light up more – that is to say, they show greater activation on fMRI scans. As Duncan, Goodwin, Haase, and Wilson appropriately write: In brain scans, a gifted child’s brain appears to be on fire.
Heightened Sensitivity and Overexcitabilities
Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, coined the term ‘overexcitability’: An innate tendency to respond with heightened intensity and sensitivity to intellectual, emotional, and other stimuli. Overexcitabilities experienced by gifted children are classified into 5 categories, namely, psychomotor (high levels of energy), sensual (heightened awareness of senses), intellectual (curiosity, thought, and cognition), imaginational (the free-play of imagination), and emotional (exceptional emotional sensitivity).
Duncan, Goodwin, Haase, and Wilson write that gifted children are highly sensitive to their environment and react with heightened emotional and behavioral responses, more so than children of average intelligence. However, it not that that their brain is reacting more intensely to a specific stimulus –their neurological reactions ‘simply have more going on’.
One study shows enhanced auditory response in exactly the way that we think auditory superstimulability might look. Gifted children may also be able to hear sound faster (earlier ‘peak latency’), louder, and longer than non-gifted children.
Hyperosmia, oversensitivity to smell, makes the child perceive smell as overpowering and intense. Similarly, sensitivities may include headaches due to seemingly ‘blinding’ lights, the texture of a mat on the feet, the overwhelming taste of a biscuit, the irritating sensation of a clothes-tag on the back of a t-shirt, and so on.
Liu et al state that this sort of enhanced neural function of gifted children might be due to more coordinated neural networks, faster neural processing speed and more efficient neural activation functions. Moreover, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is not uncommon. Neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, refers to it as a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.
An important insight from the work of Duncan, Goodwin, Haase, and Wilson is that gifted brains have larger specific regional brain volume in areas associated with intelligence. Higher IQ is correlated with having larger volume in two regions of the brain known to be associated with emotional processing. Since there is greater connectivity in these regions than in that of children of average intelligence, gifted individuals may process information through an emotional filter!
They go on to state that this extensive emotional integration can explain some of the hallmark qualities of giftedness like an orientation towards truth and justice, existential depression, a more emotional lens through which the world is viewed, and a more emotional or empathic link than other people. A study by Penny et al also finds that verbal intelligence is a positive predictor of worry and rumination severity, leading us to believe that anxiety may manifest more frequently in gifted individuals.
When learning material, some gifted children may be able to grasp larger concepts, but struggle with the details – this may be because they are so emotionally overwhelmed by the topics discussed (e.g. war, famine, climate change), and with empathy prioritized, they may struggle to focus on the learning aspect.
Reiterated by Duncan, Goodwin, and Haase, adults can help gifted children manage the impacts of their brain differences through understanding and scaffolding. The gifted brain entails efficiency, connectivity, regional brain volume, superstimulability, and oversized emotions. Delving into the neuroscience and physiology of it will allow us a better understanding of how to identify and address the implications of giftedness across the lifespan.
We often think that gifted children tend to have behavioral issues, becoming temperamental, easily frustrated, volatile, and oversensitive. However, the work of Duncan, Goodwin, Haase, and Wilson raises an important question: Is this simply psychological, or is it an objective reaction to superstimulation that occurs because of the complex workings of gifted brains?
They say that superstimulatory responses can interfere with other neurological processes or elicit a fight-or-flight reaction. Though the behaviors displayed may appear to be oppositional, they are not. Rather, they are simply reactions to real superstimulation.
Defiance is explained in this way. A child with asynchronous vestibular perception (the sensory system that provides the leading contribution to the sense of balance and spatial orientation for the purpose of coordinating movement with balance) may decline to attend a party for fear of being asked to dance, or a child with a strong creativity streak may decline to participate in an art class on the off-chance that the project may involve textiles with textures they find intolerable to touch.
They write that this can result in a sense of isolation and ostracism by others, and the misunderstood gifted child may be seen as a snob, “overdramatic,” or simply ill-behaved.
In this way, gifted brains can be exhausting – for parents, children, and educators. Not understanding the child can come with an emotional and mental toll, finding activities that the child likes to engage in without becoming bored or overwhelmed can be expensive, navigating different methods of intervention in a country like India where little attention is given to the unique problems of gifted children can be taxing, and children who are misunderstood can be bullied by peers as well as fall into a trap of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
To tackle this, a more in-depth understanding of giftedness is needed – the neuroscientific, educational, and developmental – and this understanding must be used to create techniques of identification, intervention, parenting, pedagogy, and the appropriate nurturing of exceptional children.