I think of neuroscientists as looking out at the world and seeing people through the lens of neural structures and functions, as though we are all walking brains on electronically wired stick figures. And indeed, in the past, cognitive science has tried to simplify the process of understanding the brain through use of basic computer based and electronic circuitry models (I’m recalling the ‘80s). From two-step models to complex connectivity projects, our understanding, tools, and methods for mapping out the structures and functions of the brain has matured over the decades, complementing our understanding of the brain itself (NIH Human Connectome Project, 2013). Research and understanding of gifted children has also matured. And today, we have more research that combines neuroscience and gifted than we have in the past.
There is a population of people who share characteristics that congeal and congregate under the umbrella that we call gifted (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009; Morelock, 1992; NAGC, 2011; Silverman, 1993). And there is agreement within the gifted community on at least one characteristic, ‘potential’ and/or what many call ability (Morelock, 1992; NAGC, 2011; Rhode Island State Advisory Committee on Gifted and Talented Education, n.d.; Ruf, 2009; Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2012).
Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius and Worrell (2012) explain that this potential “implies an ability to perform at the extreme upper end of the distribution in a certain area” (p. 52). Research on gifted children has utilized tests and assessment to quantify this ability and performance, as well as understand human capabilities. If you are reading this and have a child under the gifted umbrella, you know that several types of tests are used to determine such potential, ranging from intellectual and academic tests to tests of creativity and demonstrated achievement within a particular subject area. The types of tests used and the promise of what an assessment offers, as well as the cut-off criteria utilized, varies drastically across programs and institutions. The search for the gifted brain began long ago, and one theorist, Dabrowski, postulated that gifted individuals, as a whole, possess qualities different from the norm (Ackerman, 2009; Daniels & Piechowski, 2009).
He defined these qualities as overexcitabilities or “superstimulatability” such that “persons may require less stimulation to produce a response, as well as stronger and more lasting reactions to stimuli” across 5 broad domains: psychomotor, sensation, imagination, intellectual and emotional (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009, p. 8-9).
Dabrowski, to me, seems to be describing neural pathways or systems.
If we look through the neuroscientist lens at ‘potential’ as the performance of the gifted child through the theoretical concept of overexcitabilities, we can begin to ask, what is it that makes the gifted child’s brain different? And, is the gifted child’s brain different?
Studies using a scale that quantify overexcitabilities have found differences in the presence and level of overexcitabilities between children identified as gifted and those who are not (Ackerman & Paulus, 1997). Gifted children displayed and scored high on intellectual and emotional overexcitabilities as compared to those who were not identified as gifted (Ackerman & Paulus, 1997).
Gifted children also evidence anatomical and physiological neuronal differences (Geake, 2008). Those who score higher on tests and assessments differ in the biological make-up of their brains (Cole, Yarkoni, Repovš, Anticevic, & Braver, 2012; Geake, 2008; Koch et al., 2012; Mitchell, 2007; Takeuchi et al., 2011).
Geake (2008) suggests that the current research supports gifted individuals as possessing “more efficacious working memory with an enhanced executive function, focused attention, delayed closure, and evaluation selection.” The frontal lobe is the ‘executive’ functioning portion of our brains. It is the manager. It breaks down complex problems, sequences, and overseas how problems are solved. Studies have found differences in the frontal lobe of those with higher intellectual abilities, finding higher volumes of grey matter and more rapid growth in the thickness of the cortex associated with those who have higher abilities (Cole et al., 2012; Geake, 2008).
Other studies suggest that people with higher abilities utilize their brain more efficiently due to greater neural synchronization in the brain (Geake, 2008; Koch et al., 2012). Synchronicity is the ongoing conversations and relay of information across brain areas and this connectivity gives rise to cognitive functions (Koch et al., 2012).
High ability performers have brain anatomical and physiological differences (Cole et al., 2012; Geake, 2008; Koch et al., 2012; Mitchell, 2007; Takeuchi et al., 2011). We call these high performers or high ability children, gifted children. And the research suggests that gifted children may process information faster and “more richly,” just like Dabrowski postulated, due in part to structural brain differences (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009; Hanscombe et al., 2012). These brain differences and greater connectivity/synchronicity do “combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm” (Geake, 2008; Morelock, 1992). These differences result in unique ways of perceiving the world and require unique approaches in education, parenting, and psycho-social development (Morelock, 1992; NAGC, 2011; Webb et al., 2005).
To me, these findings suggest that gifted children have special needs that cannot be accounted for by environmental influences alone. Yes, environment does play a role in enrichment of potential, but there is evidence that those who possess higher abilities have different brain structures than those who do not possess those abilities. And this, in and of itself, cannot be denied or overlooked.
Have we found the gifted brain? No, but we have begun the journey, and there is great hope with the advent of the Connectome Project and advances in science and technology (NIH Human Connectome Project, 2013).
Catherine Gruener is the founder and owner of Gruener Consulting, LLC, an education program provider offering solutions to both parents and educators. Through its unique workshops and services for gifted children, and positive discipline parent classes and seminars, Ms. Gruener offers insight and tools for parents and teachers in large group seminars, online courses, and private consultations.
Ms. Gruener holds a Master’s degree in neuropsychology and a second Master’s degree in professional counseling from the Adler School of Professional Psychology. She is certified in Positive Discipline, as a Positive Discipline Trainer Candidate (PDTC). She is a Licensed Professional Counselor candidate in the state of Illinois.
Ms. Gruener has served 16 plus years in the mental health field contributing to neuropsychology, psychological research, community counseling, and special needs advocacy in the United States and in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. She has been an active member of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children since 2009, serving on the Social and Emotional Committee, and holds memberships in several professional organizations: American Psychological Association, American Counseling Association, Positive Discipline Association, Illinois Association for Gifted Children, and the National Association for Gifted Children.
For additional information please visit www.positivedisciplineparenting.com.
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Ackerman, C. M., & Paulus, L. E. (1997). Identifying gifted adolescents using personality characteristics: Dabrowski's overexcitabilities. [Article]. Roeper Review, 19(4), 229.
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Posted retroactively on March 13, 2015.