Chances are, you stumbled upon my blog to learn about the various ways in which gifted children can be different.
As you may know, there often are as many social-emotional disparities as there are intellectual differences. (If you aren’t aware of that yet, poke around my site a bit. It’ll become obvious pretty quickly!)
But why are gifted kids so different? What’s going on in their brains that makes them neurodiverse?
Before diving into that, let’s start with some brain basics.
Every brain contains billions of nerve cells called neurons. They’re electrically-excitable cells that serve as the brain’s fundamental working units.
Different types of neurons have different jobs:
- Sensory neurons receive sensory input.
- Motor neurons send motor commands to our muscles.
- Interneurons transfer signals between sensory and motor neurons. They also communicate with each other.
This “conversation” between neurons takes place within synapses. It involves forming circuits of various complexities.
The communication exchanges between neurons are continual – and they evolve over time. According to Eric Chudler, Ph.D., neuroscientist and executive director of the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash., “Everyone’s brain is constantly changing, as new connections between neurons are made and other connections are lost.”
This continual evolution is known as neuroplasticity.
At a synapse, one nerve cell releases a chemical (neurotransmitter) that binds to a nearby cell. If those cells start to communicate frequently, the connection between them strengthens, and any subsequent messages traveling the same pathway, begin to do so with increasing efficiency. With enough repetition of these exchanges, transmission (neuronal firing) begins to occur on “auto pilot.”
An example of this is when a baby learns to crawl. Initially, she struggles to determine how to get from Point A to Point B. Her first attempts may include stretching as far as she can to grab at something, or trying to drag herself to it. Then she attempts to move her arms and legs in a sequence that produces success. There’s often a lot of wobbling, and a face-plant or two, but soon, she figures it out. And before long, she no longer has to think about the steps necessary to accomplish that task.
Her brain will create pathways like this over and over again as she learns to walk, ride a bike, perform various types of math equations, and more.
Another way in which the brain continually changes is the flip side of that process. Existing connections between neurons “break” when they haven’t been used enough or if there’s some sort of physical trauma.
Also, occasionally it’s best to try to break a synapsis intentionally. For example, many people have negative thoughts, actions or reactions that are unhealthy or unproductive. Consciously changing them takes time, but with consistency, it’s possible. And after a while, it gets easier.
At a larger level, neurons are the building blocks of brain tissue which play a significant role in higher mental function. There are two types:
- Grey matter – The brain tissue composed of neuron cell bodies.
- White matter – This tissue is composed of bundles that connect areas of gray matter to each other and relays information across the brain. The bundles are covered by myelin, a fatty material that speeds up the signals between the cells.
The ways in which gray and white matter integrate determine processing speed and information transfer.
Cerebrum and its regions
At an even larger level, we have the cerebrum. It’s the main part of the brain – and what you typically see when looking at a brain diagram.
The cerebrum is divided into four regions. Also known as lobes, they control senses, thoughts and movements.
Each part contains white matter and grey matter (and, therefore, loads and loads of neurons). Here’s a breakdown of each and its functions:
- Occipital lobe – This region of the brain is the center of our visual-perception system. It controls: image recognition, visual memory and visual-stimuli interpretation.
- Parietal lobe – This part is responsible for integrating sensory information with the visual system to form a single perception, and constructing a spatial-coordinate system to represent the world around us. It controls: receiving and processing tactile-sensory information, goal-directed voluntary movements, manipulation of objects, location for visual attention, and location for touch perception.
- Temporal lobe – This area of the brain interprets sounds and the language we hear. It’s also heavily associated with the formation of memories. The temporal lobe controls: hearing ability, some visual perceptions, categorization of objects, and memory acquisition.
- Frontal lobe – This is the region associated with memory for habits, motor activities and higher mental function. It interprets how we know what we’re doing within our environment, and how we initiate activity in response to our surroundings. In particular, the prefrontal cortex (within the frontal lobe) is associated with complex behaviors, such as: planning, analysis and problem-solving. It also greatly contributes to personality development, including: emotional responses, expressive language, creativity and behavior control. “Some data indicate the volume of grey matter correlates to I.Q., especially in the prefrontal cortex,” says Chudler.
Although each lobe has a separate task to perform, they all work together.
Covering all of them is an outer layer of neural tissue called the cerebral cortex. It’s composed of grey matter, and is the largest site of neural integration in the central nervous system. The cerebral cortex plays a key role in higher brain functions, ranging from voluntary movement and the coordination of sensory information, to language, attention, memory and the expression of individuality.
Although many people think of the frontal lobe when it comes to the topic of intellect, Chudler says there’s no single area of the brain associated with intelligence.
“The frontal lobe is very important; however, the connections between brain areas are most important,” he explains.
To find out the ways in which the gifted brain develops and functions differently than neurotypical brains, see my brain differences article.
The brain is an extremely complex organ and there are many aspects of it that I didn’t address in this article. If I write stories in the future that mention portions of the brain not discussed here, I’ll update this page to include it.
Also, if you’d like some brainy entertainment, check out the fun books Chudler has authored, including: Brain Bytes: Quick Answers to Quirky Questions about the Brain, The Little Book of Neuroscience Haiku, and Brain Lab for Kids: 52 Mind-Blowing Experiments, Models and Activities to Explore Neuroscience. He’s also the editor of a free, monthly newsletter called Neuroscience for Kids.