To fully grasp the insights below, you must be familiar with various parts of the brain and what they do. If you don’t, no worries. I learned – and then forgot – that information years ago. (An untraveled neural pathway, apparently!) My brain basics story provides all the background info you’ll need. 🙂
When people hear the word “gifted,” many think of academics and intellect. Others envision little prodigies, who picked up an instrument one day and instinctively knew how to play it – better than most adults.
In reality, however, there’s much more to giftedness than concert halls or an I.Q. score.
It’s a true type of neurodiversity. It can be seen in MRIs. And what’s often more obvious than intellectual or artistic prowess, is a combination of:
- areas developing outside the normal rate of progression
- various types of heightened experiences (and responses to them)
In other words, like many other kinds of neurodiversity, this particular type of “brain wiring” affects the whole child; not just the area(s) in which there’s an unusually-high degree of talent.
How all brains develop during childhood
Regardless of intellect or aptitude, the way in which the human brain creates and uses neural pathways is the same.
Another commonality is that the cortex thickens during childhood; then, later, begins to thin out again. This is partly due to genetics.
Now, advances in brain-mapping and imaging software are revealing new insights about the brain, and the ways in which it can differ in the “gifted” population at the neural level.
Increasing layers of complexity
Neuroscientist, writer and speaker Nicole Tetreault, Ph.D., says recent studies have identified that there are at least 180 areas of the human cortex. (That’s significant because, not long ago, neuroscientists thought there were 83!)
As researchers learn more, she says they’re also realizing each brain is as distinctive as a fingerprint.
Having said that, however, there are some generalizations we can make about the gifted population.
What makes the gifted brain different
So, what has research revealed about distinctions in the gifted brain? For starters, the cortex develops differently.
“When gifted children are very young, their cortices are thinner, but then their cortices grow very quickly, and become thicker than average, by the time they’re adolescents,” says Eric Chudler, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and executive director of the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
A 2006 study from UCLA Imaging Institute shed some light on this. Lead investigator Dr. Philip Shaw and his colleagues followed more than 300 children for 12 years. Researchers placed them into three intelligence groups (average, high and superior) based on their I.Q. test scores.
All of their cortices thickened, of course; however, kids in the superior intelligence group had a notably greater increase – particularly in the frontal cortex.
What’s more, the timing was a bit different. For the neurotypical study participants, cortex thickness tended to peak around age eight, with gradual thinning thereafter. However, for the superior intelligence (“gifted”) group, the thickening process usually didn’t begin until age nine and continued until about age 14. And when cortex pruning finally began, the process happened faster and the change was more significant.
Some experts believe all of this may mean that it takes longer for superior-level thinking circuitry to mature. But once that level of circuitry is in place, the gifted brain quickly streamlines its operations.
“It seems like a paradox. Fewer synapses occur, but when they do, they’re more efficient,” says Tetreault. “Another neuroscientist I spoke with was very surprised by this. It’s a new frontier.”
How these differences can play out
So how do these variances in the brain’s microstructure affect how gifted children perceive – and react to – the world around them? Here are a few examples:
- A study of mathematically-gifted boys found that when you give them complex math problems of increasing difficulty, they become energized, laser focused and even joyful. MRIs revealed that they used the left and right parietal lobes and frontal cortex – and with greater activation. It’s the type of phenomenon psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski was referring to when he identified the intellectual overexcitability (and four other intensities) in the 1960s.
- A recent study showed, across four separate datasets, that highly-creative people can use their brains in a distinct, and surprising, way. When presented with a divergent-thinking task, requiring brain regions that often compete, these individuals used them simultaneously. In other words, their brains’ left and right hemispheres were working in unison.
- Gifted children also may have emotional overexcitabilities. For example, some have an unusually strong sense of justice. A gifted boy may talk about it for days if a classmate cheats in a game of tag and gets away with it, or someone doesn’t say “thank you” when he holds a door open for them. And broader social issues, like homelessness or world hunger, may consume a gifted girl, whereas her age peers are more likely obsessed with the latest toy or fashion trend.
Unique challenges that accompany such gifts
As Tetreault is quick to point out, though, extraordinary “gifts” can come with some extraordinary challenges. She has learned this not only through research, but also as the mother of an intellectually-gifted boy.
For example, one area he struggled with for many years was motor processing. He had such a difficult time with handwriting that the most he would write was, “The story is good,” for a book he could talk about for half an hour or more. Once he began typing on a computer, however, one-sentence explanations immediately became full paragraphs. Her son simply needed a different tool to put his thoughts into written form.
Challenges also can come in the form of a kid who “never applies himself” or a child who is smart, but also really forgetful or easily distracted.
And because gifted kids’ neural pathways are more diverse, it can lead to medical misdiagnosis as well. Disorders, such as ADHD, OCD, ODD, Asperger’s and sensory processing order, are just a few of them.
“This is giftedness,” says Tetreault, “and it doesn’t always have a big bow wrapped around it like people think.”
She also stresses the importance of keeping an open mind to solutions and understanding there isn’t always something to fix, even though it may seem like it at first.
“These kids are divergent thinkers,” she explains. “They navigate the world in unique ways. They’re more like kaleidoscopes.”
To learn more about this topic, check out Dr. Tetreault’s book Insights into a Bright Mind. Through a combination of interviews, storytelling and literary science, she explains ways in which this population of neurodivergent individuals can experience the world differently, simply because of how they’re “hard-wired.”
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