Over the last couple of years I have spent time off and on doing research into giftedness and living with unusually high intelligence. It has been far more interesting and enlightening than I expected. So I figured I would share some of what I have learned with y’all. Today I will focus on some of the differences which tend to be characteristic of those with unusually high intelligence. Tomorrow, I’ll get into why so many gifted people have a hard time recognizing themselves as gifted and why it is so important for them to understand their giftedness and teach their children to do the same.
First, the differences. I always figured that high intelligence was just about how a person learns new information and skills. What I have found out, however, is that high intelligence entails not just being able to learn new things quickly and easily, but affects a person’s entire experience of life. People with unusually high intelligence take in and acquire information differently, process that information differently. They frequently experience emotions and physical stimuli more intensely than others. They have motivations and drives which others often find odd or bizarre. In short, being unusually intelligent tends to create a whole life experience which is markedly more complicated and intense than what most people experience.
Psychologists who deal with highly intelligent people label these areas of high instensity and complexity “Overexcitabilities” or OEs. They are generally divided into 5 categories: Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Imaginational, and Emotional. (This article has a pretty good basic examination of OEs.) While not every highly intelligent person will have an area of OE, most will have at least one or more areas of OE. These OEs are areas in which the highly intelligent person has unusually strong, frequent or deep reactions and experiences. For example, a person with intellectual OE may be unable to stop thinking about the things which interest him or her. They can get lost in figuring out some theoretical problem and spend a lot of time seeking out information and ideas related to the issue. While this is just the sort of person you want to sic on a complicated problem, a person with intellectual OE can find the pace and intensity of their thinking exhausting. They can also be impatient with others who aren’t able to intellectually keep up with them or highly critical of others and their ideas because they themselves are able to quickly and easily assess ideas for problems and flaws. A person with this OE is not just acquiring information more quickly than those around them. They are dealing with an interacting with that information in ways which are fundamentally different than others.
One of the real challenges that people with high intelligence face is learning how to deal with these OEs in ways that are healthy for themselves and others. Even more so than for most people, the things which are their greatest strengths can also be very destructive for an unusually intelligent person. This is why it is very important that kids who are gifted are taught about their giftedness, how it affects them differently than other people and how to manage those areas of OE that they have. Because they are dealing with an unusual level of intensity and complexity, a gifted child may take longer to get his or her areas of OE under control than a normal child dealing with similar issues of self-control. For example, it is not at all uncommon for a gifted child to be prone to inappropriate emotional outbursts well past the age that most kids have stopped throwing fits. While we often attribute this to a lack of maturity, perhaps due to focusing so much mental energy on intellectual development, the reality is that this struggle probably has its root in an emotional OE. When a person experiences emotions much more frequently, intensely and easily than other people, it only makes sense that it is going to take more time for them to learn to tame and manage them. We can probably compare it to the difference between saddle training a wild mustang and saddle training a horse bred on a horse farm. While the Mustang may end up being the more magnificent animal, it is also to be expected that it will take more time to bring the wild animal under control than it will the domesticated one.
In addition to dealing with OEs, one of the problems which a lot of kids and adults with unusually high intelligence have is that they do not understand the ways in which they are different from most of the people around them. They may realize that they learn things more quickly and easily than others, but may be wholly unaware that others don’t share their endless curiosity and may not have the strong feelings about things that they do. Highly intelligent people may also find themselves odd man out because it is in their nature to think and work outside of the box. They may know that they are doing this, but may not realize how threatening and disconcerting this often is to others. They can be blindsided by the negative reactions they receive for doing things which they see as positive.
This fundamental different-ness combined with a lack of insight into the reality of the how other people’s minds work underlies a lot of the social difficulties which highly intelligent people often experience. Unfortunately, the social problems that unusually intelligent people, particularly kids, commonly experience are usually pinned on some failure on their own part. However, a good part of the social problems highly intelligent people experience are rooted in a lack of tolerance for their differences. Take a child who uses vocabulary that his peers aren’t familiar with and responds to being shown a frog with an explanation of the life cycle of frogs and the similarities and differences between frogs and toads. The other kids don’t usually think, “wow, he’s really smart. I wonder what else he knows. I bet he’d be an exciting person to get to know.” They just think, “what a weirdo.” How is the child suppose to handle himself to solve this problem? Should he somehow figure out how to change his very nature so that he doesn’t care about the things he sees around him? Should he not educate himself about the things which interest him? Should he magically know which of the words that he effortlessly picks up his peers won’t notice and learn for many years to come so he can refrain from using them? Should he cynically assume that other people suffer from what to him is an appalling lack of curiosity and not share what he knows (after all, he really likes it when people tell him new things)? Obviously, pinning the “weirdo” reaction on the gifted child and expecting him to become more “socially adept” in order to avoid triggering it is wrong and ridiculous. Far better to teach greater tolerance for these differences to the other children. It would cost the gifted child a huge part of himself to “fix” this social interaction while expecting greater tolerance from more normal kids would be a benefit to themselves as well as the gifted child.
OTOH, it is entirely likely that the gifted child will prattle on about frogs and toads far past the time available and without regard for the fact that others may have things they would like to contribute to the conversation. So gifted kids do need to be taught to manage their tendencies in order to be respectful to others and capable of engaging in reciprocal conversations and relationships. However, many gifted kids and adults struggle with figuring out what they are doing “wrong” in social situations. They have taken the time to master the art of listening, asking questions, making small talk, providing positive feedback, making jokes, being intentionally kind and thoughtful, modulating emotions and reactions so as not to startle or discomfort other people. And yet they can still find themselves isolated without knowing why. The simple fact is that we can (and should) encourage gifted kids to develop good social skills, but if we insist on blaming them for all of their social problems, we are being very unfair.
I personally began to get an inkling of the idea that I might be different from other people in ways that I hadn’t previously realized a couple of years ago. A woman from my bible study who I was trying to get to know (and who was being rather unresponsive) commented in a discussion, “I always think I’m so unique and different, but the more I get to know other people, the more I realize that they are interested in and looking for the same things as I am.” It really hit me that my experience of life was just the opposite; I always thought of myself as normal. Yet the more I got to know people, the more I realized that other people are pretty much nothing like me. What is so funny is that other people saw me and interacted with me and seemed to know immediately that I was different. Yet I, the one who is supposed to be so smart, was frequently oblivious to this. Actually, I wasn’t so much oblivious to it as I was oblivious to the effect that this difference has on the way people respond (or don’t respond) to me. Once I started looking into giftedness, things started to make more sense to me. While it is a little discouraging to realize that there is really nothing I can do to change some of the negative ways people respond to me, it is also freeing to realize that this doesn’t mean I’m doing anything wrong.
I have found that especially being a mom, when you are very different, it can be hard to find others who “get” you. Unlike fields like medicine or engineering where gifted people are the norm, motherhood pulls in people from across the range of the intelligence scale. One of the things which I appreciate about the internet and this blog is that it is much easier to find people who share my interests and probably a few of my OEs online than it is in real life. So, especially to my regular readers and commenters, thanks so much for joining in here. It’s nice to have an outlet where you are appreciated rather than just labeled “weirdo”. 🙂