The New Science of Giftedness

Biol Psychiatry. 2009 Jul 1;66(1):25-32. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2009.03.006. Epub 2009 Apr 28.Acute psychological stress reduces working memory-related activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.Qin S1Hermans EJvan Marle HJLuo JFernández G.

When we talk about giftedness the meaning is somewhat unclear. Does gifted mean IQ? Creativity? Skill? Performance? What's also unclear is where does giftedness come from and why is it often associated with emotional or social difficulties? Theses combinations of talent and difficulties are often referred to as Overexcitibilities, a term coined by Polish psychologist/psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski. One neurobiological phenomenon, cognitive disinhibition, may shed some light on these questions.

Children with higher rates of Cognitive Disinhibition take in more sensory data than the average person.

The majority of our conscious life is spent without much thought about our surroundings. While this might seem unhelpful if we were to constantly attend to incoming sensory data our brains would be completely overwhelmed. This process is called Cognitive Inhibition. Children with higher rates of Cognitive Disinhibition take in more sensory data than the average person. This increase in sensory data can lead to higher rates of learning and creative thinking. However, it can also contribute to sensory overwhelm, resulting in anxiety and distraction.

The 5 Overexcitabilities

The five overexcitablities defined by Dr. Dabrowski are psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual, and imaginational. Each of these are related to this process of Cognitive Disinhibition, you may also see this referred to as Latent Inhibition. When we think of giftedness we primarily are thinking about cognitive intelligence or creativity, intellectual or imaginational overexcitibility. However, when we talk about sensory data we re referring to all 5 senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste). As you can imagine, there is a fair amount of sensory issues (overstimulation, seeking, defensiveness) that comes with Cognitive Disinhibition

The difference between a child who is able to make use of this increase in sensory information and a child who is overwhelmed is how they are able to integrate the data and use it in a meaningful way

In the brain this process is happening in the prefrontal cortex, specifically the Orbitofrontal Cortex, one of the executive control centers in the brain. This developmental difference is seen in many different types of children including those with AD/HD and Autism. The difference between a child who is able to make use of this increase in sensory information and a child who is overwhelmed is how they are able to integrate the data and use it in a meaningful way. If there are discrepancies they will often be found on cognitive intelligence tests in lower scores in working memory and processing speed, which we will talk more about in future editions.

Stress and the Brain

The prefrontal cortex is easily impacted by stress. In times of emotional and physical stress, such as high pressure environments, fatigue, illness, etc., our brains divert energy to their most essential functions (much like our bodies reducing blood flow to the limbs in cold environments). This means that during stressful events a child will have less ability to integrate incoming information and can be easily overwhelmed by it, often resulting in tantrums or self soothing. Finding ways to reduce stress and sensory overload can have a huge impact on a child’s success. Calming techniques such as deep breathing, rhythmic/repetitive practices (music and/or movement), and soothing sensory input can all have a positive impact on helping a child regain their functioning.