Giftedness. The term itself carries a sense of ambiguity, as the potential of human ability and the depth of biological, social, psychological, and physical effects of what we call “giftedness” are fairly unknown. Hearing the word brings to mind Albert Einstein and others characterized as geniuses, but the exact meaning, basis, and implications of giftedness remain shrouded in the unknown. This sense of uncertainty transfers over to the scientific world; some even question the existence and authenticity of such a phenomenon, so research on the neurological origins, representation, and outcomes of being gifted lack the depth seen in other neuroscience fields. Adding to the confusion is the fact that giftedness may be ascribed to a person’s aptitude for a wide variety of skills- music, the arts, psychomotor abilities, science, math, or even leadership .
While giftedness may be commonly thought of as an innate ability, research has found that this is not completely accurate; rather, it is an ability that can be refined and made extraordinary through purposeful and diligent practice, especially when a gifted child begins to pursue their field of interest at a young age [1, 2]. Even with an incredible amount of practice, the level of mastery that is achievable by those who are gifted is further influenced by the environments in which they are raised. At least to some extent, the way in which a gifted child is parented, the socioeconomic status of the parents, and the type of education the gifted receive also play roles in a child’s chances of reaching their potential [2, 3]. While it is true that all these factors- practice, environment, status, and parenting- affect the extent to which exceptional talent is achieved, there still remains remarkable evidence for an inherent, neurological predisposition for giftedness.
Since the early twentieth century, various institutions and researchers have attempted to create set definitions of giftedness. In 1925, Psychologist Lewis Terman first determined that those who are gifted reside in the top one percent of the population on intelligence tests . Originally designed by researchers Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, Terman revised their work to create what is known as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales in 1917 . An individual’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ), as determined by these tests, became a popular method for quantitatively deciding who is gifted. Later, psychologist David Weshler designed his own versions of intelligence tests, which eventually became the standard for determining IQ in the 1960s and still remain means of comparison schools use to choose which children qualify for more challenging classes [1,2].
While Terman focused on defining and quantifying giftedness, his contemporary, Leta Hollingworth, centered her research on the environmental and educational aspects of the development of giftedness. Unlike Terman, Hollingworth noticed that most of those who did well in life were men who came from wealthy families. However, though their sisters came from the same background, Hollingworth found that they neither achieved the level of success nor received the level of education or support as their brothers. Because of this, Hollingworth advocated for the overlooked- women and those with intellectual disabilities—and eventually developed a curriculum designed for the education of the gifted, which focused on growing a child’s independence, initiative, and originality. Once she found a child in her class for “subnormal children” who scored a 187 on the Stanford-Binet test, she defined gifted individuals as those who had an IQ at or above 180 . Now, the definition of giftedness has broadened; the federal government uses qualifications regarding not only a person’s innate cognitive abilities but also their creativity, task commitment, achievement motivation, leadership abilities, and psychomotor talent as metrics for determining giftedness .
For the sake of simplicity, this article will use the well-recognized definition created by Harvard researcher and professor, Ellen Winner. According to Winner, an individual’s level of intelligence or IQ score is not the sole determinant for classifying giftedness. Instead, a person must have three qualities in order to be gifted: first, one must be precocious and begin to display an expert, innate ability at a very young age; second, the person must have independently selected for and taught themselves the area in which they show aptitude; and third, the individual must exhibit a natural, strong desire to pursue the area in which they are talented . People with these attributes tend to have heightened working memories, quick and proficient thinking, an ability to filter out distractions, and focus intensely on their work . Without these three characteristics, a person may be naturally skilled and display above-average abilities, but they do not qualify as being gifted. Again, even for a person who displays all these characteristics by their very nature, nurture still has a vital role in how their talent is developed.
Of course, Winner’s definition of giftedness is vague and lacks the objective, “black-and-white” precision that scientific descriptions typically have, which is why further research needs to be conducted on giftedness. Such research needs to have a focus on truly discovering the biological foundation and depth of potential that is manifested through giftedness. Far too often, those who are gifted do not use their full capabilities to create “domain-altering innovation” due to a lack of support or to the negative psychological and social impacts of being gifted in a society that does not appreciate their abilities . By gaining a deeper understanding of giftedness, resources can be provided for those who are gifted in order to help them reach the potential for which they were predisposed.
Fortunately, recent studies have begun to uncover the mystery surrounding what it means- scientifically- to be gifted. This information is vital towards furthering modern science’s knowledge of how the typical, healthy brain functions. Quite understandably, most of the research on the brain is done in order to discover what is not working when it is diseased. However, by learning what is occurring in a gifted brain, one that functions at higher-than-average levels, scientists can develop a stronger grasp on how the normal human brain works. With this depth of knowledge, further progress can be made in not only understanding why an ill-functioning brain produces the effects it has on its owner but also creating innovative ideas for treating those with diseased brains. From a neurological perspective, research has revealed that giftedness is marked by many physical alterations of the brain, from increased connectivity to changes in activity to differences in surface area and volume.
To begin with, some studies show that those who are gifted often display increased connectivity, and thus linkage, between various regions of their brains. Connectivity is determined through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to visualize neural circuits within a brain and the axons connecting them . In a study completed on adolescents gifted in mathematical reasoning, researchers asked students to complete mental rotation tasks. This required individuals to mentally picture and rotate an object, imagining what it looked like from various perspectives. The study discovered that these students’ brains displayed an overall greater connectivity between several different cortical regions, which is likely the basis for their above-average ability.
Interestingly, math gifted individuals show increased connectivity not only between hemispheres but also between frontal and parietal regions. Historically, the frontal lobes are associated with accomplishing higher cognitive skills and the parietal with integrating sensory information. This study suggests that their higher visuospatial talent and even their mathematical reasoning skills as a whole may be due to increased connections within the brain [5, 6]. Furthermore, additional connectivity within the frontal lobes from both hemispheres in particular is suggestive of higher intelligence because it allows for more efficient processing and integration of information between the hemispheres, efforts which would normally be very costly time-wise [2, 6].
More research discovered that increased connectivity due to white matter circuitry between the cortex and the cerebellum is present in the gifted . While the cerebellum is traditionally associated with movement coordination, some researchers hypothesize that for the brain, movement and thought are one and the same. These scientists posit that just as the cerebellum coordinates and refines actions performed by an individual, it does the same for neural pathways relating to cognition. The cerebellum completes these jobs as a person repeats an action or thought over and over, so the more a neural pathway is used, the better the cerebellum is able to store information regarding the repeated activity, predict what the brain is going to do when this neural circuitry is activated, and aid in completing the action or thought more effectively . In other words, this research concluded that thicker connections between the cortex and cerebellum play an important role in a gifted person’s knack for the quick, proficient thinking that is an essential component of their talent.
In addition, other research has suggested that increased connectivity between the basal ganglia and other parts of the brain is integral in developing a gifted brain . The basal ganglia are highly involved in attention and motivation. For this reason, developed white matter tracts between this area and the cortex may play a role in the gifted’s incredible working memory, ability to filter out any and all distractions, capacity to show intense focus on the task at hand, and impulse to dominate their field of interest. Interestingly, the cerebellum is also thought to influence a person’s internal motivation and reward system through its connections with the basal ganglia and its dopaminergic pathways. Simplistically, dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with the feeling of pleasure, so it gives a person a strong sense of reward when it is released onto dopaminergic neurons in the basal ganglia. The brain is rewarded and thus encouraged to repeat certain actions when dopaminergic pathways from the substantia nigra or ventral tegmental areas release the neurotransmitter to places like the basal ganglia. When this dopaminergic pathway is activated, the person experiences a sense of enjoyment and becomes more motivated to complete the same actions or thoughts that lead to the initial activation and release of dopamine in this way. The combined efforts of the basal ganglia and the cerebellum are thought to contribute to the gifted’s qualities of displaying exceptional focus, discipline, and determination.
Besides increased connectivity, gifted brains also show levels of activation that are different than those of the average brain. Brain activity is studied through using imaging techniques like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), electroencephalogram (EEG), and Positron Emission Tomography (PET). In some studies, gifted individuals showed increased activity in the frontal-parietal regions of their brains and in the areas associated with working memory while completing spatial, reasoning and reading tasks- mimicking the results found from connectivity tests [1, 6, 7]. Several studies have confirmed these findings and concluded that this abnormal and heightened activation of the frontal-parietal areas, especially within the right hemisphere, allows for more effective processing and is an indication of a gifted brain [1, 5, 6].
However, higher activation does not always imply higher cognitive resources and abilities. In some cases, gifted people’s brains show overall less activation than average in areas involved in intelligence-related activities, especially within the prefrontal cortex. This finding led to the development of the “neural efficiency hypothesis,” an idea which claims that simple tasks require less work to complete them. In these cases, decreased activation is indicative of greater efficiency, which is characterized by enhanced cognitive processing speed and lessened activation of neural processes. Contrarily, for more difficult tasks, gifted individuals tend to show heightened brain activations [1, 2].
While there is not just one physiological basis for giftedness and interpretation of research attempting to find such data is very difficult, various studies have shown the gifted don’t have or use different processes than average people. Instead, when executing cognitive tasks, their brains are just more efficient and developed in completing those processes [1, 6].
Surface Area and Volume
Another physiological difference seen in the gifted is the actual size of various areas of their brains. While giftedness is no longer strictly defined by an individual’s IQ, those who are gifted commonly score high on IQ tests. Knowing this, Jeffery Gilger based his research on the fact that, in general, intelligence is linked with increased volume of specific areas of the brain such as the temporal lobe, hippocampus, and cerebellum . His research compared the regional brain sizes of non-verbally gifted people (G) and individuals who were both non-verbally gifted and reading disabled (GRD). 7 People who were placed in the G category were gifted in any field other than ones relating to language, and those who were part of the GRD group possessed both giftedness in areas other than language and learning disabilities leading to difficulty in recognizing words, spelling, and decoding meaning of text. Gilger’s team realized that a direct relationship did not exist between the amount of area of the brain and cognitive abilities. Similar to the idea of the neural efficiency hypothesis, the researchers discovered that sometimes, thinner cortices in the gifted may actually occur because of the brain’s highly efficient pathways. However, in the cases where bigger did mean better, the study showed that it was increased surface area- not volume- in the G individuals that differentiated them from the GRD group .
Interestingly, the researchers found that area of regions in the brain may be a trait determined prenatally in response to neurodevelopmental events, while cortical volume is developed after birth .This conclusion lead to the idea that giftedness has, in at least some part, genetic origins. While not a perfect predictor of giftedness, researchers found that IQ is related to the pattern of cortical growth in individuals . In people with higher intelligence, scientists discovered a unique cortical developmental pattern: as children, these people displayed earlier and faster cortical growth, compared to their average counterparts, which was then followed by thinning of the same areas in adolescence. The study that quantified this growth did so by measuring the distance between white and gray matter surfaces within the cortex from MRI images .
Additionally, current research hypothesizes that prenatal exposure to testosterone during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy may lead to both giftedness in math and other cognitive outcomes by altering neurological processes such as neuronal proliferation, migration, differentiation, myelination, and apoptosis within the central nervous system of the fetus [1, 6]. These processes are especially critical during the last two trimesters of pregnancy, while the fetus’ brain grows at rapid rates. In the case of giftedness, some researchers predict that prenatal exposure to testosterone disrupts neuronal migration in particular, which causes the right hemisphere and corpus callosum to grow to above average sizes. With a further developed corpus callosum, the hemispheres are more robustly connected- a characteristic of giftedness [1, 6].
In order for modified neuronal migration to occur and over-develop in certain areas that lead to giftedness, those same neurons had to have left other areas of the brain, leaving them under-developed. In this case, when the right hemisphere experiences more growth than is typical, the left hemisphere’s volume becomes reduced as a consequence, which researchers discovered has links with Asperger’s syndrome, schizophrenia, depression, and dyslexia . Interestingly, those who are both gifted and schizophrenic are often left-handed, and individuals who are gifted and have Asperger’s are more likely to develop allergies and autoimmune disorders . In math-gifted people especially, they are twice as likely to be left-dominant, male, and to have allergies, autoimmune disorders, and myopia . Thus, it appears that giftedness is not the only trait to have origins at asymmetric hemisphere development; these physical and health characteristics seem to be just as linked.
In the modern era, science has advanced at astonishing rates, with new information being discovered and novel technologies being developed each day. This exceptional progress is being used to solve not only some of the world’s most pressing problems but also to understand the remarkable phenomenon of giftedness. In medicine, one of the organs least understood- and yet most important- is the brain. As the center for both the tangible and intangible, the origin for personality and characteristics, and the organ at the root of distinction between homo sapiens and all other organisms, the brain remains clouded with mystery. Much of neuroscience research focuses on disease states; however, research on what happens in the brain to support enhanced abilities, like giftedness, is also necessary. By combining these opposing perspectives, it will become possible to obtain a greater and deeper understanding of how the healthy brain functions. Such a collection of information can provide novel ideas for treatments of brain disorders and may inform doctors of the true source of physical traits and conditions residing outside the brain.
Future research should focus on prenatal origins of giftedness, brain activities in those who are gifted in non science or math related fields, the effect of practice on the brains of those who are already predisposed to be gifted, and using a neurological knowledge of giftedness to develop treatments for those with cognitive disabilities or brain injuries. While research has been done to scratch the surface of giftedness, more insight into the novelty is imperative to unlocking the mystery of the brain, revealing the full potential of human beings, and developing remarkable applications for those who suffer from brain-related ailments.
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- Winner, E. (2000). The origins and ends of giftedness. American Psychologist, 55 (1), 159-169. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.55.159
- Silverman, L. K. (1989). It all began with Leta Hollingworth: The story of giftedness in women. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 12 (2), 86-98. https://doi.org/10.1177/016235328 901200202
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- Prescott, J., Gavrilescu, M., Cunnington, R., O’Boyle, M.W., & Egan, G.F. (2010). Enhanced brain connectivity in math-gifted adolescents: An fMRI study using mental rotation. Cognitive Neuroscience, 1 (4), 277-288. doi:10.1080/17588928.2010.506951
- Gilger, J.W., Bayda, M., Olulade, O.A., Altman, M.N., & O’Boyle, M. (2017). Preliminary report on neuroanatomical differences among reading disabled, nonverbally gifted, and gifted-reading disabled college students. Developmental Neuropsychology, 42 (1), 25-38. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/87565641.2016.1256402