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Giftedness: The view from within

Gifted Research

This article by Martha Morelock covers giftedness and its relationship to asynchronous development. The reader is also given a developmental picture of highly gifted students that extends beyond achievement. The author focuses on giftedness “from the inside out,” demonstrating how advanced cognitive development shapes the rest of the personality.

Author: Morelock, M. J.
Publication: Understanding Our Gifted
Publisher: Open Space Communications
Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 1, 11-15
January/February 1992

Ten-year-old Greg Barnes was acknowledged by school personnel as highly gifted. His scholastic achievement test scores placed him in the 99.9th percentile, as did his score on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. On this particular day, when he returned home from school, Mrs. Barnes knew immediately from his despondent expression that the day had been less than ideal.

“Something wrong?” she probed gently.

“Yeah,” he said in a tone of thorough disgust, “I got into trouble. We’ll have to see the principal tomorrow.”

“What for?”

“I got into a fight with Joe and beat him up.”

Mrs. Barnes was shocked. Greg was not an aggressive child. He had never reported such an incident before. In fact, he was an extraordinarily sensitive boy who genuinely cared about other people.

“What happened?” she inquired further.

Greg explained that he and Joe had exchanged insults during music class. Both boys, Greg insisted, were at fault. Later, Joe had cornered Greg by the lockers, taunting him, threatening to beat him up, and egging Greg on to fight. Greg responded by punching Joe, who punched Greg back. When the teacher came onto the scene, Joe was crying while Greg continued to rain punches upon him.

“Well, it sounds like you stood up for yourself…” began Mrs. Barnes. She was surprised at Greg’s immediate and heated denial.

“No, Mom – it wasn’t that simple.”

“But wasn’t he threatening to beat you up?”

“No, Mom! You don’t understand!”

Greg was getting visibly more upset as Mrs. Barnes attempted to convey that she was not being judgmental. Unable to comprehend why her efforts to convey caring and understanding were being met with mounting frustration, Mrs. Barnes decided to defuse the issue.

“OK. Why don’t you write down what happened and explain how you feel about it. Obviously you were there and you know why it happened better than I do.”

Greg willingly took a seat at the typewriter and laboriously typed out his story and explanation. An hour and a half later, he handed the pages to his mother: “It all began in third grade…” started the first paragraph. Greg went on to describe in careful detail how he and Joe had met and embarked upon a rocky friendship. At certain times, Joe seemed to want to be friends. At other times, Joe refused to allow Greg to participate in ongoing playground activities. Greg admitted to sometimes levelling “insults” at Joe in retaliation for these playground rejections.

Greg listed incidents from 3rd and 4th grades as well as the 5th grade incident that precipitated the immediate problem. For each incident, he detailed each child’s behaviours with painful accuracy in an effort to render an objective view of what had happened. Greg’s outburst was, according to him, not only a response to the day’s happenings, but a reaction to the entire pattern of incidents composing their relationship over the past two years. The argument of the day was simply “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

The next day, Joe, too, wrote out his version of the fight. He wrote simply, “Greg hit me and then I hit him back and he kept hitting me.”

The Different Reality that Marks Giftedness

Greg and Joe had participated in the same fight. Yet, Greg was fighting over a broader and more complex issue than was Joe. Greg had an unusually retentive memory and an extraordinary ability to analyse the roles played by both boys in an ongoing series of incidents composing a two year relationship. Joe, a child with more average cognitive abilities, lived each incident as it occurred and forgot it when it was resolved for the day. Apparently Greg and Joe were reacting to very different and individual realities.

Or, consider four-year-old Jennie. Jennie’s grandfather died several months ago; Jennie is asking questions about death and showing evidence of emotional upset. Her mother tries to reassure her by telling her that she need not worry – she and Mommy and Daddy will live a long time. She will grow up and have children and Mommy will be a grandmother. Jennie responds in trembling voice, “But you don’t know, Mommy. Even children die sometimes. Nobody knows for sure…

Most four year olds would simply accept the mother’s reassurance. Jennie, however, like Greg, is highly gifted.

Consequently, her logical and abstract reasoning abilities far exceed those of most four year olds. They create for her a reality more complex and threatening than that facing her age mates. Like average four year olds, she needs to believe her mother in order to feel emotionally secure. However, her advanced cognitive capacities allow her to see too clearly the faulty logic. She is left vulnerable and bereft of comfort.

Giftedness as Asynchronous Development

Greg and Jennie exhibit a lack of synchronicity in the rates of their cognitive, emotional and physical development. Jennie’s physical development is similar to that of an average four year old, while her cognitive development more nearly approximates that of a child at least twice her age (Morelock, 1991). The emotional needs that must be fulfilled for Jennie’s healthy emotional development to take place are similar to those of other four year olds. In order to feel secure, to trust in the world and to begin to develop her own identity, Jennie requires a certain comfortable predictability in her daily existence. She also needs to have a simple, solid trust in the strength and reliability of her parents. However, the fulfilment of those four-year-old emotional needs is complicated by Jennie’s extraordinary capacity for abstract thought. Her internally imposed demand for logical consistency leaves her emotionally unable to accept anything contradicting it. Children do die. Mommies and Daddies aren’t omnipotent and omniscient. For Jennie – and for other gifted children like her – the world can threaten to dissolve into unpredictable and frightening chaos.

Roedell (1988) points out that young gifted readers or children who watch the television news can be exposed to highly complex, emotionally charged information that they may not be mature enough to deal with.

The parent of an intellectually advanced four year old described how he came upon his daughter looking terrified as she read the Bible. When he inquired about her concern, she replied, “I’m reading The Book of Revelations, and it’s really scary!”(p. 7)

Children like Jennie, and the four year old cited by Roedell, lack the life experience necessary for interpreting the cognitive realities that confront them.


A number of theorists and researchers have independently written about asynchronous development. Gowan (1974) discussed the implications of cognitive capacities that outstrip emotional (affective) development. He referred to asynchronous development as “dysplasia”:

…..a disagreement, dissonance, or disparity either between the age of the individual, which should place him in one stage, and the … stage he is actually in, …or disparity between the cognitive stage he is in and the affective stage he is in… (p. 165).

Gowan emphasized the trauma that can result when an individual is thrust prematurely and abruptly into a higher level of cognitive awareness…

Just as the baby developing within the womb is surrounded by a placenta, we are all shielded from external reality by an envelope which protects us from it. Development, hence, consists (in post-uterine as in prenatal existence) in growth and specialization which will allow for the appropriate penetration of the placental envelope so that the individual can gain greater freedom and interaction with the external world. But if this placental shell is ruptured too soon, then chaos results, and special means are required to save the individual and nurse him back to healthy development. (p. 188)


Terrassier’s (1985) “dyssynchrony,” is another related theory. It includes both internal aspects, involving disparate rates of development among the various capacities of the child, and social or external aspects, involving gifted children’s resultant relationships with environmental circumstances.

External dyssynchrony refers to the lack of natural fit between the gifted child and a school curriculum geared to average children of the same chronological age. It also suggests any experience when a gifted child does not “fit” the cultural expectations of how a child of his or her chronological age “should” think, feel, or act.

Remember Greg, for example, in the scenario about the fight with Joe. Mrs. Barnes’ initial difficulty in characterizing what had happened stemmed from her viewing the incident from the perspective she assumed a child Greg’s age to have taken. Greg’s emotionally intense denial was a clue that she had to listen more carefully if she wanted to get a glimpse of Greg’s unique personal reality. Greg’s understanding of the incident was out of sync with Mrs. Barnes’ expectations.

The cultural expectations aspect of external dyssynchrony is also exemplified in the story that one mother told about trying to find books for her three-year-old son who was reading on a second grade level. She recounted her frustration when she discovered that the books available on his reading level all dealt with stories about experiences common to older children, such as losing one’s first tooth or going to school. The cultural expectations with regard to which story themes would be appropriate for a child reading on a second grade level were simply out of sync with the needs of her preschooler.

In addition, external dyssynchrony involves problems gifted children have in developing friendships. When gifted children find other children who have similar intellectual abilities and interests, their newfound companions are likely to be older and more physically mature (Terrassier, 1985). In such cases, the older child will have considerable advantage in terms of real-world experience and physical capabilities.


As Stephanie Tolan has indicated, asynchronous development places gifted individuals outside normal developmental patterns from birth to adulthood. Their experiences are dramatically different from the norm because of their expanded awareness. Additionally, they may never get feedback corroborating and validating their perceptions. This can lead to self-doubt and a precarious sense of self.

In the scenario above, Greg was especially fortunate in that he could convey through his writing his precise view of the incident with Joe.

Furthermore, his previous experience with his mother and his principal led him to feel confident that his version of reality would be taken seriously by the adults in his life. It was this trust that freed him to write the story exactly as he had experienced it.

Clearly, in order to help children like Greg and Jennie, we need to explore their inner worlds – the inner experience and reality of giftedness. Clearly as well we cannot hope to understand the nature of giftedness without understanding those inner worlds. Surprisingly, however, up until now, definitions of giftedness, and research based on those definitions, have dealt minimally with reality as seen through the eyes of the gifted. In a recent major book covering contemporary conceptions of giftedness, all of the approaches mentioned emerged out of definitions based on some aspect of achievement or performance (Sternberg & Davidson, 1986). Nevertheless, some researchers have begun to investigate giftedness from an internal perspective. These studies deal mainly with the emotional lives of the gifted.

Emotionality and the Gifted

Manifested in Jennie’s and Greg’s responses to the issues confronting them is an intensity of emotion. Both of them felt an emotionally infused need to understand the truth of their situation and to communicate that truth to others. This was manifested in Jennie’s fearful yet strong insistence that her mother acknowledge the limits of what she could promise in the way of longevity. It was manifested as well in Greg’s frustration when the account his mother offered did not agree with what he knew to be the truth. It was also manifested in the intensity with which he committed himself to the writing of his story.

Dabrowski (1972) found emotional intensity and sensitivity to the characteristic of the intellectually and artistically gifted. He outlined five dimensions through which this intensity can be displayed and called them “forms of psychic overexcitability” to underline the enhancement and intensification of mental activity much beyond the ordinary:

PSYCHOMOTOR – an augmented capacity for being active and energetic, expressed as movement, restlessness, drivenness

SENSUAL – an enhanced differentiation and aliveness of sensual experience

INTELLECTUAL – avidity for knowledge and the search for truth – expressed as discovery, questioning, and love of ideas and theoretical analysis

IMAGINATIONAL – the power of thought creation – expressed through vividness of imagery, richness of association, liking for the unusual, and a facility for dreams, fantasies, and inventions

EMOTIONAL – the heart – recognized in the great depth and intensity of emotional life expressed through a wide range of feelings, attachments, compassion, heightened sense of responsibility, and scrupulous self-examination. (Piechowski, 1991, p. 287)

Dabrowski introduced the concept of “developmental potential”, which he saw as talents and intellectual abilities infused and motivated through the psychic overexcitabilities. The stronger these psychic overexcitabilities are in a particular individual, the more developmental potential he or she possesses.

While the Dabrowskian framework addresses emotional intensity, the work of Sommers (1981) links the breadth of emotional responsiveness to cognitive complexity. She introduced the concept of “emotional range” to denote the number and variety of emotions experienced by an individual. Sommers found that college students evidencing advanced cognitive organization had a wider “emotional range.” She concludes:

The picture of the more emotional person, as it is emerging from this research … reveals that a high level of emotional responsiveness may be associated with advanced cognitive organization. All of the cognitive skills that were found to be related to the ability to respond with more emotions are marks of a highly organized awareness – an awareness that might be governed by a well-structured system of values, oughts, and beliefs, but not by momentary excitements. (p. 560)

Thus, we have the beginnings of internal view of giftedness. The heightened and broadened emotionality of the gifted, the role played by a well-structured system of values in evoking emotional reactions, and the asynchronicity of development leads us to two important questions. The first is a very practical one, while the second is theoretical: (1) How does this “view from within” help us to deal with the Jennies and Gregs of the world? (2) How do we incorporate the “view from within” into our definition of giftedness?

The Practical Implication of the View From Within

The view from within allows us to see a three dimensional gifted child rather than giftedness simply as manifested through “two-dimensional” achievement criteria. When we set about to teach, counsel, or parent Jennie or Greg, we do so knowing that we must allow the child to communicate to use that unique personal reality rich with ascribed meaning constructed by a complex awareness. When children like Jennie and Greg experience a situation, they superimpose on it their remembrances of past experiences and their projections of future ramifications should they act in a number of different ways. They live life by analysing it step by step while emotionally responding to that analysis.

Thus, we allow a Greg to write out his impressions if that is the best way for him to convey them to us. And we are not impatient with the detail he insists must be a part of his account. Greg must be helped to see, of course, that others do not always perceive experiences with such detailed clarity or infused with such emotional intensity and significance especially other children his age. Nevertheless, this should not be conveyed as a defect on his part, such as “oversensitivity” or a tendency to “carry a grudge.” Rather, he needs first to have his view of reality validated, and second, to be helped to find ways of building bridges with other children and not faulting them because of their differing level of awareness. We can think out with Greg what he could have done differently at various points in the relationship to prevent things from escalating to the point where a fight occurred. We can also elicit his aid in projecting the best way to handle his future interactions with Joe.

At the same time, children like Joe need to be made aware of the role they play in instigating unnecessary ill feelings. Joe does not have the extensive memory and keen analytical ability that would allow him to understand the relationship in the same way Greg does. Nevertheless, we can help him to understand more completely the dynamics leading to the most recent conflict and to think out with him what he could have done differently to prevent the fight. We can also design some clear rules for his future interactions with Greg.

Because of the differences in Greg’s and Joe’s reality picture about the fight, these initial explorations should be conducted separately with each boy. That way, we can confine – or expand – the discussion to focus on whichever reality we are dealing with.

Afterwards, if we choose, we can bring the two boys together to talk about the aspect of the situation that both boys will share – the “rules” for their interaction in the future.

When we approach Jennies, we must keep in mind that we must satisfy her advanced cognitive needs while remaining attuned to her four-year-old emotional ones – no easy task! In the scenario presented, her mother can point out to Jennie that everyone in Jennie’s family is well, that they have periodic check-ups at the doctor’s office to make sure that they stay well and that there is, therefore, little probability that anyone will die in the immediate future. They also keep their car in very good condition, wear their seatbelts, and take other safety precautions to prevent accidents. Even so, of course, the bottom line, as Jennie knows on some level, is that “No one knows for sure.” For this, all Mom can offer is reassuring hugs, and her conveyed confidence that all will be well. In Jennie’s case, however, the conveyed confidence must be couched within a context of taking Jennie’s questions very seriously, acknowledging the inevitability and unpredictability of death. Otherwise, her logic will not allow her to accept the offered comfort.

Defining Giftedness from Within

Recently, a meeting of theorists, practitioners, and parents in Columbus, Ohio, proposed that asynchronous development – and the emotional consequences and altered quality of life stemming from it – is at the very heart of giftedness (Columbus Group, 1991). The Columbus Group asserts that the contemporary tendency to define giftedness as behaviours, achievement, products or school placements, external to the individual, necessarily misses the essence of giftedness – how it alters the meaning of life experience for the gifted individual. Consequently, the Group offers the following preliminary attempt at a phenomenological definition, which at this point, may apply best to the highly gifted:

Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counselling in order for them to develop optimally. (The Columbus Group, 1991)

If development is perceived as a life-long process, giftedness can then be understood as producing atypical development throughout the lifespan in terms of awareness, perceptions, emotional responses, and life experiences. This places the gifted individual developmentally out of sync both internally, in relation to the different aspects of development, and externally, in relation to cultural expectations.

This definition of giftedness allows penetration beyond behavioural achievement or non-achievement. Achievement remains an interesting and significant expression of giftedness, and it continues to be important to examine whether it occurs and why or why not. Nevertheless, it is neither the essence of giftedness nor the most important aspect of it. The Columbus Group definition calls for a shift of focus from the external products of giftedness to the true nature of the phenomenon itself. This shift to a view from within is an important move towards both understanding giftedness and understanding our gifted.


Columbus Group (1991, July). Unpublished transcript of the meeting of the Columbus Group. Columbus, Ohio.

Dabrowski, K. (1972). Psychoneurosis is not an illness. London: Gryf.

Gowan, J.C. (1974). Development of the psychedelic individual. Northridge, CA.: John Curtis Gowan.

Morelock, M.J. (1991). The case study of Jennie, a profoundly gifted child. Unpublished manuscript Tufts University, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study, Medford, MA.

Piechowski, M.M. (1991). Emotional development and emotional giftedness. In N. Colangelo & G.A. Davis (Eds.), Handbook of gifted education (pp. 285306). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Roedell, W.C. (1988). “I just want my child to be happy”: Social development and young gifted children. Understanding Our Gifted, 1(1), 1, 7, 9-11.

Sommers, S. (1981). Emotionality reconsidered: The role of cognition in emotional responsiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 553-561.

Sternberg, R. & Davidson, J. (1986). Conceptions of giftedness. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Terrassier, J-C. (1985). Dyssynchrony – uneven development. In J. Freeman (Ed.), The psychology of gifted children (pp. 265-274). New York: John Wiley.

This is an edited version of the Keynote Address given by Martha J. Morelock of the CHIP Unit at the University of Melbourne at the NSWAGTC State Conference in Sydney in April 1995. It was first published in Understanding Our Gifted, Open Space Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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Jane McDonald

Excellent synthesis of the complexities of our gifted population. Thank you for your work in this field.

Lisa Bloom

Great article! It gave me a better insight into the thoughts of gifted students!

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