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The Profoundly Gifted Brain

Gifted Research

This article has been adapted from a virtual event presented by our Family Services team. Members of our Young Scholars program have access to a recording of this virtual event in full on the members-only Davidson Member Community (DMC) platform.

Young Scholars receive free support from our Family Services team. Our Family Services provide insight, resources, and strategies to support families based on the knowledge the Davidson Institute has built over the last few decades and their experiences working closely with Young Scholar families. Our areas of expertise include profoundly gifted and 2e parenting strategies and resources, social-emotional development support, educational options, goal-setting, and gifted research. You can read out the additional benefits of the Young Scholars program or learn how to apply today.

When we talk about the profoundly gifted (PG) brain, we should start with a few disclaimers: First, we are working with a small body of research, and that research is ongoing. The Family Services team is not made up of licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, or neuroscientists. In this post, we draw on the research available to us and the experience we’ve gathered from working with PG families for 25 years.

So, why is it challenging to find good information on the PG brain?

There isn’t one reason. There’s a few. First, when we’re looking at childhood brain development, we’re talking about research on children. Research on children presents specific challenges and is highly regulated for good reason. Research on gifted children has a fraught history (that we are still grappling with). There are few institutions with research centers that focus on giftedness, and funding is limited. There are few professionals within the gifted field as a whole, and that field straddles several disciplines: psychology, education, neuroscience, and more. Within the field, there’s not a lot of emphasis on different levels of giftedness. PG brains are outliers even within the gifted community, and they can be very different from one another.

So where do we go from here?

One of the places we do have to get neuroscientific information on the gifted brain is Gifted Research and Outreach (GRO). Their review, “The Neuroscience of Giftedness,” suggests several differences of the gifted brain including larger regional brain volume, greater connectivity across brain regions, increased brain activation, greater sensory sensitivity, and increased brain areas associated with emotional processing.

In short, it appears that profoundly gifted children tend to intake more information from the world for many reasons and process more of that information through the emotional center of the brain. With that in mind, it makes sense that the behaviors of these profoundly gifted children might appear more heightened than one may have expected. Limited research on gifted children refers to these behaviors and traits as intensities or overexcitabilities. In the Gifted Learning Lab blog post, “What Makes Your Gifted or 2e Kid Intense?”, Dr. Danika Maddocks explores some of the ways that intensities can show up in gifted children day-to-day. She also weighs the word “intense,” and has a section for families who might be apprehensive about that word or feel that it might have a negative connotation.

Another hallmark of the gifted brain is asynchronous development. Neurotypical children are on a certain developmental timeline that is fairly linear. As they grow and develop, different areas of their brain develop mostly in sync. For example, around age 5, neurotypical children tend to develop their letter recognition skills and counting skills together and at the same time they are beginning to write some letters and numbers. Neurodivergent brains tend to develop differently, on a different timeline, and not necessarily in a linear fashion. Different skills develop at different rates, and related skills may not develop in sync.

PG children’s asynchronous development may cause them to feel out of step with their peers or feel like their brain and body are out of step with each other. The experience of developing asynchronously can cause both joy and confusion for the child and the parent. In the day-to-day, asynchronous development can look like a student who:

  • Can remember the first 200 digits of ∏. Can’t remember to close the door behind them even if their hand is on the doorknob.
  • Can watch a college lecture on the history of the English language and discuss their thoughts on it over dinner for 75 minutes non-stop. Struggles writing a 500-word book report.
  • Can negotiate like a seasoned attorney around the rules you set up for video gaming. Has a hard time identifying or talking about their emotions.
  • Can spend 6 hours absorbed in building a scale model of an ancient village. Can’t regulate their attention to make it through a social studies worksheet with 5 questions.

To be straightforward, gifted children think differently. If the brains of gifted children are developing differently, then it makes sense that they might develop different thought patterns. While not everything can be easily explained without knowing each child personally, some of the common thought patterns of profoundly gifted individuals may provide some more insight into this. In her article, “Exceptionally Gifted Children: Different Minds,” Diedre Lovecky outlines some common traits of profoundly gifted children that may contribute to their asynchronous development. One of the things to pull out is that for profoundly gifted individuals, the complex is simple and the simple is complex. Profoundly gifted children often thinking of multiple answers to questions, analyzing things on a level that many around them (and tests designed to assess them) frequently don’t account for. If a profoundly gifted child is sitting in front of a box of art supplies and asked to find a red marker to use during the exercise, that may not be as simple as it seems. They could be thinking of all of the different supplies and which is going to be best for the task at hand. They may be considering what is meant by “red” as all colors exist on a spectrum with various shades and hues. They may be getting lost in an imaginative spiral about drawing their own scene in red.

One of the places where families can frequently see that their PG child’s brain is working differently is within the domain of executive function. Executive function is a broad term that encompasses at least 13 skills (though other professionals break this down differently, such as “The 3 Areas of Executive Function”). In short, executive functioning skills are all of the skills someone uses to do a task.

This may be one area where PG brains develop asynchronously. To summarize, what the available research says at this time is that development of advanced executive function skills may be tied to the development of the prefrontal cortex. In neurotypical children, neural pathways go through a large-scale pruning and organizing process, starting around age 8 or 9. This allows for the further development of the prefrontal cortex. For profoundly gifted students, this process may not start until around age 12 or 13 because, instead of pruning neural pathways, their brains may have extended “sponge” phase where the number of pathways continue to grow. Thus, further development of the prefrontal cortex—and advanced executive functioning—may be on a three- or four-year delay in profoundly gifted children. While researchers are still working to understand the gifted brain, this, anecdotally, fits with what the Family Services team have observed within the PG community. One succinct article detailing a study of this is “Intellectual Ability and Cortical Development in Children and Adolescents.

How do you tell if your child is developing asynchronously in this area? You may notice struggling in any of the following executive functioning skills:

There are also the related skills of reflection, perspective taking, metacognition, motivation, and communication. In addition, an individual’s processing speed can impact their executive functioning.

That’s a lot of stuff! Executive functioning asynchrony can look a lot of ways, depending on the child, and any other exceptionalities or learning differences at play.  Executive functioning asynchrony can impact academics, particularly in written output (find some tips from a fellow student). The Family Services team has a saying that writing is executive functioning on a piece of paper. Executive functioning skills also impact many aspects of a person’s day-to-day activities, including social interactions, relationship building, and their inner, emotional life. Executive functioning asynchrony can also impact one’s pursuit of their interests and overall well-being. Basically, this is something that touches every area of someone’s life. So how can you support your child as they develop?

Supporting Asynchronous Development

Starting basic, sleep, diet, and overall health do impact cognitive functioning and processes for every human on earth. Helping your child to develop sustainable habits around sleep, diet, and movement that listen to their bodies as they age is sort of the baseline to start with.

In addition, struggles with depression, anxiety, stress, and traumatic experiences all impact the presentation of a child’s development. If there are any additional learning or thinking differences, children may present even more asynchronously, or their struggles may be mistakenly overlooked due to their giftedness. Involving the appropriate professionals to have conversations with your child and family about their additional struggles may aid this process in translating across areas of their life.

Overall, parents can support their children by staying curious. If we are thinking of all behavior as communication, then what is your child trying to say in a given moment? What obstacles might be in their way? Modeling and fostering a sense of curiosity in the home can not only help you as a parent to gain a deeper understanding of your child, but it can also help your child to feel safe and trust your parent-child relationship more. But is there anything more concrete?

One of the biggest things that parents can do to support their children’s asynchronous development is to help the child themselves understand what’s happening to them and why. Humans understand the world through stories, and we are all telling ourselves stories all the time about the world around us, and ourselves. When profoundly gifted children don’t have language for feeling “out of step” from their neurotypical peers, they may begin to internalize that there is something wrong with or bad about them. No parent wants their child’s inner voice to be a critic.

When someone is thinking about their thinking, that’s called metacognition. Giving profoundly gifted children metacognitive skills and models to follow can help give them reasons as to why they are developing asynchronously. In the long term, that can help them to tell a different story about themselves than the world is going to try to. It can help them counter myths and false narratives about giftedness that they may encounter from others.

One of the additional aspects to metacognition is the recognition of feelings and emotions. Many profoundly gifted children need support in identifying how they feel, patterns of feelings, and language to describe what’s going on in their mind and body at a given moment.

Practicing metacognition can take many forms. One of the primary forms that can be easily scaled for any age is media therapy. Exploring how people think through games, movies, TV, and books might widen children’s perspectives. Here are some resources to explore:

  • Beaker Kids
  • Free Spirit Publishing
  • Notanautismmom blog has several booklists that are grouped by age for children, teens, and adults. Though the books on this list are geared towards autism, many of the stories of neurodivergence are applicable for non-autistic neurodivergent people to learn and reflect on in their own context.

As discussed, when there is more stimuli coming in and being processed primarily through the emotional centers of the brain but a child has the same capacity, then there might be some emotional dysregulation. This could look like an outburst, for children who externalize their behavior. It might also look like a shutdown or withdrawal from children who tend to internalize their behaviors. This can commonly be seen after school, or after a long day. While there’s not an official name for this phenomenon, it is typically referred to as after school restraint collapse, even when it happens in other situations. This type of emotional reaction happens when there is a big buildup of emotion that can’t be expressed (like at school or on vacation), and then the child needs to release all that buildup. For more tips on how to support your gifted child in managing their big emotions, you can read “Managing Frustration and Difficult Feelings in Gifted Children” on the Davidson Gifted blog.

With all of this discussion about the PG brain, you might be thinking to yourself that it can be difficult to communicate with a profoundly gifted child. For strategies to communicate with your neurodivergent child, please see our article, “Communication in the Gifted and Twice-Exceptional Family.”


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