Updated: Nov 11, 2022
FULL ARTICLE: 5 minute read
Written by: Michelle L. Guy, MSW, RSW, With credit to Hannah Findlay-Lacourcière, MSW Intern, 2021/2022
Understanding and validating the experiences of GTIm (gifted, talented, intense-minded) individuals is of the utmost importance when parenting, caring for, or treating individuals who meet the criteria for this neurodiversity.
Unfortunately, it is an area of research and training that is rarely explored, valued, or even recognized, in educational systems, neurodiversity studies, or mental health systems. It is also fraught with misunderstanding and misconceptions in the general population due to the social implications of the name used to describe it: Gifted.
It can be very challenging to find support or interventions to help with the intensity and the challenges of living with a gifted mind due to multiple factors:
The intensity of emotional experiences of individuals identified as ‘gifted’ is under emphasized in historical research (even as recent as the last 15-20 years), and poorly understood, ignored, or not addressed by the educational system or acknowledged by the general public
The difficulty of supporting GTIm individuals due to the lack of, and challenges accessing, what few mental health supports/professionals there are, with an adequate understanding of the complexities of the GTIm mind and how to address their specific needs for their care
The significant gaps in research and knowledge translation in this area
The overtly positive connotation of the word “gifted” does not reflect the variety of challenges of this neurodiversity including, impacts on mental wellness, intensity of emotions, and challenges with regulation (or overexcitabilites, as noted by Dabrowski) that are some of the primary characteristics of this mislabeled identification
Gifted individuals are often misunderstood, mislabeled and misdiagnosed due to the primary characteristics or “profile” of gifted people and the lack of current up to date knowledge of the neuroanatomy of the gifted brain. Several of the characteristics of giftedness overlap with a variety of other [psychiatric] diagnoses or neural exceptionality. Additionally, it can be challenging for parents, caregivers, and even professionals to easily access the most up-to-date information and research about the neuroanatomy of the gifted brain.
Giftedness is not simply advanced academic or intellectual abilities, and the spectrum of gifted/talented covers a wide range of abilities, intensities, and talents that are not all recognized by education systems or standardized testing. Giftedness impacts several areas of cognitive and social functioning, such as artistic, social, emotional, creativity, existential thought, and ability to think differently and problem solve. With an understanding of the physiology and anatomy of the gifted brain, we can better understand:
The complexity of Giftedness is not captured by a singular expectation of high academic ability.
Gifted individuals often demonstrate intense empathy, are prone to early existential thinking, and experience emotional dysregulation due to the intensity with which they process their experience of the world.
They may demonstrate emotional reactions to situations, that, to non-gifted (neurotypical) people may seem “blown out of proportion.”
Some other features common in gifted brains are what may be seen in typical testing as faster or slower (than their peers) processing speeds, hyperactivity, trouble with focus, and inability to self-regulate leading to emotional outbursts.
Many of these features are seen in other types of neurodiversity such as ADHD, ASD, or learning disabilities, and are also consistent with reactions to trauma. (Note: trauma is processed by the brain of the beholder, and gifted brains may interpret events more intensely than neurotypical brains).
Improperly Named & Categorized:
Part of the challenges faced by GTIm people is the title: Giftedness, and the lack of designation as a neurodiversity: a brain that appears, and functions differently in this population than that of the average. GTIm comes with a brain that processes experiences more intensely, and functions differently because of normal diverse structures in the anatomy of the brain (normal for those who are gifted). This impacts cognitive, social, emotional, inter and intra personal development and intellectual functioning.
It is not simply a “gift” but a neurodiversity that comes with complex challenges in everyday life. For these reasons, we refer to this population as Gifted/ Talented/ Intense minded (GTIm). Newest research using fMRI (Functional brain magnetic resonance imaging) allows us to have an enhanced understanding and new insights about how gifted (GTIm) people think.
Gifted (GTIm) brains in fMRI demonstrate areas that are enlarged and activated when preforming tasks:
Image with thanks to, and from https://lifearchitect.ai/brains-on-fire-the-multimodality-of-gifted-thinkers/
Anatomy of the Brain: GTIm
GTIm (ne: gifted) individuals are identified as neurodiverse because of a variety of recent, advanced research and scientific studies using fMRI, that conclude:
At least 28 parts of the brain are larger in volume than those of the general population
White matter, the matter that relays information to the grey matter areas of the brain is also more voluminous than average
Their brain processes sensory input more intensely than most people which means that the world is experienced at increased levels or intensities and can make life experiences that seem regular to most, very challenging for them to endure
Because of these differences in brain structure and sensory intensity, events that are emotionally upsetting, socially difficult, hard to make sense of (particularly for a young brain) are processed as trauma experiences
These painful memories, stored as trauma, create responses to any “triggers” or reminders as though they are trauma occurring in the moment.
The individual responds to the perceived danger by creating behavioural responses and actions to keep them safe (fight, flight, freeze, fawn).
These brain responses create neural pathways that are strengthened through every use, further stored as memory and may lead to feelings of suffering, misinterpretation of themselves, and the world around them, and produce symptoms of mental illness
All brains have this unconscious ability to protect us from feeling hurt. This may mean their brains work even harder to create defence mechanisms, ways of escape, and tools for coping (and when reinforced, they become habit).
Most of these brains also experience empathy more intensely, feeling physical and emotional pain beyond their own experiences and creating intense fears, sadness, and internalized, existential thoughts.
The brain has a larger hippocampus, (memory storage) than the average person. This, of course includes the traumatic memories, which take up more “space” in memory due to the brain’s need for safety.
Reflections on the Impact:
(photo: W. Guy, 2019)
When we acknowledge that the “gifted brain” or what should be referred to as the GTIm brain, encompasses extensive neurodiversity, intense sensory and experiential processing, challenges, and often inaccurate internal processing, from a traumatized perspective, as well as multiple personal characteristics that lead to challenges in functioning in an average world, we can better understand how those who are GTIm experience life, and find ways to help them to function, and feel better.
As caregivers, professionals, and allies, people should advocate for GTIm people and demand government recognition, identification, financial support for families, and better educational settings - that meet GTIm diverse needs.
Additionally, the wider community should find ways to advocate for enhanced support and funding for professionals who are providing research focused information, knowledge transference, and creating appropriate needs based, evidence-informed services for GTIm people.
Dabrowski, K. (1972). Psychoneurosis is not an illness. London: Gryf. (Out of print)
Dabrowski, K & Piechowski, M.M. (1977). Theory of levels of emotional development (Vols.1 & 2). Oceanside, NY: Dabor Science. (Out of print)
Edie, B. & Edie, F. (2014). Brains on Fire: The Multimodality of Gifted Thinkers
Guy, M.L. (ND). Understanding and validating the neurodiversity, life experiences, and challenges of the “gifted” mind, a comprehensive paper on giftedness and evidence-informed approaches used in an urban Therapy Centre. (Academic paper started in October 2019 - continued research required).
Karpinski, Ruth & Kinase Kolb, Audrey & Tetreault, Nicole & Borowski, Thomas. (2017). High intelligence: A risk factor for psychological and physiological overexcitabilities. Intelligence. 66. 10.1016/j.intell.2017.09.001.
NA Tetreault, MJ Zakreski. (2020) "The Gifted Brain Revealed Unraveling the Neuroscience of the Bright Experience", GHF Dialogue, 2020.
Web, J.T., PhD, Amend, E. R., Psy.D., et al. (2016). Misdiagnosis and dual diagnosis of gifted children and adults: ADHD, bipolar, OCD, asperger’s, depression, and other disorders. 2nd ed. Great Potential Press, Inc.