Gifted – and if that’s not what you would think?

Surdoué – et si ce n’est pas ce que vous pensiez?

(Gifted – and if that’s not what you would think?),


English translation of part of a speech given by Dr. Véronique Burban at a conference organized by Mensa Pays de la Loire on November 11th 2012. Translation: E. Orum


What is the difference between someone who is very intelligent and someone gifted (in relation to the test [WAIS])?

When you go above the threshold of 110 on a test, it means that the person has managed to answer more questions than most, and resolve more situations. One talks about the term “gifted” once a person’s result surpasses a certain level in regards to the age, what is expected at a certain level etc.. But what is important to note is that if the result is close to the maximum result possible, what is going to make the difference is really the way the subject approaches the question. So a higher IQ would be taken to mean that a person thinks faster or is better, but that is not really the case, as we will see.


What is noted by this test is mainly the quality of analysis of explanations of situations, but also indirectly the capacities of attention, memory, flexibility and cognitive skills. So a gifted person will score highly on the test not just because of heightened cognitive skills, which he shares with many others, but because of an increased memory which allows for higher retention and more connections between matters. And this is what is going to make the difference. This means that a person who is considered very intelligent, brilliant even, will not be able to respond to certain questions, or solve certain problems on this test, whereas the gifted will be able to due to a different way of approaching the situation. We are thus speaking of differences, not of more intelligence.


I will give you some examples, just to see the difference: An individual who is very intelligent may receive a score of 12 or 13, which is an excellent score, and the gifted may receive extreme scores in some areas. Not because they are more intelligent, but because they approach the matter differently (or because the capacity is there, and, well, then, all for the better!).


These competencies facilitate certain situations. One learns more quickly, which is great! In primary school there’s no need to learn, it’s great! It really facilitates different areas, but it also entails certain complications. Cognitively, in school and at work, because on advances too quickly, also emotionally, and in relations. So what we see is that all those qualities can be very useful, but they also have their inconveniences. Those could be not present, actually we could be not present here today, if certain information about this had been available.


So, this test… The WAIS test makes it possible to represent the intellectual function of several specific cognitive domains. It is made up of four scales. One uses those to calculate the total IQ. So all the information of the specific domains are not seen in the total IQ score!

One calculates the score of the verbal scale, evaluates the nonverbal reasoning (which is the capacity to reason logically), and also evaluates the working memory (which is the possibility to retain information or do several things at the same time, and which diminishes with age), and then one evaluates the speed at which one treats information (the speed with which one treats visual information).

So, one calculates a total IQ score, but this score is made up of scores in for different domains. Thus, two persons with exactly the same IQ score can be very different in the intellectual capacities, because one may have a very high score in one domain and not in another etc. Also, the IQ score may not necessarily represent the total intellectual capacity of an individual due to disturbing factors such as stress etc. This makes it very important, once you pass an IQ test, that you have comments and explanations along with the result.


You have the different parts of the test that make up the sub scores. What is important is, thus, to calculate the sub scores, sub scores for each domain. But these sub scores have no meaning if the gaps are too big, like if there are large gaps between different sub tests. So what is important is to look into whether or not there is a consistency in the scores. A person may have scores that are much higher in one area than another, which means that one has to know that the questions are made in a way that ensures that very few persons are able to respond to all the questions or tests that are presented. The level is generally very high, these are tests that are extremely discriminatory, but many gifted attain maximum scores.


I will now present some examples to explain what this is. I have chosen three that are, in my point of view, quite characteristic of giftedness: The first test simulates the powers of abstraction, which is really what constitutes the difference between a person who is gifted and one that is not. Then [there is] vocabulary, and at last a test of logical reasoning.

Similarities, then, is a test that calls for the ability to make abstractions. One asks in which way two words are similar. (I’ve taken my examples from the last version; of course, I could not use the version we are currently using!) The level of difficulty becomes higher and higher as the test wears on. Many people deny this: where is the difficulty?

What one observes is that there are several ways to answer these questions, and that with a gifted person, they always go for the most general answer. So, for example:

  • In which way are sleeping and eating similar?

I will leave you some time to consider this. Or this one:

  • What is the similarity between a reward and a punishment?
  • [How are water and wind similar?]


So, in which way are sleeping and eating similar? One can say, for example:

They are needs, activities of the body, they are necessary, needs, they are both essential, they are bodily functions, they are how one takes care of the body.

These are responses that give 1 point.

If you were thinking that they are vital functions, or essential needs for the human body, that they are vital needs or what makes it possible to live, you get 2 points. So do you see the difference, the degree to which the question has been analyzed?

For this one, it’s quite easy. For the second, it’s a little bit more difficult. So, in the same way, one sees that the gifted have a tendency to find the most general explanation possible, and for them, it’s obvious. They respond to all the questions, and sometimes they ask what the point is, because they find it so easy that they take it for a joke (which leads others to perceive them as pretentious etc).

So, in what way are a reward and a punishment similar? If you answered that they serve to educate someone, you get 1 point. If you said that it’s how work gets valued, that’s also 1 point. If you said they are the consequences of an action, 1 point etc. If, on the other hand, you answered that they are methods of motivation, sanction, recompense etc., you get 2 points.

So, gifted people, it’s really stunning, and they, themselves, are stunned that they immediately, without any reflection, come up with these words. And this goes for ALL the questions. And they think that it’s like that for everyone. So the goal of the test is, for example, to show them how a “normal” person functions in order to show them exactly how their function is “abnormal”.


When one knows this, one is able to understand why one does not understand, or why one is not being understood.


What is troublesome for the gifted is when I show them the book, and the words shown are exactly the words that they used. That surprises them a lot! That’s because one thinks one has this general idea, but they only get the point if the word they use is written in the book.


And then for the last question: In what way are water and air similar? If you say they are natural elements, the answer is worth 1 point. Also fluid mechanical elements, natural resources, two natural elements that can be in different states, that’s 1 point. If, contrarily, you have thought of force, or energy, electrical energy, is able to produce energy, or parts of nature, that’s 2 points. You see, there really are degrees of abstraction.


So does this not, in part, explain all those situations of misunderstanding? The normal function is:

  1. I reason [ponder, think], and then
  2. I find the solution (or not!)

Understanding that certain people do not pass through that in order to understand, and you are better able to understand this person, understand the misunderstandings and, perhaps, avoid judgments.

It can also explain the impressions of the gifted that others never go far enough, or that they are slow (this is a source of a lot of guilt for them!), and [that others are] not into existential questions (these are questions that others just do not think of).

It can also explain a bad grade in school when a person synthesizes too much. Those who can look at their copy will find the explanation “yes, but…” “Why do you say that?” etc.

And then there is the fact of having bizarre ideas. Bizarre ideas are just ideas that are different from those of others; they are not truly bizarre, just strange because others do not see them, that’s all.


Is it not normal to think of such a person as pretentious or omniscient, or someone who always succeeds?

Well, yes! Well, yes, is that not what you’re thinking? But, when they think that everyone else functions the way they do? What would they be like?

Their competencies can be a great strength, but in the face of rejection and misunderstanding and labeling, they lose their self-esteem, start to feel very strange, even stupid, and stop using their abilities.


The real problem is the lack of understanding of the way they function.


For vocabulary, it’s the same thing. In principle, one lists words of increasing complexity. Again, the goal is to give the most precise explanation possible for a word.  A good reader could get a very good score. As high as someone gifted, or what do you think?

If someone reads a lot, he will find the same word in one context, and then another, and it is in this way that he realizes the precise meaning of a word, by linking it to different contexts. So normally, the good reader ought to succeed.

Well, the experience is that it is not so. What happens is that the people taking this test keep commenting: “but that’s not clear!”, or “that’s not really precise” etc., but as we will see, it’s not really that they split hairs, or try to be difficult. It’s just that their vocabulary is really, really precise, thus they need to understand that the normal functioning is not like this.


What is also stunning is when I show them the book with the answers, and the persons see for themselves that the answers written down are EXACTLY what they said. Again, it does not take into account general ideas; they really do give exactly the same precise definitions of terms that are found in the book.


The last test is a test of logical reasoning that shows the differences of very intelligent people. It’s the fact that they have this capacity of pulling different things together and to separate things that are different. When they do not see the logic, they are able to view things in a different way, to approach it differently, and thus to find the answer.

So what are the consequences of abnormal capacities? You may say: “Oh, it’s great, it’s really wonderful”, but at the same time, it entails troubles. First there’s boredom. One may say that it’s just boredom, that’s no big deal. “Well, I’m never amused, so …” There are those that do get bored. Boredom is terrible!

Then, there is dropping out of school or also failing school, and there is the difficulty in being understood, and also of feeling like a weirdo. There can be severe self-doubt, low self-esteem, depression etc. There are many difficulties.

One has to understand that in these individuals, there is a strong feeling of being different.


So, why is it important to know? Because it brings about peace, the peace of knowing that these feelings of difference are explained by something. That it’s not crazy, that one is not alone. There are many young girls (they experience this earlier than the boys) that think they are lost, and do not say anything, so that one can know. Also, to ease up on the guilt. Thinking of others as slow, that’s terrible for some people. They consider themselves bad human beings. But it’s completely normal to think like that if some person is slow and I am fast! It’s just stating a fact, he’s slower, and I’m faster! One has to understand this.

And then, one has to avoid misdiagnosis, because that is also very frequent. We do not all have the same specializations in psychology, and this area of giftedness is not well known among psychiatrists. During my education as a psychiatrist, I never heard anything about giftedness, so I based those tests on my second year, which is funny, except that I have never heard anyone speak about giftedness. So, to avoid misdiagnosis of the gifted, like bipolar disorder, or hyperactivity. But, pay attention, one can also be both!


So, is being gifted a good thing? I don’t know. I cannot answer. But it is an interesting question to ask oneself.


If I now asked the gifted among you to stand up, what would those seated think? And, would the gifted stand up?

I do not know of any gifted people that would not stand up, but at the same time… Getting up, it’s standing out, it’s a difference. One has to understand: being gifted is good luck, and it becomes bad luck. There are all those difficulties that go with being gifted that one must take into account, especially for the children. We must give them a good start, a good knowledge of their selves.

You cannot smile at the same time [as jumping straight at the right word]! It is bothersome when someone always stands out! It’s bothersome when they advance more quickly, when they think more quickly, when they find solutions and they find it easily! It bothers people, and will always bother people. It’s like that, that’s reality! I have accepted that I have good luck in some areas, that I succeed in some areas but not others.

But what’s the price? What do you think? Is this not difficult? Other people, one cannot avoid them, so one has to inform them of these matters.


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