Combining Theories of Giftedness and Brain Function

Below is a compilation of some information on giftedness and brain function that hold special appeal to me personally. My doctors have, so far, diagnosed asthma, allergies, Raynaud’s Phenomenon, overeating disorder, depressive states, and are currently leaning towards Psoriasis Arthritis as an explanation for the extensive muscle and joint pain, fatigue and skin problems. In July 2013, after thorough screening and testing, it was confirmed that I have ADHD and am gifted.

As I’ve gone through almost 10 years of progressive health failure, it has struck me as more and more obvious that those issues are likely to be related. I still have a lot of processing to do before I can write coherently about all this, so for now I’ll just share the information and my suspicion that there IS a connection somewhere that links all this, and that it has to do with the level of brain activity and the way signals are propagated. Could the link have something to do with myelin and overconnectivity in the brain that is misinterpreted in the Vagus nerve(s)?

Dabrowski: Theory of Positive Disintegration


Psychomotor                    Heightened excitability of the neuromuscular system. Capacity for being active and energetic, love of movement, rapid speech, zealous enthusiasm, intense physical activity, need for action, may talk compulsively, act impulsively and act out, display nervous habits, show intense drive, , compulsively organize or become quite competitive. Derive great joy from boundless physical and verbal enthusiasm, but others find them overwhelming. Potential of being misdiagnosed as ADHD.

Intellectual                        Marked need to seek understanding and truth, to gain knowledge, to analyze and synthesize. Incredibly active minds. Intensely curious, often avid readers, usually keen observers. Able to concentrate, engage in prolonged intellectual effort, tenacious in problem solving when they choose. Relishing thinking about thinking, moral thinking, strong concerns about ethical issues, lack of respect for children (as children). Independent of thought, sometimes critical and impatient with others who cannot sustain their intellectual pace. May become so excited about an idea that they interrupt at inappropriate times.

Sensual                                               Heightened experience of sensual pleasure or displeasure emanating rom sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. Far more expansive experience from their sensual input than the average person. Increased and early appreciation of aesthetic pleasures such as music, language and art, and derives endless delights from tastes, smells, textures, sounds and sights. Increased sensitivity may also lead to feeling over stimulated or uncomfortable with sensory input May overeat, go on buying sprees, or seek physical sensation of being the centre of attention. May withdraw from stimulation. Children may find clothing tags, classroom noise, or smells from the cafeteria so distracting that schoolwork may become secondary. May also become so absorbed in love of a particular piece of music or art that the outside world ceases to exist.

Imaginational                    Heightened play of imagination with rich association of images and impressions, frequent use of image and metaphor, facility or invention and fantasy, detailed visualization, elaborate dreams. Often children mix truth with fiction, create their own worlds with imaginary companions and dramatizations to escape boredom. Difficult to stay tuned into a classroom. May write stories or draw instead of participating in class, or may have difficulty completing tasks when some incredible idea sends them off on an imaginary tangent.

Emotional                           Often the first to be noticed by parents. Heightened, intense feelings, extremes of complex emotions, identification with others’ feelings, strong affective expression. Physical responses like stomachaches and blushing or concerns with death and depression. Remarkable capacity for deep relationships, show strong emotional attachments to people, places and things. Compassion, empathy and sensitivity in relationships. Acutely aware of their own feelings, of how they are growing and changing, often carry on inner dialogs and practice self-judgment. Often accused of “overreacting”. Their compassion and concern for others, their focus on relationships, and the intensity of their feelings may interfere with everyday tasks like schoolwork or doing the dishes.

Webb & al.: Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults

Unusually high occurrence of disorders such as allergies, asthma, colitis, and myasthenia gravis (Geshwin and Galaburda, 1987). More than 60 % of highly gifted adolescents showed such immune problems, a rate more than twice the general population (Benkow, 1986). 44 % suffered from allergies, compared to 20 % of the general population, and almost 10 % suffered from asthma (Rogers and Silverman, 1997, Silverman 2002).

These same gifted children and adults frequently have unusual sensitivities to medications, even over-the-counter medications. Some of these individuals find that they are largely unaffected by antihistamines, for example, while others react particularly strongly. Little is known about how allergies and other autoimmune reactions affect gifted adults. A few health care professionals, however, are beginning to speculate that such diseases as lups and rheumatoid arthritis may be related.

A puzzling situation which may result in dramatic behavior changes may arise from reactive hypoglycemia. Very often, this condition goes unrecognized as such, and instead is diagnosed as ADD/ADHD or sometimes just as “immaturity”, though we have seen it diagnosed as Rapid-Cycling Bipolar Disorder. In our experience, approximately 5% to 7 % of highly gifted children – and perhaps adults – most with IQ scores in excess of 160, suffer from an unrecognized condition that appears to be a functional reactive hypoglycemic condition (Webb, 2000). There are physiological reasons why gifted children, who are so intense, may have higher fuel demands. In general, gifted children appear to have more efficient brain functioning; however, when they are challenging themselves with a task, their fuel use can be tremendous (Haier, 1992, Haier et al., 1992). Long gaps between meals are also associated with a drop in the neurotransmitter serotonin. Low serotonin is associated with increased pain sensitivity, irritability, depression and aggression. About half of the 5 % to 7 % of the gifted children with this apparent reactive hypoglycemia will also have food allergies.

Brock and Eide: Brains on Fire: The Multinodality of Gifted thinkers

Functional brain magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brings exciting new insights into our understanding of how gifted thinkers think. The first thing you notice when you look at the fMRIs of gited groups is that it looks like a “brain on fire”. Bright red blazes o high metabolic activity bursts out all over the scan. Each red patch represents millions of microcombustion events in which glucose is metabolized to provide fuel for the working brain. Gifted brains are remarkably intense and diffuse metabolizers. But the amazing insights do not stop here. The orchestration of activity is planned and complex, and it seems to require the coordination of diverse visual, spatial, verbal and sensory areas of the brain. Gifted thinkers are rarely one-mode thinkers. Rather, they are great organizers of diverse and multimodal information.

There is abundant evidence that gifted children show enhanced sensory activation and awareness. Gifted brains are essentially “hyper-sensitive”, and can be rendered even more so through training. Not only are the initial impressions especially strong, but also the later recollections are oten unusually intense or vivid. Because vivid initial impressions correlate with better recollection, gited brains are also characterized by increased memory efficiency and capacity. These memories are not only especially intense and enduring memories, but they are also frequently characterized my multimodality, involving memory areas that store many different types of memories, such as personal associations, different sensory modalities like colour, sound, smell, or visual images, or verbal or factual impressions. This multimodality means that fited thinkers often make connections in ways other people don’t. they frequently have special abilities in associational thinking (including analogy and metaphor) and in analytical or organizational skills (through which diverse associations are understood and systematized).

As a result of these special brain characteristics, gifted thinkers typically enjoy benefits including more vivid sensing, prodigious memory, greater fund of knowledge, more frequent and varied associations, and greater analytic ability. However, these same neurological characteristics carry a number of potential drawbacks, including sensory, emotional, and memory overload, sensory hypersensitivities, personal disorganization, sensory distractibility, delayed processing due to “analysis paralysis” (or getting “lost in thought” due to an excess of options), and mental fatigue.

Geake: The Neurobiology of Giftedness

Gifted subjects have a greater interconnectivity between different areas of their brains, the coordination and integration of which is supported by precociously developed frontal ortical areas. This supports a suite of high-level neuro-cognitive abilities including a relatively enhanced executive capability, with a more efficacious working memory. These precociously developed neurobiological functions combine to enable high-level creative intelligence as a central characteristic of general giftedness, along with rapid information processing, heightened cognitive control, and a desire or top-down perspectives.

To account for such a suite of behaviors that characterize giftedness, presumably:

[s]uch individual differences can be attributed to neurophysical differences that affect neuronal efficiency. (Geake, 1997)

Above-age testing has been one successful approach to more accurately assess the academic and intellectual abilities of gifted children whose scores on age-normed standardized tests are at or near ceiling (Gross, 2004). The assumption behind above-age testing is that gifted children are more similar, at least cognitively, to older children than to their same-age peers. This assumption is not unfounded. In an electroencephalographic (EEG) study comparing the (resting aalpha power) EEG of 30 gifted adolescents from the Iowa Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (CY-TAG) with 30 age-matched peers and 30 college students, Alexander O’Boyle and Benbow (1996) found that, while there were differences in alpha band power over the temporal and parietal lobes:

There were no differences in alpha power at the frontal and occipital lobe locations between gifted adolescents and college age subjects suggesting that the two groups have a similar level of brain maturation for these regions (p. 30).

In other words, the frontal lobes of the young gifted subjects seemed to be operating with the equivalent maturity of students five years older already in university. This interpretation raises a question: To what extent is such cognitive precocity the outcome of precocious neural development, i.e., are the brains of gifted children structurally more like the brains of older children than those of same-age peers? Evidence to address this question was provided by a six-year longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of intellectual ability and cortical development in 300 children and adolescents (Shaw et al., 2006). Here, these data showed that the trajectory of change in the thickness of the cerebral cortex, rather than cortical thickness per se, was most closely related to the children’s level of intelligence. In particular, the cortices of the high-IQ group were thinner when these children were young, but grew so rapidly that by the time the gifted children were adolescents, their cerebral cortices were significantly thicker than average, especially the prefrontal cortex. In sum, the neuroanatomical development of intelligence is dynamic.

In sum, gifted individuals have relatively enhanced structural, and hence functional, neurobiology in the PFC regions responsible for cognitive control, and working memory.

Enhanced bilaterality seems to be a characteristic neurobiological feature o information processing by gifted individuals (Singh & O’Boyle, 2004), (…) consequently, heightened cerebellar functioning is another neurobiological characteristics o giftedness (Vandervert & Liu, 2007).

The combined effect of these neurobiological features for processing information is to create a temporary dominant active state of concern towards a particular problem, increasingly recruiting overlapping regions of the frontal cortex as problem engagement continues (Duncan,.2001). By this account it is clear why enhanced working memory capacity, as supported by efficacious frontal functioning and structure, is a hallmark of intellectual gitedness, enabling gifted people to achieve superior measures in IQ tests, as well as high levels of creative intelligence through task adaptation and selectivity (Geake & Dobson, 2005).

Heylighen: Characteristics and Problems of the Gifted: neural propagation depth and flow motivation as a model of intelligence and creativity

Gifted people exhibit a complex of cognitive, perceptual, emotional, motivational, and social traits. Extending neurophysiological hypotheses about the general intelligence (g) factor, a construct is proposed to explain these traits: neural propagation depth. The hypothesis is that in more intelligent brains, activation propagates faster, reaching less directly associated concepts. This facilitates problem-solving, reasoning, divergent thinking and the discovery of connections. It also explains rapid learning, perceptual and emotional sensitivity, and vivid imagination. Flow motivation is defined as the universal desire to balance skills and challenges. Gifted people, being more cognitively skilled, will seek out more difficult challenges. This explains their ambition, curiosity and perfectionism. Balance is difficult to achieve in interaction with non-gifted peers, though, explaining the gifted’s autonomy, non-conformism and feeling of alienation. Together with the difficulty to find fitting challenges this constitutes a major obstacle to realizing the gifted’s potential.

This brings us [back] to the definition of what constitutes giftedness. To avoid the need for after-the-fact assessment of achievement, we will define it as potential or exceptional achievement. This potential will be realized only if the environment provides sufficient support. To recognize this potential, we must go beyond IQ tests, and look at a variety of personality traits that include not only problem-solving and cognition, but perception, emotion, motivation and social relations.

Giftedness is characterized by a complex of traits extending far beyond aptitude for IQ tests. A typical summary of these traits can be found in Silvermans’s (1990) Characteristics I Gitedness scale, which has been shown to reliably distinguish gifted rom non-gifted children.

Neural mechanisms of giftedness

A first basic observation is that the results of different tests measuring either intelligence in general or certain aspects of it (e.g. verbal, spatial, musical, …) are all correlated, implying that there is a common factor in what they are measuring. The existence of this so-called g-factor (for “general intelligence”) had been demonstrated by multiple statistical analyses (Jensen, 1998; Chabris, 2006). Research trying to pinpoint biological or psychological mechanisms underlying this factor has come up with several non-trivial correlations. First, g-factor intelligence seems to have a clear genetic component, in that relatively little of the variations between individuals can be accounted for by normal environmental variation. Second, g is positively correlated with basic biological factors such as size of the brain and speed of transmission in nerves. It is also correlated with elementary cognitive capacities such as size of working memory and reaction speed (positively), or inspection time (negatively) (Jensen, 1998; Chabris, 2006).

This has led to various speculations as to the underlying mechanisms causing differences in g-intelligence, under the assumption that g somehow reflects the efficiency of information-processing in the brain.

A well-known way to conceptualize the difference between knowledge-dependent and general actors is Cattel’s (1987) distinctions between “fluid” and “crystallized” intelligence. Crystallized intelligence is the result o the accumulated knowledge and experience that we bring to tackle problems. It typically increases unrestrictedly with age. Fluid intelligence is the quickness and versatility of thinking that is needed to solve the most abstract, highly g-loaded tests such as Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Fluid intelligence increases during childhood, but reaches a plateau by the end of puberty (around 16 years) and tends to decrease with older age (Horn, 1982; Jensen, 1998).

Processing accounts (e.g. Jensen, 1998) tend to focus on the speed of transmission of signals between neurons, on the intensity of the signal, or on the amount of noise of dissipation that disturb the signal. Learning accounts (e.g. Garlick, 2002) tend to focus on the ease with which neurons develop new connections to other neurons. Given what we know about the brain, there is plenty of room for variation in the different physiological parameters that determine the efficiency of these processes.

The structural building blocks o the process are neurons and the synapses that connect them. A neuron builds up an electrical potential as it is stimulated by other neurons via its incoming synapses. If the total stimulation crosses a certain threshold, the neurons will “fire”, propagating the action potential across its long axon to its outgoing synapses. These will in turn stimulate the neurons they are connected to by the diffusion of neurotransmitters across the synaptic cleft. This may result in a new firing, and thus a transmission of the activation to one or more further neurons. The whole process is very energy intensive (the brain uses some 20 % of total calories while it only takes up 2 % of body mass(Raichle & Gusnard, 2002)) and subject to several constraints and possible problems.

For example, to efficiently propagate the electrical signal along the axon, this “wire” needs to be electrically insulated. This is achieved via myelin, a fatty substance surrounding the axon. One of the more plausible hypotheses therefore proposes that more intelligent brains are characterized by higher myelination (Miller, 1994), so that impulses can be carried with less loss. Another constraint is that the generation and regeneration of these electrical impulses requires constant input of energy in the form of glucose. This is brought to the neurons via the blood vessels that criss-cross the brain, and the glial cells that surround and support the neurons. Again, a plausible hypothesis is that more intelligent brains are characterized by more glial support tissue. This is confirmed by at least one observation, that Einstein’s brain apparently had more glial tissue than normal in certain areas (Heilman, Nadeau & Beversdorf, 2003). Both hypotheses may explain the correlation between intelligence and brain size (Jensen, 1998), as glia and myelin occupy a sizeable fraction of the brain volume.

A somewhat more down-to-earth hypothesis might propose that more intelligent brains simply have better blood circulation, e.g. because they have more, wider or more flexible capillaries. This might explain why fluid intelligence tends to decrease in old age, as it is well-known that age-induced atherosclerosis makes blood circulation more difficult. Related hypotheses may focus on the energy production by the mitochondria within the cells, a process that produces a lot o toxic free radical byproducts, which must be efficiently mopped-up by antioxidant defenses in order not to disturb the cell’s functioning. Other hypotheses might focus on the permeability of cell membranes for chemical signals, where e.g. the concentration o Omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to affect cognitive development (Willats et al., 1998), or on the neurotransmitters that are produced by the neurons to carry activation across the synaptic cleft (Heilman et al., 2003).

All these approaches consider factors that either facilitate or obstruct the propagation of activation across connections between neurons. The learning-based approaches, on the other hand, focus on the creation of these connections in the first place. According to the neural plasticity hypothesis proposed by Garlick (2002), during the critical maturation period between birth and 16 years of age, intelligent brains more easily form connections via the growing of axons. The effect is that for the same level of education and experience, the more intelligent will have developed a larger and more efficient network of long-range connections, thus facilitating the processing of complex information. Other learning-based hypotheses may focus on the short-range changes in the conductivity of existing synapses via the process of long-term potentiation (LTP), positing that such adaptation occurs more easily in the more intelligent brain. Such hypotheses might be supported by the observation that mice genetically enhanced to have higher synaptic plasticity not only seemed to have better memory but to behave more intelligently (Tang et al., 1999) Both types of hypotheses may find support in neural network simulations, where the speed of adaptation depends on a learning parameter that controls how much the weight of a connection changes afer a new experience (Garlick, 2002).

Neural propagation depth

I would rather propose a model that is compatible with all of [these specific hypotheses], and which I will call neural propagation depth. The core idea is that intelligent processing requires the parallel propagation of activation across a complex network of nodes connected by variable-strength links. The efficiency of this propagation will depend ton the dynamics o signal transmission across individual nodes (neurons) and links (synapses), but also on the architecture o the network, as a signal may need to follow either a circuitous route to get from A to Z, or a shortcut bypassing most of the intervening connections.

The basic assumption is that every crossing og a connection is problematic: it requires energy that may be scarce or unavailable and it is accompanied by dissipation of the available energy, potential transmission errors, and the intrusion of noise, in the sense of random perturbations coming from elsewhere. All these “entropic” factors reduce the signal-to-noise ratio, so that the probability of the correct signal being transmitted diminishes with every step (crossing) of the process. We may generally assume that after a certain number of steps, the remaining signal will have become too weak to be distinguishable from the background noise, resulting in the stopping of the propagation process.

(…) In practice, of course, thinking or processing never stop, because there will always be stimuli to grab the attention and refocus the process. Even in the absence of outside stimuli (e.g. in situations of sensory deprivation or REM sleep) the brain will generate its own stimuli by amplifying noise and chance fluctuations, so as to generate a continuous pattern (e.g. hallucinations or dream), albeit one that wanders without constraint across a field of associations. The actual number of steps in any train of thought will of course vary, as local condidions (strength of synaptic connections, amount of initial activation, random fluctuations, …) will affect how much activation remains after each propagation step. But the core idea is that different brains will be characterized by different “typical” or “average” propagation depths. Our proposed theory of giftedness then states that more intelligent brains are characterized by higher average propagation depths.

Porges: Polyvagal Theory

What if many of your troubles could be explained by an automatic reaction in your body to what’s happening around you? What if the cure or mental and emotional disorders ranging from autism to panic attacks lay in a new understanding and approach to the way that the nervous system operates? Stephen Pprges, Ph. D., thinks it could be so. Proges, professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and director or that institution’s Brain-Body Center, has spent much of his life searching for clues to the way the brain operates, and has developed what he has termed polyvagal theory. It is a study of the evolution of the human nervous system and the origins of brain structures, and it assumes that more of our social behaviours and emotional disorders are biological – that is, they are “hard wired” into us – than we usually think. Based on the theory, Porges and his colleagues have developed treatment techniques that can help people communicate better and relate better to others.

The term “polyvagal” combines “poly”, meaning “many” and “vagal”, which refers to the important nerve call the vagus. To understand the theory, let’s look at the vagus nerve, a primary component of the autonomic nervous system. This is the nervous system that you don’t control, that causes you do things automatically, like digest your food. The vagus nerve exits the brain stem and has branches that regulate structures in the head and in several organs, including the heart. The theory proposes that the vagus nerve’s two different branches are related to the unique ways we react to situations we perceive as safe or unsafe. It also outlines three evolutionary stages that took place over millions of years in the development of our autonomic nervous system.

(…) Historically, the autonomic system has been broken into two branches, one called the sympathetic, and the other parasympathetic. It is an organizational model that came into place in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Over the years, this model has taken on a life of its own, although we know more now. Essentially, it linked the sympathetic system with the “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic system with ordinary functioning, when one is calm and collected.

This model o the autonomic nervous system has evolved into various “balance theories”, because most of the organs of the body, such as the heart, the lungs and the gut, have both sympathetic and parasympathetic innervation.

Most of the parasympathetic innervation (nerve energy) comes from one nerve, called the vagus, which exits the brain and innervates the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, heart and abdominal viscera. However, the easiest way to conceptualize the neural pathways that go through the vagus is to think of the vagus as a tube or conduit. Conceptualizing the vagus this way forced the scientists to notice that various fibres in the nerve originated from different areas of the brainstem. For example, the neural pathways that go through the vags to the lower gut come from one are of the brain, while the neural pathways that go to the heart come from another area.

But the theory is that the system reacts to real world challenges in a hierarchal manner, and not in a balanced manner. In other words, if we study evolutionary paths of how the autonomic nervous system unfolded in vertebrates – from ancient, jawless fish to bony fish to mammals to human beings – we find that not only is there a complexity in the growth of the cortex, (the outer layer of the cerebrum, which is the largest portion of the brain), there’s also a change in how the autonomic nervous system works. It is no longer just a sympathetic/parasympathetic system in balance. It’s actually a hierarchal system.

This influences how we react to the world. The hierarchy is composed of three neural circuits. One circuit may override another. We usually react with our newest system, and if that doesn’t work, we try an older one, then the oldest. We start with our most modern systems, and work our way backward.

So polyvagal theory considers the evolution of the autonomic nervous system and its organization; but it also emphasizes that the vagal system is not a single unit, as we have long thought. There are actually two vagal systems, an old one and a new one. That’s where the name polyvagal comes from.

The final, our newest stage, which is unique to mammals, is characterized by a vagus having myelinated pathways. The vagus is the major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. There are two major branches. The most recent is myelinated and is linked to the cranial nerves that control facial expression and vocalization.

[These are virtually for the benefit of someone looking at us, or communicating og signaling – or even listening]. We forget that listening is actually a “motor” act and involves tensing muscles in the middle ear. The middle ear muscles are regulated by the facial nerve, a nerve that also regulates eyelid lifting. When you are interested in what someone is saying, you lift your eyelids and simultaneously your middle ear muscles tense. Now you are ready to hear their voice, even in noisy environments.

Let’s say you’re a therapist or a parent or a teacher, and one of your clients, students or children’s faces is flat, with no facial expression. The face has no muscle tone, the eyelids droop and gaze averts. It is highly likely that the individual will also have auditory hypersensitivities and difficulty regulating his or her bodily state. These are common features of several psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders, borderline personality, bipolar, autism and hyperactivity. The neural system that regulates both bodily state and the muscles of the face goes off-line. Thus, people with these disorders often lack affect in their faces and are jittery, because their nervous system is not providing information to calm them down.

Once we understand the mechanisms mediating the disorder, there will be ways to treat it. For example, you would no longer say “sit still” or punish a person because they can’t sit still. You would never say, “Why aren’t you smiling?” or “Try to listen better” or “Look in my eyes”, when these behaviours were absent. Often treatment programs attempt to teach clients to make eye contact. But teaching someone to make eye contact is often virtually impossible when the individual has a disorder, such as autism or bipolar disorder, because the neural system controlling spontaneous eye gaze is turned off. This newer, social engagement system can only be expressed when the nervous system detects the environment as safe.

The concept of safety is relative. You and I are sitting in this room together and nothing appears to threaten us. We feel safe here, but it may not feel safe to a young woman with panic disorder. Something in this environment, which is safe for us, might trigger in her a physiological response to mobilize and defend.

It is basically an unconscious or subconscious neurobiological motivational system. She’s not doing it on purpose. It’s an adaptation to a situation that her nervous system has evaluated as dangerous. The question is, how do we get her out of feeling threatened? Traditional strategies would be to reason with her, to tell her that she’s not in a dangerous situation, to negotiate with her, to reinforce her, to punish her I she doesn’t respond as directed. In other words, we try to get the behavior under control. But this approach doesn’t work very well with social engagement bahaviours, because they appear to be driven by the body’s visceral state. Our current knowledge based on the polyvagal theory leads us to a better approach. Thus, to make people calmer, we talk to them softly, modulate our voices and tones to trigger listening behaviours, and ensure that the individual is in a quieter environment in which there are no loud background noises.

Because those systems aren’t working [it is hard to hear a human voice with background noises] and because loud background noises will trigger physiological states and defensive behaviours.

People in these states are often brought in for hearing tests, and they test perfectly in a soundproof room. People whose nervous systems function properly have certain neural mechanisms for hearing beyond background noise. Those mechanisms attenuate low-frequency background sounds, which enables them to hear human voices more clearly even in environments with noisy background sounds.

When we’re stressed, we may engage in high-intensity exercise. But this actually triggers a greater retraction of the social engagement system; it puts us in a state of analgesia, so we no longer feel the stress, as opposed to stimulating a sense of safety and security. Polyvagal theory would suggest strategies to create that sense of safety, like retreating to a quiet environment, playing musical instruments, singing, talking softly or even listening to music. Think about what we do when we’re stressed; we take ourselves out of interpersonal relationships, as opposed to moving into them. But it’s natural for human beings to use other people to help regulate our own mental and emotional states. So when you ask, “How can we use this knowledge”, the answer is that we have to re-understand what it is to be a human being.

Part of being a human is to be dependent upon another human. Not all the time, of course. Similar to most mammals, we come into the world with great dependence on our caregivers, and that need to connect and be connected to others remains throughout our lives. As we mature, we need to find safe environments so that we can sleep, eat, defecate and reproduce. We create the safe environments by building walls to create boundaries and privacy. Or, we may get a dog, which will guard us, so we can sleep. The point of these strategies is to create an environment in which we no longer have to be hypervigilant, and to allow us to participate in the life processes that require “safe” environments. Social engagement behaviours – making eye contact, listening to people, — that we give up our hypervigilance.

When we see people with flat affect, flat muscle tone, drooping eyelids, people who are talking without intonation in their voice or having difficulty hearing what people are saying, people who are in states that are kind of jittery and non-relaxed, we can see how these physiological states might have adaptive functions related to protection. But these adaptive functions will not mesh well with the social context in which an individual is living.

They think it is an unsafe world. It is not related to a cognitive process. It’s a physiological reaction that involves the nervous system. It’s not a conscious reaction; most people who feel that way would rather not feel that way. They just can’t turn it off. We have to understand that these feelings are physiological events, triggered by specific neural circuits, and we need to figure out how to recruit the neural circuits that promote social behavior. That’s the important part of the research – we can actually recruit these neural circuits through a variety of techniques: intonation, reducing the amount of stimulation in the environment, listening, and presenting familiar faces and familiar people.

If we start thinking in terms of what happened through the stages of evolution, when mammals evolved they requires lots of nurturing. When they were born, they were not able to take care of themselves. Unlike reptiles that hatch and scamper off to the water, mammals need to be suckled. So with this physiological evolution, there also evolved social cueing – facial expressivity, crying, vocalizations, sucking movements; all these types of behaviours o the neural regulation of the face provide poignant cues and are part of the mammals repertoire for behavioural and state regulation. We still use the same “cueing” communication system to test social interactions. The neural regulation of the facial muscles provides a way to reduce psychological distance before we deal with the inherent risk of moving physically closer. This social engagement system enables people to touch each other. We don’t just walk up at touch someone; there’s a whole interaction between the face, vocalizations, other bodily cues, to see if we feel safe with each other. Then we can touch. Thus, social engagement behaviours precede the development of social bonds. Social engagement behaviours provide an optio to test interactions in “psychological space” with very low risk, prior to the test in a “physical” proximity. Polyvagal theory shows that as reptiles evolved into mammals, the neural regulation of the heart and lungs changed. It came to be regulated by an area of the brain that also controlled the facial muscles. Ater that, emotional expressivity, ingestion of food, listening and social interactions were all related to how we regulated our bodies. Those components calmed us down. Thus, social behavior could be used to calm people down and to support health, growth and relaxation.


5 thoughts on “Combining Theories of Giftedness and Brain Function

  1. Very interesting article. I have come to similar conclusions through my studies in an attempt to explain my own hypersensitivity. I suffer from asthma, I’m struggling with a variety of allergies, I have very sensitive immune system, and I’m daily (now mostly successfully) coping with anxiety and panic attacks. I do not know exactly what my IQ is, but I know that I’m above average intelligent. When I first discovered Elaine Aron’s work on Highly Sensitive Person, and subsequently Kazimierz Dąbrowski’s Theory of positive disintegration, that was the turning point for me. That’s when I first realized that there is nothing really wrong with me. On the contrary, I discovered that all my problems are also my advantages and that my hypersensitivity is directly related to my above average capacity to enjoy music, books, movies, a good conversation, learning new things, and empathy towards others. What I learned from Kazimierz Dąbrowski is that mental health should not be defined based on how similar someone’s personality characteristics are to those characteristics most often encountered in a society, but rather on the capacity for the progressive development of the personality of the individual. This development potential of the individual can be described as the difference between the current individual’s state, whatever it is, and what one sees as his/her own personality ideal, provided that the desired ideal is realistically attainable. What’s remarkable about this personality gap and all the “negative” consequences that arise from it – depressions, dissatisfaction with oneself, feelings of inferiority and guilt, states of anxiety, all kinds of inhibitions, etc, is that, at the same time, it’s directly proportional to one’s development capacity. In other words, if this gap wouldn’t exists, neither would the possibility to learn and develop. The absence of the development of personality means the absence of mental health. I believe that today’s definition of normality and mental health glorifies mediocrity, ego-centrism, minor “safe” dishonesty, and the absence of emotions. In Dąbrowski’s words, this formulation is humiliating to mankind. Instead, the definition of mental health should promote development, excellence, altero-centrism, and empathy. Related to this, I found out about another interesting theory called The Dunning–Kruger effect: ( Dunning and Kruger empirically proved the existence of a cognitive bias with two related aspects: 1. Incompetent individuals suffer from illusory superiority which limits them to realize their own incompetence (a kind of a vicious circle); 2. Competent individuals suffer from the lack of self-confidence because they have too high an opinion of others. In other words, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others. I think Dunning and Kruger successfully explained the paradox stated by Bertrand Russell’s – “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Kazimierz Dąbrowski explains this paradox even further: “The psycho-neurotic may have conflicts in relation to his external environment, but usually his conflicts are internal ones. Unlike the psychopath, who inflicts suffering on other people and causes external conflicts, the psycho-neurotic himself usually suffers and struggles with conflicts in relation to himself.” Dąbrowski proposes this as the formula for mental health : “The capacity to educate himself depends on the existence in an individual of the object-subject process, the ability to (phenomenologicallly) experience dissatisfaction with himself, and a sense of shame, guilt, and inferiority. The basic condition for self-education is the possession of a high level of self-awareness, namely, the ability to recognize the state of one’s internal environment. This contributes to the development of self-control and self-approval, which are further elements in the process of self-education. The process of self-education also assumes the presence of a clear and dynamic personality ideal.” The implications of such a definition of mental health are far-reaching: The ability to learn and share knowledge enables socio-cultural systems to continuously increase their capacity for higher levels of organization. The role of knowledge in socio-cultural systems can be said to be analogous to that of energy in physical systems. The significant point is that knowledge, unlike energy, is not subject to the first law of thermodynamics (the law of conservation of energy). One does not lose knowledge by sharing it with others. (Quoted from “Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity” by Jamshid Gharajedaghi) The same is true for empathy. This is what healthy society is all about.

  2. I forgot to mention another important study that linked stress with shortening of telomeres (caps on the edges of chromosomes), which causes accelerated aging, but can also be correlated with the appearance of a variety of disorders. Interestingly, they also found some evidence of a link between telomere renewal and social interaction (which is a primary stress reduction mechanism in Polyvagal theory):,

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