Neuroscience of Giftedness: Increased brain areas associated with emotional processing
by Sharon Duncan, Corin Goodwin, Joanna Haase, Ph.D, MFT, and Sarah Wilson
A collaboration of GHF: Gifted Homeschoolers Forum and GRO: Gifted Research and Outreach
Intense emotions are one of the greatest joys and challenges for many gifted people. The ability to pick up and reflect on other people’s feelings and react passionately to the world around them inspires them as well as others, but it can also create a heavy burden of caring too much about too many things all the time.
In the previous article, we discussed superstimulabilities and the potential for intrinsic or extrinsic negative emotional impact. Characterizations of gifted people often include representations of oversensitivity and outsized feelings.1 While not all gifted people experience extreme emotional states, a grain of truth remains in the oversized emotional processing in the gifted brain. Indeed, there’s something to be said for the brain structure of areas of emotional processing in the gifted brain.
As previously discussed, the gifted brain has larger specific regional brain volume in areas associated with intelligence, as well as more connectivity. According to Ohtani,2 individuals with a higher IQ have larger volume in two regions of the limbic system known to be associated with emotional processing. The greater connectivity in these regions may explain why gifted individuals seem to process all information through an emotional filter.
This more extensive emotional integration3 may also explain some of the more qualitative hallmarks of giftedness, including the intense demand for truth and justice, existential depression, a more emotional lens, and, for some gifted children and adults, a more emotional or empathic link4 than other people. While this can become emotionally overwhelming for both children and adults (you don’t become ungifted at the age of majority!), it could explain why gifted kids want their schoolwork to mean something and why gifted adults search for meaning.5 A study by Penny et al 6 explored the possible connections between anxiety, worry, and intelligence. The study found that verbal intelligence was a unique positive predictor of worry and rumination severity.
Finally, tying two unrelated studies together, it was found that individuals with high IQs showed increased volume in their right uncinate fasciculus.7 This study concluded that the uncinate fasciculus is an important white matter tract underlying intelligence. Years later, a study conducted by Oishi8 determined that the right uncinate fasciculus plays an important role in the emotional empathy network. Looking at these two studies together, this may further explain the deep capacity for empathy felt by gifted individuals even at an early age.
Consider the interplay between emotional sensitivity and what educators and parents often call “whole-to-part learning,” which describes the child who can understand large concepts, but does not have the underpinning concepts in place.9 For a child who sees bigger issues through a filter of exceptional empathy, the level of emotional intensity can become just too much to handle. Homelessness, climate change, and even the unfairness of being unheard simply because, as a child, they are not considered worth listening to, may combine further with the inability to break these issues down into emotionally manageable pieces and thus lead back to existential depression. This may also explain why gifted people are more sensitive to perceiving emotions in the room.10 Gifted children in particular may pick up on an emotional undercurrent which others deny exists, leading to a feeling not unlike gaslighting. Or, they may mistake the emotional undercurrent as about them (“the adult is upset, it must be my fault or aimed at me”). As would be expected, these situations increase anxiety, which seems to exacerbate sensory processing and superstimulabilities,11 trapping the gifted child in an emotionally damaging cycle.
Some children will also experience this in terms of trouble answering questions for tests or writing in school because the flood of emotional connections they make can seem impossible to express. These children may also avoid reading because they are able to read content that is far above their ability to handle emotionally. Further, because they are processing information through emotional pathways, some gifted people tend to prioritize consideration of the human/ethical aspect of information and are unable to separate the emotional impact from the objective impact.
This extreme emotional processing can also impact friendships. In “‘Play Partner’ or ‘Sure Shelter’,” Miraca Gross describes developmental levels of friendships which the gifted child may attain asynchronously.12 The two-year-old child who seeks out age peers to chat and interact with is likely to feel slighted when the other, more developmentally on par two-year-olds hide behind their parents’ legs and look at the gifted child like she is a space alien. Similarly, the gifted eleven-year-old boy may wish for a friend in whom to confide more adult concerns, while his age peers are far more interested in video games and pre-pubescent humor.
Adults can best help these gifted children to manage all of the impacts of their brain differences through understanding and scaffolding.13 Gifted adults, in particular, have the added benefit of communicating to the gifted child (or modeling for them) their own path to adulthood and some kind of life balance. After all, giftedness is not outgrown. Apparent challenges for gifted children become less extreme relative to their later stages in life and those of other people. Some challenges may even be reframed as superpowers, since adults have the opportunity to create a life where these many differences can be turned into advantages. The gifted creative may have been miserable in a typical school setting but thrives as a professional artist. A brilliant software programmer may have been uncomfortable in a group learning setting but succeeds as an entrepreneur where they get to dictate their environment and determine the extent of their human interactions. The child with taste superstimulabilities may become an award-winning food critic. Finally, the child who constantly cracks jokes in class later may becomes a well-known performer. Hope exists!
Giftedness is a difference in the wiring of the brain that includes both advantages and disadvantages. We are continuing to learn more about how this looks from the perspective of neuroscience and physiology. Efficiency, connectivity, regional brain volume, superstimulability, oversized emotions—all of these comprise the gifted brain. The more we learn, the more accurate we can be in our efforts to identify and address the implications of giftedness across the lifespan. For now, we work with a variety of definitions and do our best to support the children and adults who live with these amazing, but often misunderstood, brain functions.
Neuroscience of Giftedness: Physiology of the Brain
Larger Regional Brain Volume
Greater Connectivity Across Brain Regions
Increased Brain Activation
Greater Sensory Sensitivity
Increased Brain Areas Associated with Emotional Processing
- Paula Prober, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youths (Olympia, WA: GHF Press, 2016), 17-22.
- Toshiyuki Ohtani, Paul G. Nestor, Sylvain Bouix, Yukiko Saito, Taiga Hosokawa, and Marek Kubicki, “Medial Frontal White and Gray Matter Contributions to General Intelligence,” PLoS One, 9(12): e112691, December 31, 2014, accessed August 23, 2018
- Ohtani, Nestor, Bouix, Saito, Hosokawa, and Kubicki, “Medial Frontal White and Gray Matter Contributions to General Intelligence”
- Stephanie S. Tolan, “On Authenticity,” The Deep End, August 7, 2018, accessed August 23, 2018
- James T. Webb, Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope (Tuscon, AZ: Great Potential Press, 2013).
- Alexander Penney, Victoria C. Miedema, and Dwight Mazmanian, “Intelligence and Emotional Disorders: Is the Worrying and Ruminating Mind a More Intelligent Mind?,”Personality and Individual Differences 74. 90-93 (2015), accessed September 10, 2018.
- Chunshui Yu, Jun Li, Yong Liu, Wen Qin, Yonghui Li, Ni Shu, Tianzi Jiang, and Qiao Li, “White Matter Tract Integrity and Intelligence in Patients with Mental Retardation and Healthy Adults,” NeuroImage 40. 1533-41 (2008), accessed September 10, 2018,
- Kenichi Oishi, MD, PhD, Andreia Faria, MD, John Hsu, BA, Donna Tippett, MPH, MA, CCC-SLP, Susumu Mori, PhD, and Argye E. Hillis, MD, MA, “The Critical Role of the Right Uncinate Fasciculus in Emotional Empathy,” Annals of Neurology, 77(1), 68–74 (2015), accessed September 10, 2018
- Sharon Duncan, Corin Goodwin, Joanna Haase, PhD, MFT, Sarah Wilson, “Neuroscience of Giftedness: Increased Brain Activation,” GHF: Gifted Homeschoolers Forum, July 6, 2018, accessed August 23, 2018
- Liu Tongran, Xiao Tong, Li Xiaoyan, and Shi Jiannong, “Fluid Intelligence and Automatic Neural Processes in Facial Expression Perception: An Event-Related Potential Study,” NCBI, September 16, 2015, accessed August 31, 2018.
- Sharon Duncan, Corin Goodwin, Joanna Haase, PhD, MFT, Sarah Wilson, “Neuroscience of Giftedness: Greater Sensory Sensitivity,” GHF: Gifted Homeschoolers Forum, August 31, 2018, accessed August 31, 2018.
- Miraca U.M. Gross, PhD, “‘Play Partner’ or ‘Sure Shelter’,” Presented at 4th Australasian International Conference on the Education of Gifted Students, August 2001, accessed August 23, 2018, http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/play_partner.htm.
- Corin Barsily Goodwin and Mika Gustavson, MFT, Writing Your Own Script: A Parent’s Role in the Gifted Child’s Social Development (Olympia, WA: GHF Press, 2015), 48-9.
Gifted Research and Outreach (GRO) is a non-profit corporation whose mission is to promote a comprehensive and accurate understanding of giftedness through research and outreach. GRO is committed to researching the physiology of giftedness; educating medical, psychological, and teaching professionals about the physical and psychological impacts of giftedness; and cultivating a national outreach campaign to correct myths and inspire social change, so that the needs of gifted individuals may be openly discussed.
GHF envisions a world where all children are understood and supported in their strengths and challenges, and families are respected in their educational approaches. GHF supports, educates and advocates for gifted and twice-exceptional children, their families, and the professionals who serve them, as they pursue alternative, lifelong educational paths.
GRO and GHF have partnered on this project to spread the word about the neuroscience of giftedness to the gifted community, medical and educational professionals, and other service providers. Greater understanding will lead to a better quality of life for our children, their families, and society as a whole.