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Too smart for your own good.

BACK IN GRAD SCHOOL, I gave a presentation on gifted children. The audience, also mental health graduate students, asked questions like, "Why are gifted kids so weird?" and, "If they're so smart, why can't they just figure out how to act 'normal'?" Granted, the segment of the population that meets the criteria for intellectual giftedness has some differences from the vast population of normal intelligence, but when future psychotherapists already are labeling them "weird" it doesn't bode well.

For most purposes, from academic testing to Mensa membership, the "gifted" cutoff is an IQ at or above the 98th percentile, usually about 130. About two percent of the population is at 130 or above; by about IQ 140, we are talking about one percent; at 150 or above, 1/10%. The normal IQ is 100, and the bell-curve of intelligence cycles backwards from the norm in the same way, with only about 1/10% of the population at an IQ of 50 or below.

Are gifted people really that different? If so, how? If you are one of those smart people, what life experiences can be better understood as part of being "gifted"? Is there a negative fallout in being what a local reporter recently labeled "scary-smart," as if being extremely intelligent were on par with being, oh, say, the villain in a torture movie like "Saw"? Gifted people can straggle socially for a number of reasons. Any significant difference in intelligence between two people makes deep social connection a challenge. This point annoys people on both sides of the arbitrary cutoff point, but some research points to IQ differences of more than 15 points as sufficient to bar intimate, intellectual, and emotionally mutual understanding. Friendship is possible, but a certain level of closeness will not be present. In these situations, the gifted person may feel frustrated and the normal friend may think the gifted one is weird. Normal kids sometimes label a gifted kid "dumb" because what he or she says does not seem to make sense.

Many traits that are normal (in the sense that they occur frequently) among the two percent gifted population are considered aberrant in the normal population. Counseling books list traits of gifted kids that align almost perfectly with the checklist of aggravating actions that earn a diagnosis of "Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder." The behaviors that drive adults to drug children into compliance do not become more endearing when associated with a high IQ, and fidgety, hypersensitive, and overactive adults drive their colleagues to distraction.

A highly reactive nervous system is standard issue for high-IQ individuals. They are excruciatingly sensitive to sound, light, smells, tastes, and textures. The effects can be dismaying. No one wants to shrug, smile sheepishly, and explain how smart Junior is, as he spits a mouthful of a new food out on his plate because it "feels" wrong. A normal fleece blanket cannot touch their skin because it is nearly painful; the noise in the hallway makes concentration impossible. The list of various sensitivities--normal for the very bright--can go on for pages.

Perhaps the biggest social challenge for the gifted is the extrovert-introvert dilemma. There are plenty of definitions of extroversion and introversion, many poorly worded. Some definitions seem skewed to skewer introveas; internally focused becomes "selfish," while extroversion becomes "outgoing and friendly." Extroversion and introversion are on a continuum, with crowd-seeking behavior on one end and hermits on the other. Few of us are extremes, but more are on the extroverted side. A noisy, happy, crowded venue energizes an extrovert and enervates an introvert. Here is a simple quiz: On Saturday night, would you rather go to a party with lots of people you know and some new people to meet, with music and games and dancing, or would you more often prefer to have a quiet meal with two or three of your closest friends? Extroverts like the intimate meal, but also need the energy of big groups. Introverts will lean towards the quiet meal. They want a deeper conversation with a couple of people, not lots of interaction with lots of people. They probably are exhausted from being around people all week at work. Neither mode is inherently superior; both are normal human variations.

About two-thirds of the normal intelligence population is extroverted; the other one-third is introverted. Among the gifted, the ratio flips, which, among other things, explains why the few outgoing members of high-IQ societies constantly complain that the introverted membership will not at tend an endless series of social events. In the real world, though, the societal bias against introversion leads to suspicion and negative attitudes towards introverts in general, and the smarter ones in particular.

Often concurrent with introversion, many gifted people are what psychotherapists call "slow to adjust." They may be high energy, but simultaneously have difficulty switching gears. They prefer a warning before changing plans and, if they are around a spontaneous group, may seem to be lagging behind. It is not that they do not want to go to the zoo, or museum, or out for pizza; they just had a different schema in mind and it takes time to remake their internal plan. A surprise party is not optimal.

I feel risque overtly discussing differences between high-IQ and normal people. Will I be accused of an elitist stance, or belittling normal people? Society has no problem spotlighting the top two percent in other arenas; we fawn over the athletic, beautiful, and creative. Sean Penn did not win the Oscar because his peers were bashful about noticing he is a better actor than most people. However, exploring the variations between an IQ of 145 and 130 (at about 140, some researchers have proposed that our conceptual models for how thought happens no longer fit) feels inappropriate, like discussing your GI troubles over lunch. We acceptably may analyze University of Florida quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow as a fantastic athlete, but not as a successful student. Let's not even allude to the faith that spurs his capacities and work ethic. Brains are in the fairly unique category of being considered stunningly unattractive and simultaneously indecent. In our time, a wholly different anatomical area has become our "unmentionable."

Dolores T. Puterbaugh, American Thought Editor of USA Today, is a psrchotherapist in private practice in Largo, Fla.
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Author:Puterbaugh, Dolores T.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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