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Know Thyself by Heather Nicholson

March 14, 2015 10:19 AM | Deleted user

Entering the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the maxim “Know Thyself” (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) chastened all to attend to the most difficult calling of the human experience: to go within, dismantle facades and defenses, and bring light to one’s Self.  Introspection often begins when presumptions are affronted by experience, with dichotomy between ideal and actual in the world or in the mind.  Individuals of high intelligence are not exempt; their inner landscape may be even more challenging.  Not only do inner processes potentially increase in speed and complexity, but oftentimes the border between our Selves and the world (perhaps the “chiasm”) is more permeable with a greater capacity to penetrate and be penetrated.


“Superstimulatability” is one of a constellation of traits which we might include under the emerging category of neurodiversity.  Most famously, autism, but also dyslexia, synaesthesia, visual-spatial orientation, and intelligence are coming to be understood as difference in the development of the nervous system as a whole, a difference in wiring.  Connections exist in unexpected places, are more or less numerous, or differ qualitatively. Some brains and bodies contain wiring that bears a greater load, like an electrical circuit with lesser resistance channeling a greater current.  This may result in increased fluid intelligence; this may also result in a nervous system which allows more of the world in thus affecting the type, quality, and number of processes initiated inside.


“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching, and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.” – The Columbus Group, 1991

Definitions of “giftedness” are as diverse and numerous as twentieth century educational philosophies.  The primary division is between those definitions which are achievement-oriented, emphasizing the contribution which the highly intelligent person might make to society, and those which are attribute-oriented.  While educational organizations are now commonly choosing to align themselves with the achievement and talent model which may be more appreciable to potential investors, organizations focused primarily on the affective or social-emotional ramifications of intelligence emphasize experience which diverges from the quantifiable norm.  Mensans are by definition at least two standard deviations above the norm representing the top 2% of IQs with a cutoff score around 130 depending on the assessment; two standard deviations below the norm, persons with IQ 70 and below are considered intellectually disabled and are widely supported by governmental and educational bodies especially in the areas of cognitive, behavioral, and psychosocial functioning.  


Equally outlying, both groups have divergent intellectual, psychological, and behavioral characteristics.  Those of higher intelligence often exhibit alertness, sensitivity, intensity, and idealism which extend to encompass individuals’ orientation towards themselves and the world.  An environment which fails to accommodate such outliers invites maladaptation: Frustration, anxiety, boredom, or depression bloom under hostile conditions, and adversity arises even under the most ideal.  However, intelligence may offer a key catalyst for transformation.  Kazimierz Dabrowski proposed that “disintegrative” periods may be positive and lead to the development of the personality – requiring both integration and self-knowledge – if the person possesses sufficient responsiveness, especially of intelligence, emotion, and imagination, alongside strong developmental potential and additional dynamisms.


Recognizing the extent of the impact of such differences is foundational for self-knowledge and pivotal when raising a highly intelligent child.  Intensity characterizes every action and interaction, often leaving the parents of gifted children exhausted, bewildered, and isolated.  Organizations like Mensa, Serving the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) Model Parent Groups, online networks, and other means of sharing information with others facing similar challenges create opportunities for both parents and their highly intelligent children to develop fluency with the theoretical frameworks and mediating practices which allow for development and flourishing.  Willing to venture unfamiliar shores for their children’s sake, parents often discover their own intelligence.  Exploring others, we discover ourselves.  Go forth and hasten inward to ascertain the pervasiveness of intelligence’s effect on your Self. Yet Thales would caution: It is difficult to know thyself; giving advice is easy.


Recommended reading: Daniels and Piechowski’s Living with Intensity, James Webb’s A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children


Heather C. Nicholson, M.S. Educational Psychology with an emphasis in Gifted Education, has recently moved to Chicago from the mountains of western Virginia.  She is the City of Chicago Coordinator and a board member of the Chicago Gifted Community Center, alumna of PEG at Mary Baldwin College, and new Mensan.


This article was originally written for and published in Chicago-area Mensa's publication ChiMe in March 2015. 


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