Intense, sensitive, overexcitable: whatever word you use to express it, this is a characteristic often used to describe gifted children.
Anecdotally, we all probably know a gifted child who shows extreme sensitivity to physical, mental or emotional stimuli. Maybe it's a girl who asks questions incessantly. Or perhaps you know a child who rides a roller coaster of emotion. Whatever he feels—happiness, sadness or anger—he seems to feel and display it more than other kids.
But does research support the idea that sensitivities and intensities are a function of giftedness? Do gifted children actually respond to stimuli more strongly or for longer periods of time than other kids?
For years, many academics have said, "Yes." Now, though, researchers are questioning this assumption. At Center for Talent Development (CTD), we like to keep you on the cutting edge of both practice and research in gifted education, so we're delighted to feature the work of Daniel Winkler, PhD, in our latest podcast. He is among the scholars finding that the relationship between overexcitability and giftedness is not so clear-cut.
This is not to say, however, that your specific child might not exhibit overexcitable behaviors. For parents of a child who exhibits these qualities, it can be both fascinating and frustrating alike. Emotional sensitivity, for instance, can be an asset when it manifests as empathy. These are the children who hear a news story and are moved to action—starting lemonade stands to raise money for Nepalese earthquake victims, for example. That same emotional overexcitability, however, can also lead to depression and despair and may need to be addressed professionally.
We are also pursuing our own answers to the question of a connection between overexcitability and giftedness. CTD research director, Saiying Steenbergen-Hu, is doing a study on the issue, and we will be sure to inform you about what she discovers.
Meanwhile, what are your thoughts and questions about the issue? We'd love to explore this topic with you. Regardless of your take on overexcitability, we hope you enjoy an exciting and stimulating summer!
Still learning (and loving it!),
Dr. Winkler, visiting professor and coordinator of gifted education at Cleveland State University, recently discussed his intriguing dissertation on the topic of overexcitabilities and gifted students with CTD. Many scholars believe gifted students are neurologically overexcitable, meaning they are more sensitive, intuitive, empathic and physically and emotionally more aware than other people. This link between overexcitability and giftedness has been written about for more than three decades. In this interview, you will learn why Dr. Winkler calls into question the connection between overexcitabilities and giftedness and what he thinks his research means for gifted students and their families.
Our listeners are a diverse group of parents and educators, some of whom may have never heard of overexcitability and others who are well-versed on the topic. Could we please start with a brief definition? What exactly is overexcitability?
Overexcitability refers to significant responses to certain stimuli. In the literature, overexcitabilities are broken down into five constructs: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational and emotional.
Could you please describe them?
People with psychomotor overexcitability, for example, typically love movement; they can be hyper, twitchy, physically active and fast-talking.
Sensual overexcitability, on the other hand, is the desire for—or repulsion by—certain kinds of smells, textures, feelings, sounds and any other sensual outlet. These are kids who get overwhelmed by loud noises or exceptionally bothered by the seams in their socks, for instance.
These first two overexcitabilities are physical, while the next three I'll describe are more mental.
Imaginational overexcitability refers to kids who like to spend time in their heads, thinking up games and daydreaming. You see a lot of gifted kids who have a predilection for fantasy literature and science fiction, for instance, and some people think this is a manifestation of imaginational overexcitability.
Intellectual overexcitability is characterized by an enjoyment of arguing or criticizing. These kids thrive on systematic thinking and analysis for its own sake, not even for the skill they possess in these areas.
Lastly, emotional overexcitability refers to a broad array of descriptive categories. It's the trickiest one to describe, but can include fear of death, anxiety, depression, inhibitions or excitement about certain things.
Interesting. I can see how these descriptions might fit some of our CTD students. Let's get some context, though. Who came up with this theory of overexcitability in the first place?
The five overexcitabilities are part of Kazimierz Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration. This is a very complicated moral development theory, but I'll do my best to provide an overview.
Dabrowski was a Polish psychologist who lived through the first and second World Wars. He lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe for a while, and he had really interesting ideas about how people—particularly some exceptional people—develop morally.
Moral development theories typically include five clear stages. In the first stage, you're not that great of a person, and in the last stage, you're a really good person. Dabrowski's theory is unique in that most people fall in the first two stages; very few people are able to progress up his hierarchy. The idea in the first two stages is that you're driven by biological urges or social norms. "Why do you go to work?" "I have to make a living." "Why do you eat meat?" "I'm hungry."
For someone to move up into the next three stages requires them to question assumptions. They say to themselves, "What's wrong with this picture?" Someone in the 1950s in the South, for example, looks around and says to themselves, “Why are African Americans sent to inferior schools? Why aren't they allowed to vote?” You have this crisis where you realize the world isn't just, and you're part of it. You realize you have to change. This change can be brought about by a lot of things, and overexcitabilities are one catalyst. That's why their technical term in the theory is development potential. You've got this development potential to see the injustice in the world or in your own life, and that causes you to change.
Let me interrupt you to clarify something. Overexcitability can seem like a negative term. But you're saying that Dabrowski viewed it positively, as a means of becoming a better person. Is that correct?
Absolutely. For instance, let's say you have a lot of emotional overexcitability, or empathy. You go to a poor, underdeveloped country, and you see how people live there. Your heart goes out to them, so you quit your office job, join a non-profit and try to help as many people as you can by getting them clean water or new schools. That's the kind of person who progresses in Dabrowski's system. They deconstruct the current version of themselves and construct a new, more altruistic self.
Overexcitabilities help this process. You empathize and feel sympathy for someone. You can imagine yourself in their shoes, and you can imagine what your new self could look like. You have the ability to analyze and question what is and imagine what could be. These mental overexcitabilities—intellectual, imaginational, and emotional—are really important for moving up this theory of development.
Why was this theory of interest to you?
It actually wasn't an interest, initially. I had been looking at overexcitability because I was interested in moral giftedness and morality. A lot of people claim that gifted people are exceptionally moral, perhaps stemming from a high degree of empathy, or emotional overexcitability. When I started looking into the relationship between giftedness and OEs, however, I realized that a lot of the studies didn't report significant findings, and there were inconsistent narratives between studies. I started keeping a tally about which overexcitabilities were significant for gifted children and which weren't. After I'd read a bunch of them, I thought, "Well, that's interesting. There's not as much clarity with this as I'd initially thought." So the interest was generated by the research itself.
What has been said on this topic in the past, and what was the goal of your research?
Well, as you mentioned earlier, many scholars of gifted education have argued that gifted individuals are neurologically overexcitable, and some scholars have suggested that overexcitability may even mean that gifted people are morally superior. Over the past thirty years, this relationship between overexcitability and giftedness has become increasingly popular, as many websites, textbooks and researchers have asserted it as true.
Recently, however, some scholars have questioned the validity of the giftedness-overexcitability relationship. In my dissertation, I used a systematic review of studies that compared gifted and non-gifted samples’ OE scores in an attempt to provide clarity to this debate.
What were your findings?
I found it to be unclear that gifted individuals are significantly more overexcitable than non-gifted individuals.
So you refute the theory that gifted kids are neurologically overexcitable?
In my review of the research, it didn't appear to be the case that gifted people were significantly and consistently found to be more excitable across the board. It's pretty clear, however, that gifted kids ARE more intellectually overexcitable. For the other overexcitability categories, there really isn't a lot of comparative evidence.
What does your research mean for the gifted community?
I would advise people not to believe everything they read in textbooks or online. There are a lot of things in life that if you peel back a bit of the surface, it seems to unravel rather quickly. If you're reading things about gifted kids or overexcitabilities or anything else, for that matter, I'd encourage parents and teachers to think, "Is this true for my kid? Is this useful?" If it doesn't seem beneficial, or if you're just not sure about it, I'd recommend keeping it in mind but not accepting it as truth.
Parents spend more time with their kids than any researcher ever could, so when it comes to making a decision about overexcitability, parents and teachers know the kids best. Research can inform them, but it shouldn't overly influence them, especially with regard to how they view and treat their children.
Excellent advice. While I've seen the message to take research with a grain of salt before, I have to say I really appreciate hearing it from a researcher.
You should also know that I'm not the first person to say that gifted kids may not be overexcitable. There are other people, such as Jane Piirto and a very technically gifted researcher named Russell Warne, as well as my co-author, Adam Voight, who have done work in this area in the past, but they've never been cited in textbooks and on websites. Their work needs to be cited, along with mine. The bottom line is that there is some evidence that gifted kids are overexcitable, but there is also evidence to the contrary. It's something unsettled, rather than something certain.
You know, Dr. Winkler, I wonder if, in questioning the status quo thinking on overexcitabilities, you yourself might be moving up Dabrowski's moral development hierarchy. You've certainly opened the door to debate and moved us forward in our understanding. Is there anything else you'd like to share?
I suppose I'd like people to know that I have a much more technical, meta-analytically sound version of my dissertation being published soon. If anyone is interested, they can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The construct of overexcitability is frequently presented as a defining characteristic of gifted individuals. It is discussed in numerous books and articles about gifted children. What does the research really say about this psychological phenomenon, though?
Giftedness has been defined by theorist Kazimierez Dabrowski as advanced developmental potential, which is fueled by five forms of overexcitability—intellectual, emotional, imaginational, psychomotor, and sensual (Dabrowski, 1972). Despite the ubiquity of overexcitabilities in the literature, fundamental questions remain, such as the validity of interpretations of Dabrowski’s theory (Mendaglo, 2012), as well as the reliability of overexcitability assessments (Warne, 2011). Findings are widely varied across studies.
Saiying Steenbergen-Hu, CTD research director, and Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, CTD director, are exploring the issue further. Drawing upon more than 60 existing empirical studies and 80 interpretation and discussion articles identified through a recent comprehensive literature search, they are conducting a meta-analysis to examine some of the critical issues surrounding overexcitabilities. Specifically, studies are being analyzed to determine (a) if there is validity to the belief overexcitabilities are a more common characteristic of gifted children compared to non-gifted children, (b) if there are discernable patterns of overexcitabilities among gifted children and whether these differ for different domains of talent, (c) to what extent overexcitabilities correlate with other psychological constructs such as ADHD and creativity, and (d) if overexcitabilities are predictive of social and emotional adjustment. This work will give researchers, parents and teachers research-based knowledge about overexcitability and deepen their understanding of giftedness, developmental potential and the psychology of gifted individuals.
This research will be shared on the CTD Research page when complete.
Dabrowski, K. (1972). Psychoneurosis is not an illness. London: Gryf.
Mendaglo, S. (2012). Giftedness and overexcitabilities research: A call for a paradigm shift, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 35(3), 207-219.
Warne, R. T. (2011). A Reliability Generalization of the Overexcitability Questionnaire–Two. Journal of Advanced Academics, 22(5), 671-692.doi: 0.1177/1932202X11424881