The Mysteries of High Intelligence: Bravery RequiredPosted: June 1, 2016
Note: This article is adapted from talks I’ve given in churches in four states. I have declined to give this talk on public school property, mostly because public schools don’t need anyone complaining about their invited speakers.
My rational, scientific husband has had difficulty dealing with my fascination with certain mysteries. When I first told him my topic for this talk, he asked whether he would be able to handle it.
I reminded him that I enjoy reading the Skeptical Inquirer, and I am grateful for the work of “bad science” critic Ben Goldacre in England. We both recognize that science itself is sometimes an iffy proposition: What is considered scientific truth today may change after new discoveries in the future.
For avid researchers who want to delve deeply into the philosophy of scientific change, I recommend reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), or, for lighter fare, this excellent 50th anniversary article about Kuhn in The Guardian: Thomas Kuhn: The Man Who Changed the Way the World Looked at Science.
Science is not static; scientists seek to solve mysteries, and the solving of mysteries can change our view of the world. The non-rational and non-scientific mysteries of today may be considered scientific truth in the future.
I don’t usually speak or write about my favorite mysteries. Why? Because it’s risky to speak of non-rational, non-scientifically explainable phenomenon in the rational circles of our society. When we profess belief in mysteries outside other people’s comfort zones, we risk being dismissed or ostracized. Today I feel compelled to speak, nonetheless, because children deserve adults who will respect them and their experiences, however mysterious.
The Mysteries of High Intelligence
The main mysteries I’ve encountered in my life come from my work with profoundly intelligent children. By “profoundly intelligent,” I mean those rare children with intelligence off the charts. Assuming current IQ tests could measure high enough, I mean children with IQs over 160, and some with IQs up over 200. (The outdated WISC IV had extended norms; I have not yet seen extended norms for the WISC V (2014) or any other current IQ test.)
Over the years, I’ve encountered three types of mysteries surrounding profoundly intelligent children:
(1) The mystery of their high intelligence.
(2) The mysteries they experience.
(3) The mysteries they explore during their lives.
In sections that follow, I will discuss each of those three types of mysteries. First, though, I need to say a few words about the nature of profoundly intelligent children.
The Nature of Profoundly Intelligent Children
By “profoundly intelligent children,” I do not mean children who perform well in school. Some do, of course, but intelligence is not solely about verbal and math ability. The same brain biology that makes a person quick in verbal and math realms can make the person quick in emotions, in the senses, and in the physical realm. For more information, see The Gifted Brain (2016) by the team at the nonprofit organization Gifted Research and Outreach, see Developmental and Cognitive Characteristics of “High-Level Potentialities” (Highly Gifted) Children (2011) published in the International Journal of Pediatrics, see Annemarie Roeper’s chapter titled “Giftedness is Heart and Soul” in High IQ Kids (2007), and see Overexcitability and the Highly Gifted Child (2000) by Sharon Lind.
The brain appears to work best as a unified whole. The best mathematicians use many areas of their brains when solving problems. In mathematically gifted adolescents, the entire brain is involved in the “fast, well-insulated, efficient” biological stuff of high intelligence. See Interhemispheric Interaction During Global-Local Processing in Mathematically Gifted Adolescents, Average-Ability Youth, and College Students (2004) available through the National Institutes of Health. Popular media have perpetrated right-brain, left-brain nonsense, but cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman upends that misconception with this excellent rant: The Real Neuroscience of Creativity.
Profound levels of intelligence affect all parts of the brain and all aspects of a child including academics, emotions, body, and more. The “more” includes many mysteries.
(1) The Mysteries of High Intelligence
In my work with profoundly intelligent children, I’ve heard babies speak full sentences, I’ve met seven year olds successfully taking college courses, and I’ve taught preteens who surpassed doctoral students after just one game theory lesson. I’ve seen five-year-olds read 250-page books. I’ve seen a shocked math teacher remark to himself after an introductory calculus lesson to curious children ages seven to eleven, “I just taught four weeks of math in one hour.” I’ve seen preteens who appear to have been born knowing math; they can pass an end-of-year high school math test without taking the course or looking at a textbook for more than a few hours. I’ve known students who mastered musical instruments so fast that music contest organizers challenged their answers to “how many years have you played?”
The abilities of profoundly intelligent children are mysteries to me. Why and how do extreme levels of intelligence exist in humankind? I do not know. If I had not seen and heard those displays of intelligence mentioned above, I might not have believed them possible.
Because envy pervades our society, bravery is required in order to talk about the seemingly mysterious abilities of profoundly intelligent children. Parents of such children quickly learn to keep their mouths shut, as Juliet Thomas wrote eloquently in Hard Won Truths. For an excellent scholarly article on the topic of envy, see Envy and Giftedness: Are We Underestimating the Effects of Envy? by Catharine Alvarez. I wholeheartedly agree with Alvarez that, “The problem of dealing with other people’s envy is one of the central problems of gifted development.”
Envy isn’t the only problem facing profoundly intelligent children. In his 1869 essay On Liberty, 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill recognized that individuals with high levels of intelligence have a tendency to exhibit originality in thought and action, and that originality often exceeds the comfort zone of others:
People think genius is a fine thing if it enables a man to write an exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense, that of originality in thought and action, though no one says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at heart, think that they can do very well without it.
Mill explained in his next paragraph, “In sober truth, whatever homage may be professed, or even paid, to real or supposed mental superiority, the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.”
Fortunately, not all is gloom and doom. Whenever I meet children with high levels of intelligence, I encourage their parents to find other families with children of similar abilities. All children benefit from feeling a sense of belonging, and all parents benefit from having safe places to talk with other parents.
For many profoundly intelligent children, finding true peers is life changing, and possibly life-saving. For more information about the necessity of finding true peers, see Bright Star — Black Sky: A Phenomenological Study of Depression as a Window Into the Psyche of the Gifted Adolescent by P. Susan Jackson, founder of the Daimon Institute for the Highly Gifted. Luckily, the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and similar organizations provide financial and other support to many highly intelligent children who need help accessing specialized summer camps, conferences, and other events.
(2) The Mysteries That Profoundly Intelligent Children Experience
Profound intelligence, by itself, is mysterious, and the experiences that some profoundly intelligent children have reported to their parents and others intensify the mystery. In Nature’s Gambit: Child Prodigies and the Development of Human Potential (1986), psychologist David Henry Feldman wrote about mysterious experiences of some of the child prodigies he studied:
During the years I have conducted my study, several of my subjects have reported incidents that have made me reflect on a possible connection between prodigies and unknown forces or influences. This chapter presents some examples of occurrences that suggest that there does remain an element of mystery and uncanniness to the prodigy. Perhaps this element helps account for why prodigies and prophecy have been linked throughout history. (From page 187, Chapter 9, titled “Beyond Coincidence.”)
During the summer of 2001, I led a summer institute workshop for parents of gifted children. I felt comfortable enough with the seven participants to mention unusual experiences associated with gifted children. Surprise, surprise–three of the seven families told me that their children had experiences that cannot be explained by science. The experiences recounted by those families included visits from recently deceased relatives, knowledge of what would happen in the future, and feelings of tragic emotions before the tragedy happened.
After that workshop, my ever-scientific husband reminded me that coincidences exist; I reminded him that mysteries exist, too. Some of the stories I’ve heard over the years include what I call “truth markers”–those little bits of information that a child could not possibly know unless the unbelievable–or at least an exceptionally unbelievable coincidence–had happened.
The tragedies of September 11, 2001, occurred shortly after that summer workshop. In the days and hours before those tragedies, more than a few profoundly intelligent children shared uncanny premonitions of the tragedies with their parents.
I was as mystified by those reports of premonitions as I was horrified by the tragedies themselves. I desperately wanted to understand the premonitions. I wondered whether time itself has “bow waves” like those waves that precede the bow of a ship on the water. I wondered whether profoundly intelligent children, with their extra sensitivities, might have the ability to detect bow waves of time. I questioned my sanity for allowing my wonderings to wander beyond reason.
Fortunately, the unusual experiences that profoundly intelligent children have reported are not limited to tragedies. Some children and teens have reported knowing the minds of others so well that their minds feel connected. Newbery Honor Book winner Stephanie S. Tolan based part of her novel Welcome to the Ark on an experience she had with a group of six profoundly intelligent children whose minds appeared to communicate together in silence during a workshop she offered at one of the early gatherings of families with such children. In an interview available on her website, Tolan recalls: “They didn’t realize they hadn’t talked it out. Their ‘telepathic’ interaction had felt so natural to them that they didn’t even realize they were doing it until I pointed out that not one of them had said a word aloud. I’d been in the room with them the whole time. There was no talking. The process had somehow taken place only in their minds.”
As I’ve searched for explanations, I’ve wondered whether profoundly intelligent children have enhanced senses of intuition. Perhaps an extra strong dose of intuition can mimic what some call “mind reading” and “premonition”? Might information about intuition somehow connect the mysteries with science?
I am a firm believer in intuition. In every field I’ve entered, I’ve run into top professionals who write or speak about the importance of intuition in that field. When I volunteered at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center in the early 1970s, when I went to law school and practiced law, when I taught in the Ohio University College of Business, when I learned about politics and political science, when I learned about public administration, when I taught high school and middle school students. Everywhere I’ve been, without exception, experts in the field have recognized the importance of intuition.
Even if an extra strong dose of intuition can mimic what some call mind reading and premonitions, might I be able to connect the mysteries with science? Doubtful. Why? Because science knows precious little about intuition.
(3) The Mysteries That Profoundly Intelligent Children Explore
John Stuart Mill, quoted above, wrote that genius, in its true sense, is originality in thought and action. That originality in thought and action extends to explorations of the mysterious.
The history of science has shown that many great discoveries have come from those who were shunned during the discovery process. Galileo was held under house arrest until his death. Darwin was attacked by the churches of his time. Orville and Wilbur Wright felt great skepticism. More than a few Nobel Laureates have suffered forms of ostracism during the initial years of their great work.
Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) once quoted another astute scientist as follows, “Every triumphant theory passes through three stages: first it is dismissed as untrue; then it is rejected as contrary to religion; finally, it is accepted as dogma and every scientist claims that he had long appreciated its truth.”
We must support children when they buck the system with new ideas and later when they are threatened with loss of tenure or loss of funding for exploring mysteries that others think are hocus pocus or even the work of the devil. We must teach children about the history of science and the importance of bravery in the face of skepticism. All children deserve adults who believe in them, and adults who help them navigate a world that may be unready to welcome their experiences and ideas.
Two Bits of Feedback: All Children & Other Cultures
When I’ve given this talk to audiences that did not necessarily include parents of profoundly intelligent children, I’ve used my favorite mysteries as illustrations to encourage people to embrace whatever mysteries they have experienced in their own lives. Embracing mysteries involves a combination of belief, acceptance, awe, and integration into one’s own religious beliefs. Two audience responses merit sharing here.
One woman, a deeply spiritual person with a long teaching career, commented that all children, not only profoundly intelligent children, are capable of experiencing the mysterious until we beat it out of them in our public schools. I wonder whether we hear more reports of mysterious experiences from profoundly intelligence children simply because they learn to talk at earlier ages? Regardless of whether all children experience the mysterious, I sense that the mysterious affects profoundly intelligent children more than it affects other children.
Another women, a Native American living on tribal lands, came up to me afterwards with tears in her eyes. She explained that my stories touched on a large part of her culture that other people simply do not understand. Her tears seemed to be a combination of joy that I was accepting the mysterious, and sadness that so many people do not understand her culture.
Embracing Your Own Mysteries
Maybe you have your own secret bits of non-rational beliefs. Maybe you have experienced having a dream that later happens, or receiving a message via dream or otherwise from a dearly departed loved one, or feeling an animal read your mind, or knowing who is calling before the telephone rings. You might chalk all that up to coincidence, or you might hide that little bit of weird feeling in a quarantined section of your mind, hidden from your rational mind, and hidden from those people would might ridicule you if they knew your truth.
I believe that we should embrace mysteries. By “embracing mysteries” I mean we should not hide them in the far corners of our minds, and trot them out only in hushed tones to close friends. We can and must simultaneously enjoy and question the mysteries we experience. We must also support those who share their mysterious experiences with us.
Let’s embrace the mysterious. Let’s support others who embrace mysteries. Let’s advocate acceptance of one another as part of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Lastly, let’s remember that today’s mysteries might result in tomorrow’s ground breaking scientific discoveries.
Acknowledgements and Credits
I thank Stephanie S. Tolan for her bravery in being one of the first advocates for gifted children to speak openly about the mysterious. For a large collection of her essays about gifted children, I highly recommend her latest non-fiction book, Out of Sync: Essays on Giftedness (2016). Although I’d read many of her essays in the past, when this book arrived in my mailbox, I couldn’t stop reading. The book includes essays I’ve long loved, along with some I missed meeting over the years. The book differs from other books about the gifted experience because Stephanie not only provides us with thought-provoking knowledge; she also poignantly shares how that knowledge has affected her personally. Stephanie provides us with information, but more importantly, she provides us with a model of how we might integrate evolving knowledge about giftedness into our own belief systems. I love the respectful, inclusive, and clear nature of her writing. The book is a true gem!
Many thanks to Kiesa Kay and Jennifer Engle Rix for helping me with a draft of this article. I greatly appreciate all their excellent feedback.
The photos are my own, from various locations in Southern California in January and February of this year.
This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page June 2016 Blog Hop. I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page for their inspiration and support leading up to this Blog Hop.
Please click on the following graphic created by Pamela S Ryan to see to the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies’ Blog Hop participants.
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