What happens when a neuroscientist, a psychotherapist, an aerospace manager, an organizational behaviorist, and a public policy specialist get together? They raise money and begin an ambitious research effort to examine the sensory, cognitive, metabolic, physiological, neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and genetic characteristics of individuals with high intelligence.
Gifted Research & Outreach (GRO), a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in California, has begun research and outreach on a multidisciplinary level not seen since 1925 when Louis Terman and others published Mental and Physical Traits of a Thousand Gifted Children. In the preface of that volume, Terman wrote:
Our positive knowledge of the physical, mental, and personality traits of such children has been extremely limited, and until this knowledge is available there can be no basis for intelligent educational procedure.
When Terman and colleagues examined 1,000 gifted children nearly a century ago, scientists lacked fancy computerized tools for looking inside brains. Examinations of metabolism, hormones, enzymes, gut bacteria, the endocrine system, and the central nervous system were similarly limited. Today, with medical technology unimaginable a century ago, scientists can better examine the mental and physical traits of gifted children, and can link physiology to psychophysiological reactions and behavior in all children.
Despite the existence of new medical technology, our knowledge of the physical, mental, and personality traits of children with high intelligence is still limited. Although Terman craved that knowledge primarily for purposes of “intelligent education procedure,” today we crave that knowledge not just for educational purposes, but also for social, emotional, and medical purposes.
GRO’s Multidisciplinary Efforts
GRO plans a multidisciplinary effort to research the depth and breadth of intelligence. GRO will then share its research results through open access articles, through outreach efforts targeting parents and professionals, and through writings easily accessible to the general public. The two prongs of the GRO mission–research and outreach–are equally important, according to those involved with the new organization.
The founders of GRO share Terman’s belief that a multidisciplinary approach is necessary for studying children of high intelligence. Psychotherapist Dr. Joanna Haase, who has 28 years of experience working with gifted individuals and their families, explained, “Many psychological theories touch on the physiological, but with our current trend to medicate children as a first response, we need to be very careful to understand what is ‘normal’ in the physiological and psychological make up of gifted children. It is only by having a full and integrated understanding of the ways the brains and bodies of these children differ or do not differ from the norm that we can offer effective support and interventions for gifted children and their families.”
The GRO founders believe that understanding all aspects of highly intelligent individuals will help us understand neurodiversity. Organizational behaviorist Sharon Duncan emphasized, “The fact is that much research has been done on the physiology and psychology of individuals with developmental delays, but not enough research has been done on individuals on the other end of intelligence spectrum. The study of outliers helps us increase our knowledge of all humans. As a society aspiring to an unbiased body of research, we should not allow charges of elitism to dissuade us from studying highly intelligent individuals.”
Dr. Haase agreed that by learning more about the brains and bodies of people with high intelligence, we’ll learn more about everybody. Dr. Haase explained that AIDS research taught us not only about AIDS, but also taught us about medicine in general and about social behavior. She notes that we grew as a society as a result of insights gained during the AIDS research effort.
Barmazel noted: “Many children have experienced problems in school because their behavior was brought into question rather than understanding that their physiological needs were not being met. For example, a child may be labeled with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) when he or she holds their hands over their ears. It may be perceived that the child doesn’t want to listen when if fact they are protecting themselves from the pain of noise. When a child is repeatedly punished for self-protection, he or she can become confused and resentful and turn into a behavioral problem. Arming parents, educators and psychological professionals with knowledge and tools to address such behaviors would contribute to a better academic experience.”
GRO’s Research Efforts
Neuroscientist Dr. Nicole Tetreault, GRO’s Director of Research, specializes in neurodevelopment and neurodegenerative disorders. Her prior research efforts include studies in autism, the sensory impairments in Parkinson’s disease, and the development of the visual system. Her experience examining sensory and other physiological correlates of neurological conditions matches GRO’s efforts to find correlations and possible causal links between the brain and other aspects of human physiology.
Dr. Tetreault is close to completing Phase 1 of GRO’s research work. For Phase 1, Dr. Tetreault used her neuroscience background to conduct an extensive literature review of research on the brain and on the genetics of highly intelligent individuals compared to those of general intelligence. The results of the Phase 1 literature review will be posted on the GRO website in the near future.
Phase 2 will involve an in-depth review of literature of the potential associations between high intelligence and allergies, metabolism, hormones, social anxiety, autoimmune diseases, and gastrointestinal dysfunction. Those results will be posted on the GRO website after Phase 2 is complete.
GRO decided to perform its literature review of the brain and genetics first for two reasons. One reason is that brain and genetics research articles are plentiful and well validated. Another reason is that the brain is the source of human cognition.
As part of her Phase 1 research efforts, Dr. Tetreault met with leaders of intelligence research from around the world including Richard Haier, Robert Colom, Timothy Bates, and David Lubinski. She also recently attended a talk by Robert Plomin. She plans to communicate with other scientists as GRO’s research efforts proceed.
When interviewing GRO members for this article, I was happy to learn that GRO, for its outreach purposes, currently uses the Columbus Group’s 1991 asynchronous development definition of giftedness. As I expected, most of the studies that Dr. Tetreault reviewed during Phase 1 of GRO’s research used traditional measures of intelligence such as the WISC, WAIS, and Ravens tests. Using the traditional measures will allow GRO to integrate data across multiple studies and disciplines. Because many factors beyond intelligence can contribute to an individual’s achievement, Dr. Tetreault was careful not to use studies that relied on measures of achievement to determine intelligence.
GRO’s Outreach Efforts
The five people involved with GRO bring an impressive variety of credentials and experience to the organization. Dr. Haase and Dr. Tetreault bring their experience in the fields of psychotherapy and neuroscience, respectively. Marc Montgomery, GRO’s Board Chair, brings 35 years of aerospace leadership to GRO. Michelle Barmazel, GRO’s Director of Development, brings an understanding of public policy, business administration, and nonprofits. Sharon Duncan, GRO’s organization behaviorist, worked for 26 years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in project and line management positions.
GRO intends to communicate complex technical and scientific ideas to general audiences. As GRO moves forward, research results will dictate the direction of GRO’s outreach efforts. Dr. Haase hopes to share GRO results not only with educators, but also with doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, allergists, and other practitioners. She explained, “GRO wants to take conversations about giftedness to practitioners who run across gifted individuals.”
In the spring, members of GRO, working with a southern California university, are planning to conduct a continuing education conference for psychologists, school psychologists, and other professionals about misdiagnoses and other issues affecting gifted individuals. At the event, Dr. Haase will explain how gifted children sometimes experience intense emotions and existential depressions at early ages. According to Dr. Haase, “Because those emotions don’t disappear with age, practitioners need to help children understand that those emotions are part of who they are, and help them learn how to manage their intensity across their lifespan. Medication is not always a bad intervention, but it should not be the first and only one.”
Duncan acknowledged that although we have anecdotal and case study evidence of the emotional, sensory, imaginational, intellectual, and physical intensities of gifted children, the scientific evidence has not been fully developed, integrated, and disseminated. Duncan believes that GRO’s future research will shed light on what those who work with gifted children have observed. She explained, “Parents often report that their gifted children behave and react differently than their age mates, yet there is little physiological research to support why this is. On a practical level this information will help parents obtain effective social, emotional, and educational assistance for their children.”
Dr. Tetreault hopes that GRO’s research and outreach efforts will provide a map for parents who have precocious children, and help parents learn how to keep their children growing and how to be within their rights to do whatever their little bodies need to be doing while learning. Dr. Tetreault aspires to provide parents and educators with the support they need to give children opportunities to succeed. She notes that in light of the current trend toward standardization in education, “it’s very important for every child’s healthy development that we be able to identify and satisfy their needs.”
Through her research into autism and other neurobiological disorders, Dr. Tetreault has learned that physiological differences often accompany neurobiological disorders. For example, some individuals with autism experience gut issues, some individuals with dyslexia experience nausea, and a subset of individuals with Parkinson’s experience olfactory impairments. In the same vein, GRO hopes that its research on the physiological differences that accompany high intelligence will help us learn more about all people.
Bring GRO to Your Neighborhood
On December 13, 2015, GRO members will travel to Santa Monica, California for a dinner to raise funds for Phase 2 of GRO’s research plans If you are interested in attending the dinner and hearing the results of GRO’s Phase 1 research, contact GRO as soon as possible for a reservation. If you would like host a GRO fundraising dinner in your community, please let GRO know. GRO members, including neuroscientist Dr. Tetreault, are willing to travel. The GRO website includes this contact form.
A Personal Note
As gifted advocate with over three decades of experience, I recall a watershed moment at the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented conference about 15 years ago. One session title in particular drew me to Houston: The Neurobiological Correlates of Intelligence. At the time, I was hungry to hear scientific evidence of what others insisted was a mere “social construct.” I went to Houston remembering the near blackout of anger I experienced a few years earlier at a general education conference in Ohio as I sat in shock while listening to a presenter tear apart the very existence of gifted children.
The presentation room in Houston overflowed with people hungry for scientific evidence that gifted children exist. People sat on chairs, sat on the floor, and leaned against the walls. Still other people packed themselves tightly far into the hallway, straining to listen. The presenter spoke for noticeably longer than her allotted time, but few moved a muscle. We were thrilled to learn that researchers had started to find correlations between high intelligence and certain brain characteristics.
I believe that GRO’s scientific research and outreach missions will go a long way towards improving public and political opinion about the unique needs of children with high intelligence, as well as about the links between the brain and physiological conditions. Please join me in supporting GRO’s efforts.
I thank photographer Steve Duncan of Avian Resources for granting permission to use the photograph he took of the Milky Way. For more of Steve’s stunning images, see http://avian-resources.artistwebsites.com/
I could not have written this article without the generosity of the GRO Board of Directors. They granted me interviews, reviewed drafts of this article, answered all my questions about their research efforts, and provided me with a photograph of the five of them to include in this blog. Thank you!
Lastly, I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum for their inspiration and support, both online and in person. Although my children are all grown, I’ve written this article as part of the October 2015 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop. Clicking on the graphic by Tara Hernandez (Thank you, Tara!) below will lead you to the titles, blog names, and links of other Blog Hop participants. Thank you for supporting my fellow blog hoppers by visiting their blogs.