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 (The outdated WISC IV had extended norms; I have not yet seen extended norms for the WISC V (2014) or any other current IQ test.)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.
If you would like me to give this talk for your congregation or organization, please fill out this form. You may also use this form to send me a private message. Thank you.
My best parenting and educating tips arose from a tragedy on a cold January night 36 years ago. Suddenly and irrevocably, I became a young widow. One moment we were planning parenthood; the next moment I was writing an obituary. Life rolled over.
When your sleeping partner and your dreams disappear together, your heart pumps hard to fill the void. You lie awake, alone, feeling each heartbeat as a testament to life, breathing each breath as holy act, a miracle.
Seasons of grief slowly yield to seasons of life. Seeds germinate, flowers bloom, even in unlikely places. I remarried, bore three children, watched them grow, became a grandmother.
But grief never completely disappears. Its silver lining––a deep appreciation of life––comforts survivors and colors their reactions, philosophies, and decisions, even decades later. My own appreciation of life, amplified recently by Stephanie Tolan’s May 7th essay No Less Than the Trees and the Stars and by young Karina Eide’s May 9th passing, inspire me to share deeply today.
Tip One: Apply Sideways
Even for families of young children, I highly recommend Chris Peterson’s brilliant MIT Admissions essay, Apply Sideway. Peterson understands the value of life and passions. He attempts to convince parents that children’s lives are for living, not postponing. He writes:
Applying sideways, as a mantra, means don’t do things because you think they will help you get into MIT (or Harvard, or CalTech, or anywhere). Instead, you should study hard, be nice, and pursue your passion, because then you will have spent high school doing all the rights things, and, as a complete side effect, you’ll be cast in the best light possible for competitive college admissions.
Peterson’s “study hard, be nice, and pursue your passion” advice is pure–untainted by mention of grades, test scores, or class rank. In regards to studying hard, he advises students: “Take tough classes. Interrogate your beliefs and presumptions. Pursue knowledge with dogged precision. Because it is better to be educated and intelligent than not.” Peterson wants students to enjoy life, not tick boxes.
Tip Two: Slow Down
My grandparents would barely recognize the hectic lives of many families today. How many children today spend long, lazy days outside making up their own games and enjoying the sounds, smells, and sights of nature? How many children enjoy long, lazy hours moving their bodies in tune with their imaginations and letting their minds wander aimlessly? How many families, whether by reason of poverty or choice, spend more time surviving life than appreciating life?
Education philosopher John Dewey wrote in Art as Experience (1934): “Like the soil, mind is fertilized while it lies fallow, until a new burst of bloom ensues.” I love Dewey’s idea of allowing children’s minds to lie fallow, to wander, to imagine.
I also love the ideas expressed in Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming (2013) by Rebecca L. McMillan, Scott Barry Kaufman, and Jerome L. Singer. This quote in particular speaks to me:
For the individual, mind wandering offers the possibility of very real, personal reward, some immediate, some more distant. These reward include self-awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion [citations omitted].
In lieu of measuring children’s success primarily in terms of school-recognized criteria, why not measure children’s success in terms of their personal goals? Why not slow down the parts of life based on external criteria? Why not give our children more time to appreciate and plan their own lives?
Some children’s lives demand new paths. Benchmarks listed in baby books, state mandated curricula, and college degree programs simply do not apply to these children. For whatever reason––learning disability, intelligence level, personality, or any combination of those––some children’s lives improve when they are allowed to explore beyond traditional school paths.
I recommend Lisa Rivero’s book, The Homeschool Option: How to Decide When It’s Right for Your Family, not just for parents deciding whether to homeschool their children, but also for parents willing to learn more about the place of education in children’s lives. How well does a particular school setting meet a particular child’s educational, social, and emotional needs? What is actually happening in the child’s mind and heart during hours spent in the classroom?
All children need adults to appreciate, not denigrate, their differences. All children need recognition of their worth and dignity, no matter what life-affirming paths they choose to follow.
I recommend that parents, educators, and children plant a variety of seeds, both literal and metaphorical. Planting seeds in soil allows children to experience life in action with all their senses. Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in the United Kingdom encourages schools to introduce children to gardening:
New research published by the RHS shows as well as helping children lead happier, healthier lives today, gardening helped them acquire the essential skills they need to fulfill their potential in a rapidly-changing world and make a positive contribution to society as a whole.
I recommend that parents, educators, and children check out the RHS Campaign for School Gardening and its impressive collection of online resources. By browsing those resources and lovingly planting a few seeds, children can enjoy the wonder of life.
In The Sense of Wonder (1965), Rachel Carson recounts experiencing nature with her young grandnephew on the rocky coast and in the forests and fields of Maine. Carson “reminds us that the child intuitively apprehends the truth that most adults have forgotten–that we are all part of the natural world.”¹
Carson believes that children need to feel “a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love.” That sense of wonder then creates a hunger for knowledge. She writes:
I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.
I recommend that parents and educators plant a wide variety of “thought seeds” in the minds of children who wish for knowledge. Children with active minds crave ideas, debates, answers. Their minds benefit from a well-balanced diet of thoughts from a variety of sources. Introduce children to popular as well as unpopular thoughts. To limit their minds is to limit their spirits.
Children naturally ask deep questions. I recommend that parents share their religious beliefs, their philosophies, and their stories. When children are sufficiently mature, I recommend that parents share their doubts and fears, and share how adults handle doubts and fears.
Why wait until the death of a family member or close friend to share the sorrow of death? Many children, even preschoolers, can benefit from stories that gently introduce them to the unknowns of death. Hoagies Gifted Education Page has an impressive list of resources on grief and mourning. Some of the resources are suitable even for very young children.
Tip Six: Examine Carefully
Encourage children to carefully examine all that life presents–textures, foods, music, plants, art, animals, arguments, authors, formulas, statistics. Careful observations lead to appreciation. Increased use of senses and reason leads to increased appreciation of life.
Children are born to carefully examine the world around them. When my son was two months old, child development experts taught him to distinguish sandpaper from velvet. He would move his tiny arm aside to avoid a touch of sandpaper, but stay still to enjoy a touch of velvet.
Far too often school curricula are unfairly squeezed into measurable formats demanded by legislators. Few of those formats honor the sensory-filled process of learning; most focus almost exclusively on content. I recommend that parents and educators choose school experiences that honor life, not inhibit life.
The more parents and educators give children time and opportunity to appreciate life, the better their lives will be. We owe children freedom to enjoy their senses, their curiosities, and their childhoods.
Notes and Credits
¹Lear, Linda. “Introduction.” Sense of Wonder. Rachel Carson. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1998.
All the photographs are mine, taken in the Village of Thorpe, Surrey, United Kingdom, during the past year.
I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum and elsewhere 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 May 2014 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop. Clicking on the graphic 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.