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What Makes A Brain Gifted? (page 3)

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jan 12, 2011

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In general, it's difficult to say that gifted people consistently use their brains differently from more typical learners. But what the research tells us is that a slew of efficiencies in the gifted brain help it use the right areas, use areas that it is very good at, and use the smallest amount of brain real estate necessary to do the task. This is important in looking at imaging studies, because the area of the brain may not light up in the same way it would for a more typical or disadvantaged learner. In fact, it may give a contradictory story that has a temporal component. Many gifted learners seem to be switching gears constantly, like an old-time car transmission, trying to get the right task into the right part of the brain. This means that the areas activated will change more dramatically during a task than would be likely among other more typical learners.

Operations

Focus That Brain!   The amount of brain activation in each network depends on how skilled individuals are in verbal or visual learning. In other words, the more skilled we are in the strategy used, the less brain activation or effort is required to perform higher-level thinking tasks. When given a choice as to which thinking strategy to use, the brain often uses the method that requires the least effort, namely the strategy in which the individual is most efficient. This means that it takes greater skills to manage your own resources, even if it means damping down the emotions. Those who test higher are typically less influenced by affect (that is, by emotional state). Feeling ecstatic, very sad, or anxious all create competing stimuli for the brain to deal with. Problem solving and other processes require focus, and too much affect slows us down. In fact, neutral affect is associated with faster learning because the emotional processing is dampened.37 Having some positive affect enhances thinking, but too much affect will negatively influence cognition.

Those who are gifted tend to use their frontal lobes very effectively and to manage incoming sensory information better than those who have a lower IQ (Figure 6.3). This area is used to filter the incoming data and then figure out the task, then things literally slow down. Generally, the higher the subject's overall mental ability, the more quickly the task is mastered, and the larger the decrease in the amount of cortical activation as the subject shifts gears. These findings suggest intelligence related individual differences in becoming neurally efficient.38

Effectiveness in controlling attention and gating sensory information is a critical determinant of individual differences in complex cognitive abilities.39 To be effective at a consistently high level takes the constant engagement of higher-order brain functions to sort tasks, focus, move tasks, switch brain areas used, and process tasks quickly. Generally, those with higher and more flexible, fluid intelligence keep distracting information at bay by activating regions in both the prefrontal and parietal cortexes, as well as a number of other regions. Naturally, how well subjects perform in any given situation depends on the complex interaction of many abilities, but frontal lobe execution is paramount.

Operations

To confirm this theory, we could ask if those who have difficulty with focus and impulsivity regulation (both frontal lobe functions) do worse on IQ tests; they do! Studies of students with attention deficit tell us that for overall intellectual ability (Full Scale IQ), scores were lower for those with AD/HD than for healthy participants.40 Of course, many highly successful adults have AD/HD, but these results may tell you that they were able to compensate and beat the odds. This is just one of the many differences that crop up between paper IQ scores and real-world success.

Try Less, Accomplish More.   The relationship of the more gifted with brain usage is complex and often delicate. Gifted adolescents often have a developmentally enhanced (closer to a college age) state of brain activity.41 This typically gives them unusually strong focus, motivation, and concentration on tasks for their age. In general, they have a greater "force of will" as characterized by greater left hemisphere alpha brainwave activity levels (8–12 Hz per second). As a generalization, those with lower IQ use certain areas more, to try harder, even though their efficiency in using that area is not strong. In one study, the higher-IQ subjects were found to be using an entirely different part of the brain to do a given task as compared with the lower-IQ subjects.42

Again we see the same pattern. It's not just using the frontal lobes, it's being able to use them successfully that counts. One high school boy had moderate mental retardation, with an IQ in the 70 to 80 range. But he also had exceptional calculation abilities and was referred to as a savant. When asked to perform, he actually used the frontal lobes excessively, suggesting that it was his previously diagnosed obsessive compulsive nature combined with a probable failure in his brain's central executive functioning.43 This shows the dual nature of skill and deficit; his sheer will (obsessive, in fact) forces his frontal lobes to work overtime at tasks. As you may have guessed, one could be both gifted and have a learning disability.

Overall, there appears to be support for the idea that gifted people have more balanced thinking ("whole brain" was the buzzword years ago). Some researchers contend that enhanced right hemisphere involvement during cognitive processing is a correlate of mathematical precocity.44 In addition, the general pattern of activation observed tells us that those of higher ability more effectively coordinate left and right hemisphere processing. Later studies have supported this lingering notion that gifted males have a greater reliance on their right hemisphere as a physiological correlate of mathematical giftedness.45 One older but very interesting study using EEG showed that, as compared with lower-IQ subjects, greater symmetry between hemispheres is associated with superior performance among those more gifted.46 Again we see that those with greater intellectual prowess are literally using "more" of their brain at times, while at other times they are simply integrating its areas much better.

It is also believed that the gifted use the spatial-temporal areas of the temporal lobes to support higher-level functions. Under the supervision of physicist Gordon Shaw, a group of researchers in Irvine, California, used a very challenging videogame to understand spatial-temporal reasoning. The game is based on the mathematics of knot theory and was used for understanding DNA structure prior to this application. Some elementary and middle school students showed game mastery so quickly that researchers conjectured that the spatial temporal reasoning capacity is innate.47 Is there a way you could test this theory? Could someone influence intelligence by changing where in the brain they are processing a task? Yes—in one experiment, researchers in Sydney, Australia, used electromagnetic pulses to suppress the left frontal temporal lobe for a task, forcing the brain to use the right side. In a statistically significant number of subjects, there was an increase in drawing skills (typically thought of as more right-brained) and even proofreading (very sequential task).48 These studies suggest that some strengths would be available to all of us, if we could get our brains to use the right areas for the right jobs.

Electro-Chemical Cellular Function

It turns out that brains do differ right down to the electrical and chemical levels. Researchers at the University of Tennessee did an interesting experiment using cortical event-related potential (ERP). That's the one where the subject wears that fashionable little cloth polka-dot skullcap (usually with thirty-two or more electrodes connected to the scalp) to measure electrical current. Then a stimulus is presented, and the speed, amplitude, and location of the brain's response are measured. Sensory ERPs can successfully predict differences in working memory span and fluid intelligence.49 This suggests that electrical activity is one of the indicators for efficient or effective cognitive processing.

One study used learning disabled, gifted, and typical control children of ages eight to twelve. The common "distracter" stimulus consisted of random nouns generated 80 percent of the time. The target stimulus was animal names presented the other 20 percent of the time. The research was designed to find out what differences, if any, would appear among the subject groups. There were differences, and—as you might guess—the gifted performed much better than those with learning disabilities and the typical subjects.50 But the study differences suggested the possibility of delays or gaps in the attention and information processing for those with learning disabilities. Again, it was the speed and ability to filter out and focus that made the gifted subjects do better. The electrical-chemical capacity of their brains helped create a more efficient response.

What about hormone levels—are they correlated with intelligence? The best-researched hormones are the stress and sex hormones. It is believed that those who are more intellectually curious have a lower baseline of cortisol—that's a hormone related to stress. Higher levels of cortisol are associated with a more contracted response. When we feel too stressed, we are less likely to show exploratory, curious, novelty-seeking behaviors. Those who do show this early habit of curiosity, even as three year-olds, turn out to be much more competent intellectually in later years.51

Using saliva samples, researchers measured the testosterone levels of 247 children, 100 of them gifted and the others randomly chosen. Lower salivary testosterone levels were found in intellectually gifted children of both sexes (all females have some testosterone). There was an overall negative relationship between testosterone levels and cognitive abilities in preadolescent children.52 Greater levels of salivary testosterone are correlated with lower student achievement. This is not to say that athletes are dullards; it suggests that testosterone comes with a price. Remember that with any population sample, you'll see a bell-shaped curve. Some with higher levels of testosterone may have a dozen other, far stronger factors that support a gifted brain, including high motivation and better concentration.

And finally, certain neurotransmitter levels are associated with greater intellectual performance. Having just the right levels of dopamine is associated with better frontal lobe function. Too much dopamine (the "pleasure" or "reward" neurotransmitter) is associated with schizophrenia.53 The brain's frontal lobes need just the right amount of dopamine to fuel working memory. Excess dopamine is counterproductive for cognitive processing.54 However, too little is bad, too.55 Dopamine is known as an upper for the brain; in the same way that amphetamines, cocaine, and caffeine ramp up the activity of the prefrontal cortex, dopamine does also. It just does it in a more sane way.

There's no doubt that highly intelligent, gifted thinkers display a greater degree of cognitive flexibility. Gifted thinking requires just the right amount of serotonin. That's the neurotransmitter associated with mood, memory, and attention. Those with little flexibility typically are lower in serotonin. Studies show that cognitive inflexibility is typical after prefrontal serotonin depletion.56 Serotonin depletion can be influenced by dietary changes. Foods with a higher amount of the amino acid tryptophan (used to make serotonin in the brain) include bananas, turkey, milk, and avocados. Creative problem solving is improved when serotonin is at the middle healthy level. Together with increased dopamine release for better processing speed and attention, serotonin improves the flexibility needed for maximum cognitive achievement.

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