On the G-Word, Weird Brains, and Stars

Underlying much of what I discuss in this blog is a life experience that I sometimes describe as having a “weird brain.”  I have one myself.  The more I experience, the more I see this as important not only for my self-knowledge, but also for my observations of society.  Someone who seeks to Change the World needs, after all, to compare her experience of the world to that of others—both those who are like her and those who are different.

There is a certain awkwardness in talking about what is generally referred to as being “gifted.” This, however, is essentially synonymous with what what I mean by a “weird brain.”  That means that if I want my thoughts to reach similar people who will be relying on Google searches and WordPress tags to find my content, I’m going to have to pull out the G-word.  Therefore, I feel compelled to ensure that readers understand what I mean by it.

Let’s put the key takeaway up front: It is not a statement about intrinsic human worth.  This is why, if it came up at all, I always referred to myself as being “weird,” a somewhat self-denigrating word, because I wanted to avoid elitist implications.  But giftedness has to do with that nebulous concept we call intelligence, and intelligence is so highly valorized in our culture that the implication that someone has more of it than others is indeed fraught.  One can see why it would seem like a “gift” to have more of it, never mind that we still have some trouble pinning down just what intelligence really is.

One could also say (as, for instance, this clinical psychologist writes) that the word “gifted” was poorly chosen.  It’s partially at fault for reactions like this blog post by a mother who feels for the children who don’t get chosen for the valorized program; she is therefore moved to declare that “every child is gifted.”  On one level, I hear her.  I was moved by this post, written by the mother of an “average” kid who is obviously a delightful girl who has a lot to give to the world.  One wonders if using a different word would help kids who didn’t get those coveted letters not feel bad.  Don’t worry, kids: it’s just about having a qualitatively different type of brain.  A brain that does do some things more easily, yes, but also has its own drawbacks, and that in no way negates the things that your brain does well. (I’m not making this up, by the way: according to these researchers at Johns Hopkins University, it is quite literally a different sort of brain.)

On the other hand, I’d note that it’s not only about the awkwardness of the G-word.  Regardless of what word you put on it—giftedness, high ability, academically talented, et cetera—people are going to perceive it as elitist if they get that it has to do with scoring well on tests but don’t prod further into what it means.  It’s worth exploring all the things that go into deciding what “intelligence” really is and who qualifies as “gifted,” though for now, that’s a digression.

To the extent that the word itself contributes to negative reactions, perhaps metaphor can help.  Paula Prober, a counselor and blogger who specializes in gifted adults, came up with the term “rainforest mind.” The idea here is that people’s minds are like different biomes, and it’s silly to say that any biome is generally superior to another.  At the same time, rainforests have their unique issues, and Paula’s blog deals with those issues.

I like Paula’s metaphor a lot.  I also came up with one of my own.  It involves stars.

hertzsprung-russel

There are lots of different types of stars, and most of them fall into a grouping called the main sequence.  Take a look at the chart above: the main sequence is the diagonal line from the upper left to the lower right.  Main sequence stars vary in spectral type from the blue type O stars through types B, A, F, G, and K until you reach the red type M stars.  It recently struck me that you could say the folks we call gifted start around spectral type A—equivalent to Sirius, which appears to be the brightest star when seen from Earth—and extend through the rare O stars on the far left, representing those profoundly gifted people who score 180+ on ratio IQ tests.  These most massive stars eventually explode into supernovae, which create the heavier elements that make up our entire world. It’s easy to stand in awe of those stars!

What I like about this metaphor is that it draws attention to the reason I am moved to write about “giftedness.”  It’s not the part about being “bright,” though that’s what most people will take away on first glance.  It’s the experience of burning intensely.  To see more about what I mean, you need look no further than the Amazon reviews of what for me was a life-changing book on the gifted experience, Living With Intensity.  For instance:

As a child, I was tested as having an IQ in the profoundly gifted range. I have never felt particularly smart, though – and at some level, I was convinced that my parents just didn’t understand the test results. […] I originally bought this book as a parenting resource, but instead, I cried reading the first two chapters as I remembered every time in my life that people have told me that I am too sensitive, I talk too much, I talk too fast… No matter what I do, I am just TOO MUCH.

So that’s the experience of an O star–someone scoring as profoundly gifted.  Now I’d like to look elsewhere on the Main Sequence to demonstrate that my interest in giftedness, and this metaphor, is not a value judgement.

What if I asked you to name your favorite star in the Milky Way?  Do you have one?  Let me give you mine: a “mere” type G star called Sol. While it will never explode into a supernova, there’s still something special about this star: it is the only star we know to sustain life. And astrobiologists suspect that it’s precisely because of its position in a sort of Goldilocks zone on the main sequence—not too hot, not too cold—that it’s able to do so, unlike those O, B, and A stars, which are so intense (see, for instance, overexcitabilities) that they often annoy other stars, who find them tedious and weird.

In case you aren’t into either astronomy or Latin, Sol is more commonly known as the Sun.  There is, clearly, no reason that the Sun should feel inferior.  Some stars sustain life.  Others create the heavy elements from which life is formed.  As a life form warmed by Sol and made of elements created in supernovae, I am grateful to both.

There’s one other reason I like this metaphor: it gets back to the different wiring of the intense brain.  See, there are two known processes stars can use to fuse hydrogen into helium (which is the source of stars’ energy).  Stars up to those slightly bigger than our Sun use the proton-proton chain, while larger stars use the CNO cycle, in which carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen as catalysts to propel the fusion process.  The details of each process aren’t that important to the analogy; the main takeaway is that there are different ways of fusing—or rather, of thinking, just as O, B, and A brains actually have a different cognitive style.  In my head, unrelated tidbits of information are always colliding with what I’m otherwise pondering, which is where my digressions (variously known as “creative insights” or “irrelevant tangents”) come from.  Other people seem to have a more step-by-step model of thinking (which is a strength in certain contexts, as I can attest from experiences in which I’ve failed and felt stupid), for which the proton-proton chain seems a ready metaphor.  Both result in the fusion of helium, but one type of star is going to think the other kind’s inner workings are “weird.”

star-gazing-1149228_1280

The reason that gifted kids get identified and, if they’re lucky, pulled out and handled differently is that lumping people whose brains work differently together can lead the kids with the “weird” brains to experience profound and lasting pain and confusion.  In my case, after spending kindergarten through third grade in a Montessori school (which was, for me, idyllic), I spent a year being picked on and occasionally bullied before I got to take a test that let me spend fifth grade in a class where they sometimes let me do what I wanted and kids were more or less “nice.”  Those who aren’t identified, however, can be left thinking they really are just weird, or even defective.  (Or they might try to convince their moms that they’re sick every morning, like I did in fourth grade.)  Noting that O, B, and A brains work differently doesn’t mean F, G, K, and M stars don’t also deserve a high quality education suited to their own manner of fusion, and any advocate for gifted programs would say the same.

Once they’re adults, O, B, and A stars will continue to have experiences—including challenges—that are of interest to other O, B, and A stars.  Some people might pull out the tedious trope of the “special snowflake,” meant to malign a person who allegedly revels in feeling unique.  This, however, would miss the mark.  Reading the experiences of other children and adults identified as gifted have made me feel that I’m actually not “special”—i.e. weird—at all: my experiences fit a known pattern, a path that others have trod.  And that is reassuring in an often lonely world.

That’s why I wish to discuss these experiences and challenges with others who have shared them. On top of that, an understanding of how my needs and goals may be similar to or different from those of others is relevant to much of what I write about here.  So since this may come up in other posts, I just want to say up front that A, B, and O stars generally aren’t looking to be valorized.  We’re all just fusing helium in the way that’s natural to us.

This post is a part of Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop: The G-Word.
Follow the link for others’ takes on this topic.

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7 thoughts on “On the G-Word, Weird Brains, and Stars

  1. “They annoy the other stars, who find them tedious and weird” – this is the funniest thing I’ve read in a while.

    On the subject of not using the word ‘gifted’, remember when people changed from saying ‘negro’ to ‘black’ and nobody was racist anymore? Oh wait…

    It’s amazing when you talk about racism how quickly it becomes about white feelings, when you talk about feminism how quickly it becomes about men’s feelings and when you talk about giftedness how quickly it becomes about neurotypical feelings. Normally a name is changed for a group of people it is to avoid insulting them but the gifted are expected to change their title to stop others feeling offended. And gifted is already toned down to avoid the other g-word. Even if gifted people don’t like to use the word themselves they need to hear it said about them as this may be one of the few good things they hear about themselves. Many don’t regard it as a gift but do not deny them the opportunity for snark – it’s like oxygen for the gifted.

    Is treating them as special snowflakes unreasonable when by definition they are two or more standard deviations from the norm and known for their eccentricity? I keep hearing the gifted are not better but different. Massive intelligence, feels emotion more deeply, lives life with more passion, intense sense of humour, dedication to justice and fairness…one wonders what more they would have to do to actually be better. 🙂

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    1. Oh! A first comment on this post after almost four months. Thank you for sharing those thoughts and bringing up the other side of the debate. Clearly, gifted folks have different takes on this subject, and this post represents the view of the author alone.

      You have a good point about the feelings of whites, men, and people whose brains are not so weird. What came to mind when I read it was the difference between Diplomacy and Discourse. It occurred to me a while back that these two things could be seen as opposites. Diplomacy is about negotiating people’s feelings in pursuit of a goal, while Discourse is pursuit of Truth and Knowledge, with no concern about hurt feelings or even achieving ends (apart from Truth itself).

      I see both Diplomacy and Discourse as valuable in their place. Indeed, as a woman, I am all for taking men’s feelings into consideration when talking about gender roles in part because doing this can ultimately advance women’s causes when it’s done skillfully. (It’s the old idea of catching more flies with honey than vinegar.) On the other hand, black people or women stating frankly that they are not morally obliged to tiptoe around the feelings of those more powerful, and indeed that those feelings might be based on misguided beliefs — i.e., an act of Discourse — is also the right course of action in certain situations. Vinegar is useful sometimes, too.

      But not here and not now, in my opinion. In this case, I want to invite people — including those not identified as gifted — to engage with this lived experience, because I have a hunch that it might be relevant to some larger threads I’m contemplating these days. And that point is about fitting giftedness into a larger context, to which it’s not even relevant whether we’re “better” or not. If it looks like I’m throwing the term “gifted” around as an ego trip, people are going to miss my actual point. It’s necessary, then, to address people’s feelings.

      I can’t comment further on “better” without refining what it means. The gifted would certainly be better for some roles, just as Michael Phelps is better if you need someone to swim fast. But I can say that I don’t think I am more worthy of human dignity than other people because I am more sensitive, creative, etc. For one thing, I don’t like the implications for how we treat people at the other end of the bell curve. (I may think people who are stunted in the realm of compassion and therefore do harm to other people deserve condemnation, though…particularly those we already valourize for their aggressive behavior. But I digress!) What does it mean to treat someone as a special snowflake, anyway? Commenting further seems to require that we spell out what that would look like.

      Another issue is that the way people perceive the term “gifted” also prevents some people who have been taught to be humble from accepting that it applies to them. That’s another reason I would like to brush aside the elitist connotations. It will make exploring the experience more accessible to more people who could benefit from it.

      Note that I actually didn’t advocate for changing the word “gifted.” It’s awkward, but as I said, no matter what you call it, people are going to resent the status.

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      1. Good words to think with. Now I want a tattoo that says DISCOURSE 4 LIFE. But to diplomacy and discourse I would add a third category – venting. I know you didn’t suggest stopping using ‘gifted’ but quite a few people do. The special snowflake thing was just mocking the use of a concept for people who think they’re a rare breed to describe people who actually are a rare breed, and I don’t think anything good comes from the concept as a whole.

        A lot of this was getting some things out of my system and not suggestions of strategy. But I also came around to some social justice positions because of reading humourous rage as much as reasoned argument. I’m starting to think the response to the gifted could be considered the gold standard of a social justice mindset. It’s easy to advocate for people you feel sorry for but can you maintain compassion for people whose very existance makes you feel small?

        Despite the snark I bear neurotypicals no ill will and I think democratic education for all children would greatly benefit everyone, as well as solving the majority of the problems of the gifted. It would certainly be the best starting point even if some children ultimately needed something different.

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      2. Ah, yes, of course — venting is also important! I suppose it can manifest both in discourse and in diplomacy. (“We just have to tell you that we are OUTRAGED at the policy your country has advanced! We’re going to PNG your ambassador’s deputy!”) If anyone else does want to vent on this subject, I welcome it here in the comments. There IS much to be frustrated about.

        And now I’m pondering how I could write a social justice piece on just the issue you raised. I do know that the Left in Australia, including some calling themselves socialist, at least historically (my references are dated) have been very against gifted education because of the seeming anti-egalitarianism. Suffice it for now to say, this is not how I see it, as a socialist.

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      3. I knew you meant persona non grata but I looked it up anyway for the sake of surrealism and was not disappointed. PNG also means pipeline natural gas. Deport the ambassador’s deputy via pipeline pig – that’s teach them to play silly buggers in our territorial waters. 🙂

        I’m curious to see how you’ll make giftedness palatable to the social justice crowd. If they’re more new age inclined just change it from ‘gifted’ to ‘indigo starseed’ and you’ll have them eating out of the palm of your hand. 😉

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