For those who are digging into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) for the first time, the Sensing (S) and iNtuition (N) dichotomy is often the hardest to grasp. And with good reason: SN is about how we take in information, which is so fundamental to our lives that most of us don’t even stop to consider how we’re doing it, let alone that others might be doing so differently.
I’ve long thought that a significant part of my sense of being “weird brained” may stem from my very strong preference for intuition. As an INFJ, my dominant function is introverted intuition, which means that I live inside my head ideating, making abstract and theoretical leaps. My inferior function, on the other hand, is extraverted sensing, which is all about noticing concrete things in the world around me. PersonalityPage.com’s description of sensing activities makes me laugh because one of the examples is “noticing that a stoplight has changed.” And, see, this one time when I was living in Japan, I had stopped at an intersection on my walk home from work, and my train of thought as I waited for the light to change moved from how I thought な (na) is the most aesthetically pleasing hiragana character to the fact that math may well have been easier for many people if humans had six fingers on each hand and therefore had developed a base twelve system as our standard, rather than using base ten. (Twelve is divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 6, rather than just 2 and 5, after all.)
And then I noticed that the stoplight had gone through a full cycle and had returned to red. I had missed the concrete and present green light because I was thinking about abstractions. That, my friends, is what it means to have extraverted sensing as your inferior function.
With all this ideating going on, you might not be surprised to hear that intuitives dominate among the population identified as gifted. And hey, after I originally drafted this post, I happened across a chapter in Off the Charts addressing this very subject. In “Building Bridges: Research on Gifted Children’s Personalities,” author Shelagh A. Gallagher reviews research into several personality metrics, including the MBTI, and what they have to say about gifted populations.
And with the MBTI, a preference for intuition stands out as defining the gifted. While only 31.9% of a normative group had a preference for intuition, 71.6% of gifted students were Ns (Sak 2004). A study of creative men (defined in the survey as architects, scientists, mathematicians, and writers) reported 64% I, 97% N, 59% T, and 56% P preferences (MacKinnon 1978), and McCaulley (1976) found that 100% of creative research scientists preferred intuition.
This is a core reason that I’ve proposed the word abstract-intensive as a neutral synonym for “gifted.” As Isabel Briggs Myers notes in Gifts Differing, the intuitive preference is essentially an innate predilection for the abstract; sensors, meanwhile, prefer the concrete. The sensor absorbs facts; the intuitive delights in ideas. The sensor uses those facts in the present, while the intuitive spends as much time as possible in the future. (Standard disclaimer for MBTI parsing: we all do all of these things, of course, and we can get good at our non-preferred type, too. Your preference, however, is where you were naturally comfortable early in your life.) A strong preference for intuition is not a strength when you’re trying to do something practical like get home from work and get started on dinner, but it is useful for those who want to make the theoretical leaps that give rise to artistic creation and scientific discovery.
This also makes a difference in those first years of life when highly intuitive children are being noted for their precocious ability to read or do math. As Briggs Myers notes (in a book that isn’t even about giftedness), what are letters and numbers but abstractions? The sensing child is not less bright; he simply doesn’t care as much about these things as the intuitive child, who is good at turning these abstract symbols into theoretical concepts precisely because she likes doing so. 好きこそ物の上手なれ。
Those who are offended by the elitism they perceive in the label “gifted” often respond by asserting that “all children are gifted.” What they mean by this is that every child is of equal human value and has potential to contribute to society based on his or her unique skills; what the advocate for the gifted child hears is a denial that abstract intensity leads to a need for special programming, and perhaps also the implication that someone’s mommy or daddy just wants to feel special.
The thing is, I strongly agree with the meaning I’ve attributed to the offended first party, and I simultaneously assert that abstract-intensive children actually do benefit from (and even need) a different educational setup. For me, getting put in the gifted program after being bullied in the regular classroom was emotionally equivalent to having Hagrid show up and tell poor Harry, banished under the Dursleys’ staircase, that he was a wizard.
But I also am familiar with what happens when one sibling gets put in the gifted program and the other does not, because that’s what happened in my family. My younger sister, Emily, didn’t get placed in the gifted class.
Now that we’re both adults, and since I’m doing all this work exploring the impact of giftedness over the lifespan, I’ve come to wonder about this. My relationship with my sister obviously had a big impact on my life and on hers. When we were kids, we hardly got along at all. I was the socially awkward kid whom others evidently found intimidating in class and often shunned or teased; Emily, who was three and a half years younger, always wanted to be the exact opposite of that. And while I felt weird outside the home, Emily was more likely to feel weird inside it. See, a lot of time was spent in our household talking about abstractions like politics, and the fact that she didn’t jump into those as eagerly as I did made her think she must not be smart.
So why didn’t my sister, who also got her genes from the same places, get into the gifted program? Was she not as smart? What does being smart even mean? Do you have to have a weird brain to count as “intelligent?”
One clue to unraveling this mystery came when Emily re-took the MBTI as an adult. When she first took it as a high schooler, her results labeled her an ENFJ. And, yes, she’s definitely an extravert and definitely a feeler. But the N? As far as we can tell, she selected all of those intuitive markers on her test because she had been raised to value them—even though they weren’t her natural preference. (As regular readers will recall, this is a noted problem with the MBTI instrument, even though the content underlying the imperfect testing device is quite valuable.) So when she took it several years later, when she knew herself better, she came out as a sensor. An ESFJ.
Oh, we said as we discussed the results. Maybe that’s part of why you always felt weird in our family.
What sorts of things does Emily like? Well, she’s strikingly good at many things—things that all seem to involve paying attention to concrete things with her five senses. When she was a kid, she had a mega Play-Doh cooking set and wondered why I got the Tastybake Oven for Christmas one year. She later asked for the Dr. Dreadful Drink Lab and the Creepy Crawlies machine and spent hours making various tasty potions and squishy bugs. She also liked playing with toy cars, and bought a real one for herself when she was in high school with the money she’d earned from skillfully waiting tables (something she and I both agree I’d be terrible at). She also always impressed (and maybe even intimidated) boys with her high level of knowledge of the mechanics under the hood.
Building on her Play-Doh precocity, she’s made her own fancy birthday cake—by which I mean fancy tiramisu or tres leches—every year since she was 14, and has even sold her tiramisu to fancy culinarily credentialed people who were impressed with it. She started off going to a respected culinary school for college, but ultimately selected nursing as a career. I remember seeing her study room in the basement of our parents’ house while she was in nursing school, and marveling at all the data she had charted out and memorized. I couldn’t have done nearly so well in memorizing that data—in large part because it didn’t truly interest me. But it interested Emily, because she’s an ESFJ who’s driven to care for people, and this practical data would empower her to do just that, and so she absorbed it all rapidly. Since earning her degree, she has worked in a few different hospitals, where she inevitably rises quickly in the estimation of her colleagues and superiors. They have said she’s a natural at this job and let her try positions that most people need special training for, and keep trying to put her in leadership roles.
Seems like we could conceivably call this being gifted.
So what if the tests used to select kids for gifted programs are in part essentially measuring MBTI intuition, because that was what was valued in our educational system? Because that seemed like being “smart” to people who struggled with it?
And it’s true that, since abstractions are the main ways we convey mathematical, scientific, and verbal knowledge, it does make sense to screen for this and separate this group out. This points to why “abstract-intensive” is a good alternate to “gifted.” It doesn’t elevate some and put others down; it does identify a real distinction with real implications. (We should note, of course, that some sensors do indeed qualify for gifted programs, and not all intuitives do so. I’ve got a number of hypotheses to address this, but until I talk to some actual people of this sort, this is just more of my ideating.)
Moreover, school doesn’t teach you everything useful. Indeed, I wish gifted programs would offer content designed to help those who are really, really abstract-intensive develop a baseline of skills for the concrete world. I had my sister read a draft of this post to ensure I was representing her story accurately, and she chimed in here with a suggestion: “All ‘gifted’ kids should have to take things like home ec. My sister and I should have switched high school math classes; I needed the AP Calc, and she needed the real life applications taught in Consumer Math.”
And I’m inclined to agree. While Emily’s suggestion won’t be right for every abstract-intensive kid or every gifted sensor, it is excellent food for thought. Her line of thought empowers us to think of our own needs and choose our own destinies rather than getting stuck in any pre-made ruts. That’s a good exercise no matter what kind of brain you have.
And you know, Emily later realized that she might well have become—and loved, and excelled at being—a math teacher. She’s really good at math. And that is, of course something that’s taught as an abstraction. Sensors get there a bit later than intuitives, and in different ways, and for different reasons.
On the other hand, though it took her a bit of time to figure out her path, she’s now doing quite well applying her sensing gifts. I wonder if taking the MBTI and finding out she was actually a sensor might have been her own chance for Hagrid to show up and tell her just what type of magic she was capable of making.
In our next episode, we’ll step outside of the family and explore this magic, and the Muggles who sneer at it, in the broader world. Stay tuned!
Images credits: webandi, 5arah, Lysons_editions, Sanshiro, doria150, and StockSnap on Pixabay