Intellectual overexcitability encompasses intensified activity of the mind, thirst for knowledge, curiosity, capacity for concentration and sustained intellectual effort, avid reading, and precision in observation, recall, and careful planning. Questioning is the hallmark of intellectual OE in the search for knowledge, understanding, and truth. Solving problems, finding it difficult to let go of a problem, and finding new problems to solve is typical. Another trait associated with intellectual OE is reflective thought, exemplified by the metacognition of watching one’s own thought processes, delighting in analyses and theoretical thought even at very young ages, preoccupation with logic, moral thinking, introspection, and seeking integration of concepts and intuitions.
Source: Susan Daniels, coauthor of Living With Intensity
Sometime around first grade, I thought that once I was an adult, I would know everything.
Now that I’m in my thirties, I confess to some sadness about the vastness of the sea of things I don’t know, even if I limit myself to things that actively interest me. For instance: the vast majority of world history, sociological research methods, intermediate macroeconomics, quantum mechanics, the content of most of the world’s literary corpus, several more languages in order to be able to get at the books and news written in other languages, et cetera, et cetera. How can I consider myself a grown-up if I don’t know all the various political systems of major countries? Which is in no way a knock on people who don’t know these things (i.e., everyone in the world, including myself), but rather, a sense of where I pinned my hopes in first grade.
This is a big part of why I don’t have Netflix or cable. I’m not a huge fan of TV or movies. They go on without me, you see, when I stop to think about them—not like books! Books are patient when they give me an idea that demands immediate pondering. The problem is that people often feel looked down upon when I say I don’t have Netflix. Sometimes they persist in extolling its virtues, generally noting all the movies I could have access to for a mere $9.99 per month. Considering I currently spend $0 per month and watch perhaps one movie every two to three months, this from my perspective is not a great deal. On the other hand, the local library provides most of the movies I do decide to watch, as well as access to so many books. Not all the books, but enough of them. You guys! Did you know? You can get all these books for free! I guess maybe this is how some people feel about Netflix. Books are also great because there still are loads more of them than movies, and on more specific topics, too, all the better to suit one’s latest all-consuming esoteric fascination. Of course, if there’s a movie that fits that description, then I’ll definitely want to watch that, too.
Coursera, I might add, is dangerous. If you’re not familiar with it, Coursera is an on-line platform that offers college courses taught by real professors through video and peer grading. It has reawakened the trouble that has plagued me ever since I first leafed through my high school’s course catalog. Choosing a limited number of courses was always a challenge. There was one semester in grad school when I couldn’t fit in everything I absolutely wanted to take, so on top of the 5 courses in which I enrolled for credit (the usual course load was 4, but I had to take 5 during one semester if I were to complete the science policy graduate certificate that was unrelated to my degree, but how can you pick just one degree), I opted to audit History of the Book. I mean, no one should complete a Master of Science in Information without knowing the history of the book, right? And it was a fascinating class!
So now I’m filling in the gaps in my formal education through Coursera. I’m trying to rein in my interests by picking courses related to content I want to produce for this blog, but then, do I pick social science research methods or macroeconomics? So many courses, so little time.
You may have noted elsewhere in this blog that I’m personally interested in socialism. This is definitely related to intellectual OE; in fact, judging from the people I meet at lefty reading groups, it seems that a sizeable chunk of people in the modern US Left seem to have gotten there because they think it’s fun to read political theory (which has implications for socialist organizers wanting to actually accomplish anything, but I digress). It’s worth noting that someone could combine their intellectual and emotional OE to come up with politics quite different from mine that they believe will Make the World a Better Place. While I’d love to discuss the relative merits of political systems with you elsewhere, on this page, I’ll note that I frequently prefer discussing ideas with people who hold different political philosophies but have really thought about their arguments and want to intellectually engage (especially when we each acknowledge the other’s valid points) to passing along memes that get uncritical acceptance from a like-minded echo chamber. Where’s the fun in that? (Which is not to say that I don’t do the latter.)
This is all me as an adult, which is what I’m focusing on because there’s already a wealth of material on OE out there for parents; they, after all, are the ones who have to manage the socialization of some very intense children. (In my case, my parents mostly solved this by putting me in a Montessori school, which I loved because I had opportunities to pursue whatever interested me.) Still, it’s worth noting that as a child, I became obsessed with things that might look odd to other people. I wrote in first grade about my concern that a computer malfunction would lead to nuclear war and in second grade asked my mom why every country couldn’t be like Switzerland and not have wars. Throughout lower elementary, I pored over atlases and globes and learned everything I could about tornadoes and other natural disasters. Around fourth and fifth grade, I was fascinated by Helen Keller, leading me to teach myself some sign language and talk my neighborhood friends into performing a play I wrote about her.
What I hope you will take away from this whole story is that intellectual OE is not about “being smart” (and especially not about “being smarter“), but about craving knowledge. As one educator familiar with Dabrowski’s theory put it, intelligence is about the ability to solve problems; intellectual overexcitability is about the passion to solve them. If you don’t feel a voracious urge to consume large quantities of books on a range of subjects, then don’t do it! While I enjoy it, it does kind of make my life stressful because I can never manage to read all the books in my pile. Books get added to the top faster than they get read and reshelved.
This does not bode well for my ever knowing everything.
Or check out these other experiences of intellectual OE: