The Brain of a Gifted Child

· July 20, 2018

The brain of a gifted or high capability child has its advantages, but also its limitations. These children process information rapidly, have a high analytical capacity, and sophisticated critical eye. However, they don’t always achieve their potential or develop a strong mind capable of skillfully managing their capabilities or their emotional world.

What at first one might think it’s nothing but a blessing, some people discover it’s far from it. Every gifted or high capability child will face the same challenges of any girl or boy of that age, added of course, to those derived from her or his high IQ.

The brains of gifted or high capability children develop differently than those of children with an average or normal level of intelligence.

So, although we very often talk about the distinct advantages of a brain gifted with extraordinary capabilities, we don’t always bear in mind the other factors that characterize this segment of the population. Here we’re talking about anxiety, low self-esteem, the feeling of isolation, disconnection with an environment which poorly suits their needs… These problems become more evident from the age of 11.

It’s not enough to simply take measures to identify these children at an early age. (It’s estimated that the ideal age is between 3 and 5 years old). We also need to understand the brains of gifted children. Also, it’s really important to understand how they develop and what the most appropriate support mechanisms are for certain neuronal milestones.

Child looking out of window

The brain of a gifted or high capability child

Neuroscientists have always been interested in understanding the brains of gifted children. How are they different from children with an average or normal intelligence? What exceptional neuronal resources do they have? We can answer many of these questions thanks to new advances in technology, MRI scanning, for example.

These are part of the discoveries we have at hand thanks to organizations like the British Psychological Society.

The cerebral cortex develops more slowly

This data is striking. Something that is clear thanks to Albert Einstein is that people with an elevated IQ don’t have bigger brains. What’s more, we’ve seen that children with high capabilities usually have a narrower cerebral cortex. That said, the development of this layer thickens and does so slowly, but gradually, until they reach adolescence.

In children with a “normal” IQ, the opposite happens. They have a thicker cortex when they’re younger. At age 12 or 13, this area tends to wane and reduce in size. What does this mean? Basically, that the brain of a child with elevated capabilities becomes more sophisticated and specialized with time. It reaches its greatest potential in adolescence. 

Regions of the brain are specialized

Children with high capabilities show a greater volume of grey matter in certain regions of the brain. Remember that grey matter is connected to cognition, intelligence, and our capacity to process information. This basically means that gifted students have greater abilities for managing data, analysis, and drawing conclusions.

There are 28 regions in the brain connected to our ability to reason, act, focus our attention, and react to external sensory stimuli. Children with high capabilities show a specialization in each one of these areas.

Brain with flowers

Greater neuronal connection

While grey matter stores and manages information, white matter moves. It enables connections between neurons. Therefore, this is without a doubt one of the most notable characteristics of gifted children’s brain They have a huge neuronal efficiency. 

They have, so to speak, many more neuronal highways and avenues to channel data, information, and concepts. In addition, these are inter-communicational routes. A vast sophisticated and hyperconnected network where everything works very, very fast. This characteristic also has its disadvantages.

Sometimes, there can be jams. That is to say, the child with high capabilities might feel overwhelmed by so much processed information, confronted by so many connections between one idea and another. Hence, sometimes they can get stuck with so many ideas, hypotheses, and inferences. With so much mental and neuronal activity, sometimes they can fall far behind in an exam or even when responding to a seemingly simple question. 

Neuroplasticity, the greatest advantage

A large part of neuroscientists’ work highlights the great plasticity of gifted children.  As we’ve shown earlier, the cerebral cortex grows more slowly, specializes, and constantly changes. It creates new connections and new highways in a gradual way to enable learning.

When a child pays attention to a new experience, their brain changes. It specializes and creates new avenues, neuronal pathways to communicate areas, regions, and structures.  The plasticity of gifted children is so amazing that many neurologists indicate that these are in continual development. Minds so hungry for interaction that we don’t always know how to give them the attention they deserve.

What does a gifted child look like? Child with paint

To conclude, something that’s worth bearing in mind from this analysis is the way in which the brains of gifted children mature. It’s gradual but sophisticated, and peaks at adolescence. Children with normal IQs have peak at 5 or 6 years old. However, children with high capabilities are more demanding at this age.

Above all, they need a favorable environment that allows them to stretch their capabilities even further, accelerating their cerebral plasticity. If the child at 10 or 11 years old lives in a structured environment, poorly fitting their potential, it’s common they will feel ostracized and frustrated. We should be more sensitive to these minds, so alert but fragile in so many ways.