Tuesday, 17 September 2019

The psychology and biology of gifted children and highly intelligent people

Much has been written about gifted and high IQ people and to a large extent, the focus has been on their cognition, for obvious reasons. I have a gifted son and as many parents of gifted children can attest, these kids can be quite challenging for any parent: from daily chores, such as buckling up the kiddo in a car seat to the point when he or she fails in conventional schools.
While cognitive psychology has been a passion of mine since my early years at university, there comes a point when you can’t explain giftedness in cognitive terms anymore. For example, when your kid prefers to cry for an hour over some simple piece of homework he could easily do in a matter of a few minutes and threatens you to run away from home. Why would an eight-year-old child say "I wish I were never born"? Such behaviour would leave any parent just puzzled and perplexed. What is the biological foundation of such seemingly irrational behaviour? 

Here are some traits gifted kids typically display, that have little to do with cognition: 
  • look younger than their age/have neotenous traits
  • look more “unisex”, i.e. they don’t accentuate their gender
  • start sex later than their peers
  • have a highly developed sense of justice
  • might be clumsy and/or ADHD sufferers
  • tend to be socially awkward and at least a bit autistic;
  • tend to suffer from social anxiety
  • are likely into “alternative reality” stuff like fantasy, sci-fi, comics, etc.
  • are playful and many of them really heavily into computer gaming
  • might be quite lazy and reluctant to do work when they don’t see any point
  • as a consequence might show signs of ODD (oppositional defiant disorder)
  • picky eaters
  • highly sensitive (HSPs)
  • extrinsic motivation (like grades at school or money) is much less important than intrinsic motivation (their passions) 
In order to make sense of these diverse behaviors and traits, I delved into personality psychology. The one personality trait that correlates with high IQ is “Openness to experience”, which in turn correlates with the (controversial) trait N (iNtuitive) in Myers-Briggs, first described by the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung.
Giftedness and trait N are highly correlated, as you can see from the following statistics:
Image result for mbti and gifted
From Myers-Briggs studies some of the above traits can be accounted for:  Ns tend to be very creative (cognitive fluidity) and idealistic. It is also known that the introverted intuitives often suffer from mental problems such as social anxiety and ASD.

However, I still couldn’t account for half of the traits on the above list, so I turned to evolutionary biology. r/K selection seems to explain a lot: highly intelligent people have faster brain growth in infancy but grow more slowly in general. My two boys (both IN types) are both quite short for their age and their skeleton is almost two years behind the average.

What in our biology could make people grow more slowly? The answer is probably buried deep in our past: hunter-gatherers grew up more slowly than later farmers and herders who had more caloric intake at their disposal. They were highly egalitarian as they couldn’t accumulate wealth and that also made them highly defiant when facing hierarchical power structures (European colonialists never really could “domesticate” hunter-gatherers).
One by one those giftedness traits began to make sense: picking eating and being highly sensitive were probably more advantageous out in the wilderness than in a farming village. Hunter-gatherers (Ns in Myers-Briggs) are also more monogamous than herders (SP in Myers-Briggs), who have the earliest onset of puberty and the shortest life span among the different early modes of subsistence (the third being farmers or SJ in Myers-Briggs). It is, therefore, no big surprise that highly intelligent people do not accentuate their gender, whereas people who inherited their personality from herders or pastoralists do so to a high degree, i.e. sexual dimorphism is diminished in hunter-gatherers as well as gifted people. Hunter-gatherers are also quite playful into adulthood, as play is used to reduce conflict among them. Farmer personalities are more serious and business-like in contrast to hunter-gatherer personalities. 
The final piece of the puzzle is trying to explain why hunter-gatherer personalities should be more intelligent than their farmer and herder counter-parts:

One explanation is that hunter-gatherers needed more cognitive fluidity and vigilance (hence the ADHD) to survive in the Savannah than farmers who had to rely far more on conscientiousness, routine and hard work. This explanation still doesn’t account for why hunter-gatherers (Ns) tend to be more intelligent on average than herders (SPs). Here the answer lies probably in natural selection. Hunter-gatherers have an out-group sociality and sharing and caring attitude. In mixed hunter-gatherer, farmer and herder societies hunter-gatherer minds who were of average intelligence probably lost out (nice guys came last) in the genetic race and there were high selective pressures on hunter-gatherer genotypes to become more intelligent. 


So, higher IQ might at the end of the day be nothing more than a protective mechanism! Just like social anxiety: if you are very open, you better have a defense shield in place! Introverted intuitives are already socially anxious by the time they go to kindergarten because they are aware they are different. By the time they are in their teens, they might be complete outcasts because they don't play power/alpha games and as they tend not to be violent they can become easy targets for bullying. The extraverted intuitives also are in danger of becoming outsiders and social phobics during their teens, unless they already have an established network with other hunter-gatherer minds. 

In modern slang, we could say that gifted kids/high IQ people with a hunter-gatherer personality run on the updated operating system “Hunter-gatherer v2.0”.

34 comments:

  1. This is just totally amazing. I have every single one of these traits, even the bad ones (except not much anxiety). I am an INTJ with an IQ of 156 and was a psych prof.

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  2. Thank you for you comment! Very much appreciated. I don't expect everybody to have all traits. Sociel anxiety is quite pervasive in the gifted though.

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  3. Great analysis. I am an INTJ and grow up with autism (but didn’t realise i was autism until i am mentally grown) I have been bullied in my entire life since school to workplace, and this trained myself to read, observe and act in order to protect myself. My parents took me to IQ test to get me into one of the best school in my hometown, and i have been tested with high IQ but autism wasn’t a common phase in my childhood year, so no one knew i have autism disorder. i just came to realise recent years when i heard about autism and get to know more about it and everything become make sense and clear. High intelligent people are definitely have problem to deal with feelings. i have photographic memory when i m young but i know a lot of my nature ability is slowing disappearing every year. the more i m adapt to the society, the more i m losing my natural gift. anyway. i always appreciate reading research and insightful report like this to allow myself get to know “me” better.

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  4. This is vey similar to myself.

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  5. I am surprised to see how much it describes me. Yes.. All almost all of these traits especially social anxiety - my efforts to overcome it have exhausted so much of my creative energy. Now I notice uneasy gap between events/ situations and my expression/reaction toward them. Well.. Thumbs up - excellent piece of research.

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    1. Try Sour Diesel , worked for this Asperger'ian.

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  6. Same here with adhd, introvert and 145 iq. I think this is illness. Most of us are looking for dopamine unintentionally. I can’t even watch movies to the end anymore. Sad sad saaaad:(

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    1. I have to turn to the end of fiction books to see how everyone survived, or didn't. I just don't like bad endings or dystopian novels.

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    2. With the right strain you will have the best night of your life
      you come home stressed from work asks you to come home from work tired tri-y if you come home ready to shoot someone like your boss you better try some in Da the couch strain next for attention have one that brings you into the metal home estatise mindsets and you can watch a movie like you're in it then take one like midnight nurse and you'll fall asleep wake up with no hangover and all your aches and pains be gone be that message.

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  7. Your ideas are very helpful to understanding personalities of my family, full of gifted traits, ASD, and ADHD. One son is experiencing increasingly crippling anxiety in adulthood, and I'm trying to strategize for him in terms of career. I started realizing with genealogy research how I come from a line of pioneers, which, from your ideas, I realize required the hunter-gatherer cleverness/awareness. It's increasingly difficult for descendents to find places in industrialized, developed society (which rewards more the farmer traits), without reliance on meds or substances to "fit in." Seems to me the pioneer types eventually rot if they stay in the same place too long--always need new challenges. Very interesting ideas you have!

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    1. Thank you for your great feedback! :)

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    2. You might want to let him try some sour Diesel it worked for this aspergian anxieties too bad it was too late till I found out the medicinal benefits of a simple plant

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  8. I dont know how much credible this artcle is , but i relate to every point in this one.

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  9. Wow! Very interesting. I’ve never seen the Myers-Briggs types described as “hunter-gatherers,” etc., before. Reading your bulleted list was like looking in a mirror. My I.Q. is nothing special, but then again, I’ve never tested well—probably yet another example of how we struggle to fit into the mainstream. ;)

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. This is a fascinating take on the matter of "life as an "N"" (I'm an INTP, myself). Unsurprisingly, I think I may reread this a few times, lol...

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  12. Thank you all for you comments. It has taken a lot of pain in my life and a lot of thinking to come to this conclusion. Even if my hypothesis might not be a 100% accurate, it is great to know that my ideas can help other people too :)

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  13. This is fascinating. But could you please cite the sources of this data. I'm curious to know more about the research methods behind the findings.

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  14. Please be in touch with me through my whatsapp number : 9791020272.

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  15. I'm M Gopinath Ramanan from Chennai...

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  16. I have all the positive traits and don't have the negatives except oversensitivity since I am a psychopath and a IQ of 121 I know it's lame

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    1. No, life is not an IQ competition, there are a lot of high IQ people who have not much to show apart from their Mensa membership cards. My own IQ is not much higher. We hunter-gatherers don't value people on how high their IQ is. We are very non-judgemental.
      I don't think psychopath is the correct term for you, I would guess you are a sociopath and here is why: https://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com/2019/11/psychopaths-sociopaths-and-altruists.html

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  17. Not exactly me perhaps , but I find this article fits a few of my acquaintances rather perfectly. Amazing!

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  18. Wow love this article thanks for sharing - same late to puberty and younger bone age in child. both parents same. Both ADD or ADHD. and laughable I know as far as science goes, but both parents get a joy from foraging.

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  19. I actually relate to nearly everything stated in the article.
    Tested as an INTP. I'm currently 20 (birthday was this 22th September, just after the article came out, coincidently). Male. My facial hair only started to grow since the beginning of the year, and I never really dated, although I tried.
    While viewing some old pictures from my childhood, I could probably say I have the "a bit autistic" part hah. Although, I am quite talkactive and understanding with my friends. To the point I understand (or I think I understand, as it turns out some hypothesis are just plain wrong, but oh well) what their reasoning is, which usually leads them to think good of me, as someone who they can easily connect with :). Gotta admit though, feeling as if I'm connecting to anyone, is a tad rarer.
    In the end, I hope this article helps others feel understood as it made me :).
    Excellent writing. Definitly worth the read.

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    1. Thank you for your great comment! Wish you all the best in life... mine has been an odyssey.
      As far as my facial hair goes: stll not enough to grow a full-blown beard at 47 LOL (I am INFP, even less testosterone in my body).

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  20. Fool? Desert Lizard? Words lost all meaning...

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  21. Infj male 40yrs old IQ 186. I really believe that you may be on to something here. I believe that this line of research has a lot of potential. These very well could be genetic adaptations to extinct ways of life.

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    1. Thank you, that is exactly what I think. I tried to make it a bit clearer in one of my latest posts: https://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com/2019/11/life-history-and-personality-traits.html

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  22. I am curious about the experience of others who feel, as I do, that they identify with many/most of these traits. All of my life I have felt like I am somehow on the outside. I have never felt truly connected to a group of people, never identified any group as "my people". This was true at school and is true professionally. Even with my own family I feel like I am somehow different. Do you also feel that way? Have you ever had any luck finding a group that you relate better with? I guess what I am asking is where do we belong or fit in? Professionally? Socially? How do you avoid feeling isolated?

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    1. That is a very good question. Yes, I feel pretty much like an outsider now, and have felt like that for the most part of my life. I avoid clubs and any kinds of affiliation as I can't relate.
      Only once in my life I felt I met my own tribe: I did a language course in Romania. Pretty much ALL the students there were intutitives (I asked them to take the test last year). I didn't feel like an outisder among them. I felt like one among equals. And I didn't even feel like an introvert anymore. I have heard the same from autistic people when they are in the company of other austistic people.
      My family: my wife is ENFJ (I jokingly call here "half and intutitive only")... my boys are introverted intutitives like me, and there are no other people around who I prefer to hang out more than my kids and family. (I didn't feel the same when I was a kid, though).

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  23. I have most of these qualities that are listed here, and I don't think I am that intelligent. I do see things that most others don't understand, and I do read a lot more than an average person. I am an atheist even though I was born in a religious family. I understand the flaws in our society and more things that an average person here doesn't seem to understand. Also, I am very rational and analytical. But In an IQ test, I would only get a score of an average person, and I do way more stupid things than an average person does.

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