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Understanding the Profoundly Gifted

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A literature review of research on profound giftedness (including my research), as well as a list of resources for parents, educators, and other interested individuals who want to dive deeper.

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Understanding the Profoundly Gifted

  1. 1. Colleen M. Farrelly
  2. 2.  IQ is theorized to be normally- distributed.  Tests typically set the test average as 100, with standard deviations of 15 (most tests).  This means that ~68% of people fall within 1 standard deviation of the mean.  Very few people are thought to exist in the tails.~95% of population are within 30 points of average. Gifted individuals are typically defined as the top few percent on IQ measurements.
  3. 3.  Several definitions of gifted exist, with definitions forming a hierarchy.  Higher scores become rarer and rarer under the normal distribution.  Many students within a school system are pretty bright and qualify as gifted under school definition (IQ>120).  Mensa-level intelligence occurs at a much lower rate (1 in 50).  Much variation occurs in the top 1% of the IQ distribution.  A teacher who teaches 25 students per year for 30 years likely has taught ~1 high gifted student.  That same teacher has 1:40 odds of teaching a student with IQ>160 during that same tenure.  A population the size of the US would be expected to have ~17 individuals at IQ>180.  But, deviations from the normal distribution exist in the right tail… IQ Level of Giftedness Theoretical Prevalence 120 Most gifted programs’ definition ~1 in 11 132 Mensa ~ 1 in 50 135 Top 1% ~1 in 100 145 Highly gifted ~1 in 750 160 Exceptionally/ profoundly gifted ~ 1 in 30,000 180 Profoundly gifted ~1 in 20,000,000
  4. 4.  Recent studies have shown that profoundly gifted individuals exist at much higher rates than expected under the normal distribution.  This is particularly true for those with uneven talents, where only one ability is at the profoundly gifted level (IQ>160 in that ability).  About 1 in 10,000 people are profoundly gifted on nonverbal measurements (proxy for mathematical talent); ~35,000 are thought to exist in the US (likely higher given skilled immigrants).  About 1 in 30,000 people are verbally gifted at this level, or ~12,000 individuals in the US.  Profound giftedness in multiple areas is rarer but occurs at a much higher level than expected under the normal distribution.  Estimates of profound verbal and nonverbal giftedness put this rate at ~1 in 100,000; the average IQ in previous studies is >190 for most individuals at this level.  Studies considering other talents, such as spatial or musical ability, put estimates of profound giftedness across abilities at ~1 in 250,000+.  ~1,500-4,000 are expected in the US (likely closer to 4,000 given skilled immigrants).
  5. 5.  Very few modern tests can differentiate ability at this level, with most tests having a ceiling of 150-160.  The old Stanford-Binet LM ratio- based IQ test has a higher ceiling.  Some extended measures exist for modern IQ tests (SB-V, WISC- IV…).  Talent searches are a common way to measure deviance IQ at the profoundly gifted levels in children and adolescents:  Scores of >700 on SAT math or verbal prior to age 13  ACT reading >34, writing >32, math >24, or science >30 at ages 12-14
  6. 6.  At lower levels of intelligence, people generally solve problems and learn material similarly.  Those at the lower gifted levels:  Require fewer repetitions to learn  Solve problems faster  Those at the profoundly gifted level (IQ>160-170):  Solve problems very differently  Store knowledge very differently  Recent studies suggest this difference in kind is related to a difference in brain connectivity patterns (white matter tracts).
  7. 7.  Extreme need for mental stimulation  Example: voracious reading in subject of interest or across many subjects  Combining steps in problem-solving into one large step  Can cause issues in mathematics, particularly as children (long division, multiplication…)  Intensity of existing personality traits  Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities, amplification of traits like extraversion or openness to experience  Divergent thinking  Examples: filling in the blank in h_r with “helicobactor” or “honor” rather than “her”  Preference/ability to think in analogies  Translates into the ability to process and explain complex material intuitively  Interconnecting knowledge  Knowledge webs vs. knowledge filing cabinets when assimilating new knowledge  Projection of self into a problem  Example: visualizing a mathematics problem and literally “walking through it” to a solution  Example: imagining oneself as a novel character in a particular situation to write a scene of fiction  The simple is complex; the complex is simple.
  8. 8.  Asynchronous development:  A child may be mentally 14, physically 7, and socially 10.  Learning rates may vary within and across subjects.  A child may be at a 4th grade level in math/science and a 2nd grade level in the humanities.  A child may go through a year’s worth of math in 1 month but a year’s worth of literature in 2 months (and a year’s worth of social studies in a weekend).  This makes meeting the needs of profoundly gifted learners challenging, particularly in an age- based classroom.
  9. 9.  Acceleration  This can involve moving up in a single subject or across subjects (whole grade acceleration).  Radical acceleration involves moving up multiple grades, either within a subject or across subjects.  Longitudinal studies suggest most students benefit academically, socially, and motivationally from acceleration, including radical acceleration.  Accelerated students also tend to have higher adult- level achievement in their fields.  Many accelerated students are satisfied with their acceleration, with most dissatisfied students preferring more acceleration.  However, many teachers and administrations don’t welcome acceleration.  Some believe it is harmful, despite the studies.  Some are outright hostile to profoundly gifted students, who often don’t fit educational assumptions or “molds.”  Some dismiss these students’ extremely high scores as incorrect or the result of cheating.
  10. 10.  A follow-up study of profoundly gifted students at ~ age 23 showed:  56% planned to pursue doctoral degrees (or were already) compared to 1% of the general population.  Degrees pursued tended to match ability pattern, with mathematically-gifted students pursuing STEM degrees.  Many were already accomplished in their fields (patents, academic/creative writing publications, national awards, Phi Beta Kappa membership).  Accomplishment rates were higher for verbally-gifted and evenly-gifted individuals.
  11. 11.  This same group of 320 individuals achieved much in their fields by age 38:  133 STEM patents  392 STEM publications  687 software contributions  922 dance and music productions  191 creative writing publications  79 works of art  46 social science/law/business publications  16 companies founded  $26 million in grant funding  These findings have been replicated in other samples of profoundly gifted individuals.  Achievements tended to separate into STEM and humanities accomplishments according to intellectual profile (ability tilt).
  12. 12.  Of these impressive individuals, some outshone others in their field:  57% of fine arts accomplishments were attributed to one person.  34 of 39 poems were created by one person.  Three individuals produced 100 software contributions (44% of total).  This held in the replication sample:  One person produced 60 of 68 publications in chemistry.  40% of NSF grants went to one researcher.  43 of 86 Fortune 500 patents were filed by one person.  These individuals are rare even within the rare profoundly gifted population.
  13. 13.  Another rare subpopulation consists of those who are profoundly gifted across multiple fields.  They are about 10-25 times rarer than individuals who are profoundly gifted in only one area.  Their average IQ is higher than unevenly gifted individuals (IQ>200 estimated in one study, vs.  Their early accomplishments span STEM and humanities, and little has been published about their adult-level accomplishments within and across fields.  Recent studies suggest they are a unique subpopulation relative to the unevenly gifted at this level of ability. Evenly-gifted
  14. 14.  A few interesting research directions exist, including: 1. A longitudinal study of wranglers to identify how their academic and achievement trajectories develop over time, as well as early signs of wrangler potential. 2. Studies examining achievement trajectories over time by type of academic intervention types in this population, by demographic factors (women, minorities…), or by ability profile. 3. A more in-depth follow-up of achievement profile among different ability profiles to understand how unevenly-gifted populations might differ from evenly-gifted populations in adulthood. 4. A neuroimaging study of different populations (unevenly profoundly gifted, evenly profoundly gifted, more moderately gifted, and average populations, for instance) to understand how brain activity patterns and connectivity relates to field-specific and general talent on verbal and mathematical problems.
  15. 15.  Profoundly gifted individuals are, by definition, rare.  Small sample sizes present statistical challenges, and few methods exist that can compare samples of <30 individuals.  Persistent homology and its simplified cousin, single-linkage hierarchical clustering, provide statistically robust methods for sample comparison at small sample sizes.  These methods also provide good visualization methods (example shown below).
  16. 16.  Coyle, T. R., Purcell, J. M., Snyder, A. C., & Richmond, M. C. (2014). Ability tilt on the SAT and ACT predicts specific abilities and college majors. Intelligence, 46, 18-24.  Farrelly, C. M. (2017). Topological Data Analysis for Data Mining Small Educational Samples with Application to Studies of the Gifted.  Gross, M. U. (1992). The use of radical acceleration in cases of extreme intellectual precocity. Gifted child quarterly, 36(2), 91-99.  Gross, M. U. (2000). Exceptionally and profoundly gifted students: An underserved population. Understanding Our Gifted, 12(2), 3-9.  Gross, M. U. (2003). Exceptionally gifted children. Routledge.  Gross, M. U. (2015). Characteristics of Able Gifted Highly Gifted Exceptionally Gifted and Profoundly Gifted Learners. In Applied Practice for Educators of Gifted and Able Learners (pp. 3-23). SensePublishers.  Janos, P. M. (1987). A fifty-year follow-up of Terman's youngest college students and IQ-matched agemates. Gifted Child Quarterly, 31(2), 55-58.  Kell, H. J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2013). Who rises to the top? Early indicators. Psychological Science, 24(5), 648-659.  Lubinski, D. (2009). Exceptional cognitive ability: The phenotype. Behavior genetics, 39(4), 350-358.  Lubinski, D., Webb, R. M., Morelock, M. J., & Benbow, C. P. (2001). Top 1 in 10,000: a 10-year follow-up of the profoundly gifted. Journal of applied Psychology, 86(4), 718.  Makel, M. C., Kell, H. J., Lubinski, D., Putallaz, M., & Benbow, C. P. (2016). When lightning strikes twice: Profoundly gifted, profoundly accomplished. Psychological Science, 27(7), 1004-1018.  Prescott, J., Gavrilescu, M., Cunnington, R., O'Boyle, M. W., & Egan, G. F. (2010). Enhanced brain connectivity in math-gifted adolescents: An fMRI study using mental rotation. Cognitive Neuroscience, 1(4), 277-288.  Ruf, D. L. (2005). Losing our minds: Gifted children left behind. Great Potential Press, Inc..  Singh, H., & O'boyle, M. W. (2004). Interhemispheric interaction during global-local processing in mathematically gifted adolescents, average-ability youth, and college students. Neuropsychology, 18(2), 371.  Wai, J., Cacchio, M., Putallaz, M., & Makel, M. C. (2010). Sex differences in the right tail of cognitive abilities: A 30year examination. Intelligence, 38(4), 412-423.
  17. 17.  http://www.davidsongifted.org/Young-Scholars  http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/  https://cty.jhu.edu/set/index.html  https://tip.duke.edu/  http://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entry/A10108  https://robinsoncenter.uw.edu/programs/eep/  http://www.calstatela.edu/academic/eep  https://www.talentigniter.com/