"Overexcitabilities" Used to
Over the past few decades researchers have been trying to
map out the correlation between "overexcitabilities" and giftedness. It
all started in the sixties when Dabrowski proposed his Theory of Positive Disintegration,
which stated that people born with overexcitabilities had a higher level of
"development potential" than others. After decades of research, it
appears that overexcitabilities can actually be used to predict which kids might be
gifted. Of course, the very same overexcitabilities are being used by
others as evidence of a brain defect.
In one recent study of high school students,
overexcitabilities in "gifted" students were compared to overexcitabilities in
students who had not been identified.1 The chart below shows how gifted
students had significantly more overexcitabilities than their peers.
Table from "Identifying Gifted Adolescents Using
Personality Characteristics: Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities" by Cheryl M. Ackerman,
Roeper Review - A Journal on Gifted Education, Volume 19, No. 4, June 1997.
Note that the term "gifted"
includes not only high IQ (130 or above) but also students who excel in one particular
subject or who are deemed "creative."
Dabrowski described five types of overexcitabilities:
1. Psychomotor. An excess of energy that may be
expressed as a love of movement, rapid speech, impulsiveness and restlessness.
2. Sensual. Heightened sensory awareness (e.g. touch,
taste, smell). May be expressed as desire for comfort or a sharp sense of esthetics.
3. Imaginational. Vivid imagery, use of metaphor,
visualizations, and inventiveness. May also include vivid dreams, fear of the
unknown, poetic creativity, or love of fantasy.
4. Intellectual. Persistence in asking probing
questions, love of knowledge, discovery, theoretical analysis and synthesis, independence
of thought. This is not the same as IQ, which is the ability to solve a
problem. Intellectual overexcitability is the love of solving the problem.
5. Emotional. Expressions might include deep relationships,
concern with death, feelings of compassion and responsibility, depression, need for
security, self-evaluation, shyness, and concern for others.
People can have all five overexcitabilities or just a
few. It's easy to see that someone with psychomotor overexcitability has a high
likelihood of meeting the DSM IV criteria for ADD with hyperactivity. On the
other hand, someone with imaginational (but not psychomotor) overexcitabilities might
easily be described as inattentive and thus earn a classification of ADD without
hyperactivity. In the real world, it seems that a bright child with
overexcitabilities who is doing well in school will be labeled gifted. But if the
same child underachieves in school, the ADD label might be used instead.
And many gifted students may be underachievers. There
is evidence to suggest that as many as 45% of identified gifted kids with IQs above 130
have below average grades.2 If that's true than half of all
gifted kids might meet the DSM IV criteria for ADD! Or even more. A gifted student
getting "only" B's is considered an underachiever. In the competitive
world of grades, grades, grades, kids are taking Ritalin to help them achieve straight
Why do so many gifted kids underachieve in the first place?
The folks at CHADD would like us to believe they all have a brain defect which
would be fixed by using stimulant medications. Proponents of the gifted, however,
argue that these kids underachieve for other reasons, the most important being that
traditional school environments simply to not appeal to many of the brightest kids.
Another reason a gifted child may be labeled ADD is
negative behavior in the classroom. Researchers argue that the traits of gifted
students, when expressed in a negative fashion, are nearly identical to the traits of ADD.
Teachers typically associate giftedness with students who are compliant and
obedient. Thus, teachers are not inclined to believe that a child who is acting out might
in fact be gifted.3 And while there are many things that can result in
behavioral problems in gifted students, researchers argue that most behavioral problems
are developed in response to inappropriate curricula and instructional methods, or the
social climate created by the teacher and classroom peers.4
Interesting Note: Speaking of overexcitabilities, as I
write this page I'm having to deal with a colicky infant. ADDers are often described
as having been fussy or colicky babies, as if this is proof that there is something wrong
with them. A popular theory about colic, or crying spells, is that it has to do
with stimulation levels - too little or too much. These infants seem to be
hyper-reactive to their environment, or overexcitable. So I found the following
statement interesting when I read it yesterday. "Children who cry vigorously as
infants appear, in fact, more likely to be vigorous and active problem solvers as toddlers
than those with limp cries."5 Once again, problem behavior doesn't
necessarily mean the child has something wrong with them.
Overexcitabilities and MBTI
For those of you familiar with the MBTI (Myers-Briggs) temperament system, it appears to
be the divergent thinking SPs, NTPs and NFPs who are most often tagged ADD. There
seems to be a synergetic combination of having overexcitabilities and a divergent-thinking
temperament (this is my own personal theory). A convergent thinking SJ
("Traditionalist") with overexcitabilities will be inspired by pleasing the
teacher, learning by rote memorization, being organized and getting things done. So
this type of child is likely to be labeled gifted rather than ADD. On the other
hand, a divergent thinking SP ("Artisan") with overexcitabilities is inspired by
exploration, hands-on activities, and freedom of action. Forget passive learning and
obedience! Obviously this child will have a hard time in a traditional school setting. And
this child is therefore far more likely to be labeled ADD than the previously described SJ
child, even though the child may be every bit as intelligent.
For more information on Dabrowski's theories see The Theory of Positive Disintegration by
Kazimierz Dabrowski Presented by Bill Tillier
1. "Identifying Gifted Adolescents
Using Personality Characteristics: Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities" by Cheryl M.
Ackerman, Roeper Review - A Journal on Gifted Education, Volume 19, No. 4, June 1997.
2. "Smart Kids Have Problems, Too," by C.
Johnson, 1981, Today's Education, 70.
3. "Square Pegs in Round Holes --These Kids Don't Fit:
High Ability Students With Behavioral Problems"by Brian D. Reid, Ph.D. and Michele D.
McGuire, Ph.D., 1995, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
4. "Preventing Behavior Problems With Gifted
Students" by J.R. Delisle, J.R. Whitmore & R.P. Ambrose, 1987, Teaching
Exceptional Children, 19.
5. "What to Expect the First Year" by Eisenberg,
Murkoff, and Hathaway, 1989