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What is Giftedness?

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Biology 202
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

What is Giftedness?

Irma Iskandar

Maria, a friend of my mother's, once complained to our family about the public school system in Florida. She claimed Peter, her six-year-old child, is extremely intelligent and not only could he play the violin and chess, but he could also read upper-level books. Despite all this, he did not make it into the gifted program at school - a program that she believed he rightfully deserved to be a member of. Why was she so upset over the outcome, and what deciding factors do people consider that could lead to the child being selected against an accelerated program? In recent years there have been a strong resurgence in the study of giftedness in children- many people have attempted to explain the phenomena and why there are so few who are endowed with the asset. Research has promised new insights on the identification and subsequent proper handling for gifted individuals. What factors may influence innate talent in certain people - is it based on genetic, neurophysiological, or psychological factors? In my last paper, I had discussed the various research projects that have attempted to link giftedness to the brain - with interesting results that are still yet to be firmly established. This paper will attempt to show how giftedness as a concept has been misrepresented in general, and how it presently cannot be used to directly identify individuals but can be used as an inference tool only. Nevertheless, finding a basis or correlates for the concept is something society finds important, because of the believed implications it will have for the gifted children in the future.

The age-old issue of "what makes giftedness" has been debated in the academic world for many years. Before recent studies, it was widely believed that giftedness merely relates to the intellect only. Now many scientists believe that the term correlates not only to intelligence but also to creativity, memory, motivation, physical dexterity, and aesthetic sensitivity (1). It is without doubt that there is some basis to the fact that a few people learn faster than others, or have an accelerated sensitivity to art, music, or mathematics. But is this due to an innate ability of the particular person? Or are there several complex factors involved not involved with the individual's body? Is genius a unified brain phenomena, or is it a term used to describe different phenomena in different persons? Many believe that giftedness is due to some innate process independent, for example, from the environment the individual is raised in. There are many accounts of children with unusual capacities that could have an innate basis, such as "perfect pitch" (2). This gift seems to appear without a particular environment stimulating the ability and is a talent the child could most likely use to achieve a high level of accomplishment in. Many also claim that giftedness is rooted to a biological correlate, such as the brain or a chromosome that people believe scientists have yet to find (3).

But what must first be asked is the meaning of giftedness. Not surprisingly, there are many different definitions of this concept, influenced by social, political, economic, and structural factors (1). Joseph Renzulli, director of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, believes: "When users' implicit definitions are enquired into, these are found to vary considerably, to the extent that if the terms can be regarded as referring to single concepts, the latter are somewhat broad. A concept that is as fervently believed in as `gift' is, yet without being adequately defined and without its supposed mode of operation being delineated, seems custom-made to resist scientific verification or disproof" (4).

Therefore it is evident that the concept of giftedness widely varies among individuals and societies, making both identifying it in a scientific manner and making practical solutions out of the data difficult. A definition has been offered to makes clear the criteria for giftedness: that an innate gift or talent 1) has a genetic origin and is at least partly innate, 2) the full effects of possessing the gift may not be evident at an early stage, but there will be some advance indication that the individual possesses the gift. This would legitimize the view that Maria's child could partly, at any case, be judged acceptable for the program or not. Thus, 3) this supposed knowledge of the talent provides a basis for predicting whether or not a particular young person has a higher chance of achieving high levels of performance that is related to his giftedness(5). However, there are still problems with the construct of giftedness.

One of the most pivotal questions has centered on whether or not or not there exists a biological basis for giftedness. Is innate talent in music or mathematics, for example, found in genes, through the environment, or merely from a personal disposition? Many tests have attempted to find a link between brain and behavior. As discussed in my last paper, PET and EEG tests revealed that, in teenagers with extremely high mathematical abilities, the frontal lobes of the brain are more differentiated than in average students (6). Neurophysiologists have argued that studies have indicated that in information processing, the gifted have enhanced brain activity localized in the right hemisphere (7). It appears to be, therefore, that the physical characteristics of the brain is linked to an innate component to variability in which certain people obtain high levels of expertise in some areas.

However, one must not be too hasty to automatically deduce that since there appears to be a correlation between brain physiology and behavior, the physical attributes must occupy a pivotal position in a causal chain. It is difficult for correlates to have a predictable influence on individuals' performance levels in a particular area that would justify a claim that we have identified the physical basis of a gift. The few of the results obtained are "insufficiently direct and too complicated for it to be easy to delineate clear uni-directional causal linkages between physical brain events and exceptional degrees of expertise in individual people"(2). Therefore there seems to be no direct proof that could possibly map causal links between brain physiology to "talents" that may seem indicative of an innate gift. Results are encouraging and suggest that it is possible that at least some causes can be biological (indeed, the brain may be at least partly responsible) - however, we do not have strong enough evidence that would legitimatize identifying giftedness in the same way we assumed we could identify giftedness. Furthermore, for a physical measure of brain structure or activity to be regarded as indicative of a process or mechanism having the properties of an innate gift or talent there would need to be:

" 1) some degree of clarity about the direction of causality, 2) indications that the physical quality being measured is innately determined (as distinct from being the outcome rather than the cause of differences in individuals' experiences) as well as evidence that 3) any such influence is specific to a particular field of ability (and preferably relatively direct), and 4) selectively facilitates expertise in a minority of individuals. In addition, it would be reasonable to assert that physical evidence of a gift or talent existed only if 5) the physical measures reliably predicted unusually high attainments by individuals at tasks that were indicative of special excellence or expertise in particular areas of competence" (2).

It should be noted, however, of the lack of any findings that would indicate that physical attributes have met even half of the requirements listed above. Therefore, there seems to be evidence that biological issues can be correlative to giftedness. However, one cannot make a direct causal chain relationship kind of conclusion.

Furthermore, despite tests, many counterarguments could also be made against the belief that giftedness is innate. For one, there are the experiences one has as an individual. How much of talent can be attributed to innate abilities, when the individual's environment can have a major role? For example, the adage "practice makes perfect" is appropriate here, since no published study has reported individuals who reached high levels without practice (8). Even the youngest of virtuosos and the most talented of chess players require repetition and practice. Perfect pitch, it can be argued, is acquired through the exposure to repeated musical pitches. If one construes giftedness to be an indication that individuals exceed normal limits, he must have to acknowledge situations such as pianists who have no "innate" talent and yet with motivation to practice diligently and effectively, can in time surpass perhaps even gifted people's levels. Although one could argue that gifted persons can obtain this level in less time and with less effort, this is difficult to establish since other factors could account for talent such as the appropriateness of the practicing, the motivation, the level of commitment, and the concentration of the individual (7).

There is definitely an importance however, in the knowledge of giftedness and in defining it. Why must we be able to understand the concept and selectively differentiate students in this manner? Part of the reason why giftedness is studied is to satisfy a human craving for knowledge about behavior and possible links correlating to the behavior. Another part of the reason is so that educators can meet the academic needs of those concerned. Many gifted children are unevenly talented (excelling in one area, such as mathematics, and poorly in another, such as reading comprehension), are socially isolated from their peers, and, above all, are bored with their classwork, leading to a decrease in enthusiasm to learn and to attend school (6). Studying more about giftedness can lead one to find the best ways to educate the children and also to help make them into leaders in their field of talent. However, a question may be asked - does "gifted" necessarily mean good? Why would Peter's mother so strongly desire for him to attend the gifted program? For one, there is respect and prestige to be considered gifted, due to a person's accelerated mental growth and potential for success. However, there is a myth propagated by early research that gifted children are ones who are happy, learn easily, well-adjusted, and particularly successful. On the contrary, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the University of Chicago has shown that "children with exceptionally high abilities in any area-not just in academics but in visual arts, music, even athletics-are out of step with their peers socially" - it is also estimated that 20-25% of profoundly gifted children have social and/or emotional problems and that academically gifted girls are especially at risk for more depression and lower self-esteem than gifted boys do (6). Many will hide their special abilities in order to "fit in" to the norm and to become popular. Knowing this, it seems imperative that a clearer conception of giftedness and ways to best meet the needs of the gifted should be known, in order to help the children feel more adjusted to their academic environment.

One factor to also consider is that of observational assumptions regarding giftedness, and the fact, like of Peter, that "professionals" can observe an individual and decree whether that person is gifted or not. Some people may say something to the effect of "Oh, she is definitely gifted. See the way she solves college physics problems at the age of seven! I can't really describe it, but after you see what she does, you know she is gifted". The problem with this mindset is that what is considered gifted is not direct evidence (or particularly innate), but merely a product of a person's inference. It is not a concrete descriptive term, like "She has red hair", but it is more subjective. Some educators have opinions of their own regarding special students. "Three-fourths of educators [here, specifically regarding music] believe they can't give instruction to children unless they possess special gifts" - in other words, if children aren't "naturally musical", people believe they will never learn (2). As was suggested above concerning the unlikelihood of a magic gene, however, giftedness seems to be more of an observed behavior than of something organically concrete. Therefore, evidence seems to lean towards people displaying "gifted behaviors" instead of "being gifted". This would debunk the beliefs of those who believe that those who are gifted are endowed with a special chromosome, or a specific unified location in the brain superior to all intellects. The specific behavior may differ, obviously, from person to person, depending on the talents - but nevertheless the behavioral phenomenon could be grouped together as a unified process that has many uncertain causes not limited to the neurological, and they are all uncertain. In the meantime, the construct of giftedness, unless improved upon, remains an inferred subject, as there is no clear-cut empirical evidence that would suggest otherwise. Experience, biological, and social factors all are involved and it is too soon to make causal responsibilities to one single factor.

Therefore, this paper has attempted to show how giftedness as a concept has been misrepresented in people's minds, and how the it presently cannot be used to directly identify individuals but can be used as an inference tool only. Because of the different constructs people have for giftedness, I am left more confused than ever about what giftedness really means. What is the most important factor that this paper wishes to focus on, however, is not finding organic causes of giftedness per se, but, in the act of trying to find causes, what giftedness as a concept means for people. Giftedness has been misrepresented in the belief that extreme talents stem mainly from brain correlates (or innate abilities) - however, I have offered a skeptical view to show that this belief, although tempting, does not necessarily hold. Although there is strong evidence when looking at the brain to indicate that there could be physiological influences on behavior, it is still not conclusive. The notion of giftedness differs from individual to individual, but, although differences in the concept are inevitable, we should, in a unified manner, treat the gifted in the same fashion - i.e. in accordance to the behavior at hand, we should find the best ways to accommodate for the individual. Like many scientific constructs, talents are to some extent inferred to exist because of phenomena that cannot be fully explained. Giftedness as a behavioral phenomena, however, should be considered unified under one idea because the different talents (music, mathematics, and the like) all are subject to the same premises - they all exist perhaps due biological and sociological factors, but although there are differences among their explanations - certain areas of the brain, for example, may be more implicated in one talent than another - they all are part of a behavioral pattern that may be linked to several external factors outside of the individual's physiological makeup. This paper's intention is not to say that giftedness does not exist, but if people try to infer the existence of a causal entity, and then introduce it as an explanatory concept, one must first ensure that the concept is a necessary one (2).

Therefore, innate gifts and talents are inferred rather than attributes that can be directly observed. One reason for explaining why we try to find brain/environmental correlates for giftedness is to alleviate our need to explain individual differences - sometimes, to explain what we consider highly unfair. Perhaps in finding organic causes, we believe our problem can be corrected - we can use science to biologically make disadvantaged persons achieve more and at a faster rate, or we can use the gifted in order to specialize in certain areas of society. Eugenics may even come into the picture, depending on the view of the person. Furthermore, there are different conceptions of giftedness and how to best meet the needs of the children. We cannot wait, however, for the answer to this concept - there very well may be no truths, as far as can be currently concerned. Although society believes we must find a basis in order to best serve the children, the best thing to do, I believe, is not to focus so much on biological causes of giftedness, but to find programs and protocols which would best help gifted children feel at ease with their talents as of now and to encourage them to foster their talents. Only then through best meeting the needs of the gifted can we successfully be able to build on the concept of giftedness even more.

WWW Sources

1)Defining Giftedness , This short essay attempts to discover ways in which we define giftedness through a historical perspective. It also offers reasons why the study is important for our society.

2) Innate Gifts: Myth or Reality?, An in-depth look at the concept of giftedness and individuals' perceptions of this subject.

3) Educating the Very Able , Examines genetic possibility for genius.

4) A Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness, A scientist defines a method in which to define and try to identify gifted children.

5) GagnÈ, F. (1993) "Constructs and models pertaining to exceptional human abilities". International handbook of research and development of giftedness and talent, ed. K. A. Heller, F. J. Mˆnks & A. H. Passow, Pergamon.

6) Uncommon Talents: Gifted Children, Prodigies, and Savants , A look at sociological factors from gifted children in the school system.

7)The Gifted Brain , Research attempts to find brain correlates to prodigy-like behavior.

8) Gifted and Giftednes: What's it All about? , An exploration into the depths of the subject of giftedness.



Comments made prior to 2007

Hello my name is Vincent. I come from NY, I like the way you have worded the things in your site. After a week and 1/2 of having my computer in july of 2006 i had got contacted by a unknown person on AIM aol instant messenger. The person claims that i have what you speak of here in this site. He believes that my talents come with the computer and my imagination of creation in games and computing is desirable to most of this world. I am contacting you because the things he claims to have seen in me over a long period of time i do not happen to see in myself like he says. Maybe you can answer that or maybe you may have an idea what he is tlaking about, but i know with the help of my best friend who carries the same attributes but in different fields in computing i know that we will be the ones for Virtual Reality Creation for public use ... Vincent, Izzo, 12 February 2007