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Education Opinion

What Brain Imaging Shows Us About Gifted Learners

By Tamara Fisher — February 09, 2010 2 min read

Those of us who live with and teach gifted youngsters know there is something fundamentally different about them. It isn’t always easy to pinpoint or explain what that difference is (other than to use test scores or offer anecdotal examples, but even those don’t always make the point clearly). Yet when you’re around these kids, you just know there’s something different, significantly different, about the way they function, think, and learn.

Brain research may be helping in the quest to show just why and how these kids are different in the ways they think and learn. A few research studies from recent years offer some intriguing insights:

A 2006 article from the National Institutes of Mental Health (subsidiary of National Institutes of Health) tells of one such interesting study. The study’s results showed (via MRI) that the brain development of children with high IQ’s (defined in the study as 121-145) is significantly different from that of their above average (109-120) and average (83-108) peers. For example, the cortex layer in the brains of the children with superior IQ’s started out much thinner at age 7 (compared to the cortex thickness of the average and above average kids) and reached peak thickness much later (age 12 in gifted kids compared to about age 8 or 9 for average and above average children). After reaching peak thickness, the maturation process (i.e. thinning & pruning) of the cortex takes place at a more rapid pace in children with the highest IQ’s. What implications does this have for us as parents and teachers of these kids? Well, given that the pre-frontal cortex controls organization, this might help explain why some of our brainy middle-schoolers can do algebra but can’t find the homework they know they did the night before! Also, the study’s researchers suggest that it might also indicate an extended window of opportunity for “development of high-level cognitive circuits.” The graph below is from the NIMH article, of which I encourage you to read the original item. It’s interesting and not too terribly long.

Another study from the UC Irvine College of Medicine indicates that intelligence levels are correlated with amount of grey matter in certain areas of the brain. Overall size of the brain doesn’t matter, but the amount of grey matter in certain regions found to be associated with intelligence does have an impact. And, the researchers show, these areas of the brain that they think they have connected to intelligence are in multiple regions of the brain, not in one single center.

The same UC Irvine researchers in another article talk about how imaging shows that gifted brains are less active but more efficient. That is, at first glance on an MRI scan, it might appear that the brains of individuals with high intelligence are not doing much, but in reality what is happening is that their brains are working more efficiently.

Here are a couple additional suggested resources for those of you interested in this topic:

The book, How the Gifted Brain Learns, by David A. Sousa

A neuroscience blog with an education (and gifted education) focus, Eide Neurolearning, by Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide.

Neuroscience for Kids, an online newsletter with the latest kid-friendly information about brain research. (This online newsletter is created and maintained by Dr. Eric Chudler, a brain researcher at the University of Washington.)

Feel free to share any info you know about brain research and what it tells us about gifted learners, along with any great brain research links!

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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