- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Neuropsychologist Nadia Webb often is asked why she studies giftedness when “it’s so elitist,” as she is told.

“These are some of the people who have the potential to discover … new breakthroughs,” says Ms. Webb, associate faculty member and clinician in residence at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.

She also is in private practice.

“It’s tremendously important that we don’t waste one of our most valuable natural resources. We are cheating ourselves if we do,” she says.

That resource is the gifted mind, which processes information differently from the average mind, says Ms. Webb, who provides psychologists and laypeople with a lecture presentation, “The Gifted Brain: The State of the Literature on Neurobiological Differences,” that pulls together the latest research on giftedness.

Ms. Webb and other regional neuropsychologists define giftedness at the physical and neurological levels. Educators provide advice for fostering that giftedness.

The gifted mind has an intelligence quotient (IQ) of 120 or higher, a number that is measured differently depending on the test. Schools’ gifted programs require an IQ range of 115 to 130, depending on the state, according to “Genius Denied,” by Jan and Bob Davidson of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development.

One person in 20 has an IQ of 125 or above, and one in 10,000 is profoundly gifted, with an IQ of 160 or higher, according to the Davidson Institute. The average IQ, which is the ratio of tested mental age to chronological age, is 100.

The gifted, categorized in the top 2.5 percent to 5 percent of the nation, tend to be intense and passionate about their interests, Ms. Webb says.

“They tend to do things more quickly and think more abstractly. They often are very quick to learn things,” she says.

Fourteen-year-old Sejoon Park is passionate about music and plays the piano, clarinet, cello and harpsichord. The rising eighth-grader, an honors student at St. James Catholic Middle School in Falls Church, started piano studies at age 6.

“I just have a lot of interest in music. That’s why I always try different instruments,” he says.

Born to cellist parents in Seoul, Korea, Sejoon moved to America in 2001 for better tutoring.

Sejoon, who lives with his aunt Helen Spears in Falls Church, has appeared with a Korean orchestra, performed in concerts and placed in several music competitions, including second place in the Oberlin International Piano Competition in July 2004.

“He plays with such detail and nuance. His ability to listen and to pick things out is pretty remarkable,” says Lois Narvey, director of admissions and programs at the Levine School of Music and his harpsichord teacher. “He’s gifted in all sorts of ways.”

The gifted can be curious, perfectionist, easy to bore and quick to question authority, Ms. Webb says. They can grasp abstract ideas beyond the reach of their peers, see overarching principles, identify patterns and find exceptions to the rules.

The gifted reach milestones of intellectual development earlier than their peers, such as developing an advanced vocabulary and reading at an early age, says Stephanie Tolan, writer and consultant and senior fellow at the California-based Institute for Educational Advancement, which provides programs, services and resources for gifted and talented students.

“Giftedness is an ability to process information more deeply, more broadly and faster than average,” Mrs. Tolan says.

Studies show that the corpus collosum, a fluid-filled area connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, is more densely packed with neural connections in the gifted, allowing for information impulses to travel more quickly between the right and left brain, Mrs. Tolan says.

These neurons, the nerve cells that process and transmit information in the hemispheres, are connected to a greater number of other neurons than in the average mind, according to physical findings seen from samples of brain tissue, Ms. Webb says.

The neural connections allow for faster processing, provide more routes to carry information and provide greater efficiency through use of less fuel, or sugar, she says. The connections total in the trillions for both the average and gifted minds.

“There are lots of hypotheses in terms of physiological function,” says Layne Kalbfleisch, member of the National Association for Gifted Children, based in Northwest. “We have beginning observations but don’t have ways to put the pieces of the puzzle together yet.”

The observations come from behavior and cognitive psychology and not from biology, says Ms. Kalbfleisch, professor of cognitive neuroscience and assistant professor in educational psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax.

Most biological experiments are conducted with animals or on the damaged or diseased brain, she says.

Obtaining grants to study the healthy mind are harder to get than grants for studying diseases, Ms. Webb says.

“There’s data out there,” she says. “You have to know how to look for it and how to find it. You have to wade through a lot of literature.”

Ms. Kalbfleisch, who considers her views to be conservative, finds that increased neural connectivity occurring in the gifted mind is a hypothesis. “We don’t have empirical data to prove that,” she says.

In addition, some studies show that the gifted or those with a certain ability use less of the brain to do tasks that are automatic for them, while other studies indicate that being gifted or having a certain ability gives access to more brainpower, Ms. Kalbfleisch says. She adds that the findings cannot be reconciled.

“The area of the brain that is responsible for a set of skills expands as you use it. You have a different amount of space allocated to tasks you do frequently, and you have more connections,” Ms. Webb says.

If there is more connectivity in the gifted, it occurs in the frontal areas of the brain, something that has not yet been proved, says Richard Restak, clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University’s medical school in Northwest and author of 14 books on the brain.

“The people who have great talents often have increased functioning in the frontal lobes, which are concerned with working memory,” Mr. Restak says, referring to memory that keeps information immediately accessible.

Though defining giftedness at the neurological level proves controversial, neuropsychologists and educators agree on a few things when it comes to fostering giftedness in children.

“It’s a matter of use it or lose it,” Ms. Webb says. “You could have a strong capacity to do amazing things. If you don’t push yourself intellectually and keep developing those connections, you lose it.”

Margaret Gilhooley, gifted services supervisor for Arlington County Public Schools, suggests parents read to their children at an early age, even before the children can understand what is said. Parents can engage children in activities when possible, such as trips to the museum or zoo, and ask them questions about what they think, see and feel, she says.

“Parents who converse a lot with their children really help their children to articulate their thoughts. It’s a matter of being attentive,” she says.

Once children are in school, Mrs. Gilhooley recommends they be provided with a sense of organization and a quiet place for doing their schoolwork.

“Maintain an interest in what’s happening and support what’s happening in the classroom,” she says.

In the classroom, “serving gifted kids is not just about accelerating them, it is giving them an in-depth understanding of the significant concepts in a discipline,” says Virginia “Ginny” Tucker, director of the division of enriched and innovative instruction at Montgomery County Public Schools.

Gifted students need to be challenged with higher-thinking skills, such as analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating, says Sandra Foddrell, supervisor of the gifted program at Loudoun County Public Schools.

“The students have ideas, and when they are outside their regular classroom, sometimes they are able to act on these ideas,” she says.

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