Finally! I’ve been meaning to put up a blog post about the the New York Times magazine article, Understanding the Anxious Mind, since the day it was posted to their website. Especially in light of a recent comment by reader Kirsten, who wrote:
The other thing that stands out in this post is C.’s high level of executive function. The combination of organization and determination that she has is rare.
Exactly. I have always believed that to a large extent she–and other PG kids like her–came wired that way. It’s one thing for Malcolm Gladwell et al to say that it takes 10,000 hours of practice and anyone can be “gifted.” But it doesn’t explain where the dedication, the drive, the executive function to actually do that 10,000 hours comes from. I say it’s wiring.
I first heard about Dabrowski’s Theory of Overexcitability was when the CTY psychologist went over C.’s test results. It was a big “aha” for us. Here’s how Ann Rinn describes overexcitabilies in the Fall 2009 Duke University Gifted Letter.
Overexcitabilities are extreme intensities or sensitivities that affect the ways in which an individual experiences the world. The Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980) identified overexcitabilities as part of a larger theory of development. Although most of us may have extra energy at times or have strong reactions to various stimuli on occasion, those with overexcitabilities experience these distinguishing behaviors regularly. Most researchers believe overexcitabilities are innate and will be present in some form throughout one’s life. It is important to note that not all gifted children have overexcitabilities, but they do seem to be found to a greater degree in gifted and/or creative children than in average-ability children. (emphasis added).
It’s something I certainly noticed in C. early on–heck, it’s why this blog has the name it does. She still is highly sensitive to smells, has acute hearing, dislikes crowds and noisy environments in general, is afraid of dogs and tends to brood and worry. Which is why I found this article on anxiety sooo interesting. I think it really ties in with Dabrowski and giftedness.
Harvard psychology researcher Jerome Kagan, like many people, was initially resistant to the idea of “wiring”:
Kagan studiously ignored this finding; it didn’t fit with his left-leaning politics, which saw all individuals as born inherently the same — blank slates, to use the old terminology — and capable of achieving anything if afforded the right social, economic and educational opportunities. “I was so resistant to awarding biology much influence, I didn’t follow up on the inhibited temperaments I was seeing,” he told me. It took another 20 years of listening to arguments about nature versus nurture for Kagan finally to entertain the possibility that some behavior might be attributed to genes.
But research revealed that
in people born with a particular brain circuitry, the kind seen in Kagan’s high-reactive study subjects, the amygdala is hyperreactive, prickly as a haywire motion-detector light that turns on when nothing’s moving but the rain.
I think it’s that edge of anxiety that could be the driver of C.’s drive, which in turn feeds into achievement. In the article Susan Engel, a developmental psychologist at Williams College, says,
“The way we deal with [anxiety] is that we both get everything done in lots of time. We can’t stand the anxiety of a looming deadline; we’re so worried about being late that we do it five days early.” This is one way to alleviate anxiety, she said. “There are other things we could do. We could drink, we could procrastinate, we could pretend we don’t have the deadline. I guess we both happen to be lucky that our method is adaptive.”
The article continues,
”This kind of adapting might have something to do with intelligence, says Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard and author of “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.” He says he believes, based on pure conjecture, that people with higher intelligence are better at overcoming their anxious temperament and more likely to “see their own worry list as a problem to be solved, minimizing unnecessary anxiety while still being anxious enough to get things done.”
This certainly squares with what I’ve observed.
In the modern world, the anxious temperament does offer certain benefits: caution, introspection, the capacity to work alone. These can be adaptive qualities. Kagan has observed that the high-reactives in his sample tend to avoid the traditional hazards of adolescence. Because they are more restrained than their wilder peers, he says, high-reactive kids are less likely to experiment with drugs, to get pregnant or to drive recklessly. They grow up to be the Felix Ungers of the world, he says, clearing a safe, neat path for the Oscar Madisons.
People with a high-reactive temperament — as long as it doesn’t show itself as a clinical disorder — are generally conscientious and almost obsessively well-prepared. Worriers are likely to be the most thorough workers and the most attentive friends. Someone who worries about being late will plan to get to places early. Someone anxious about giving a public lecture will work harder to prepare for it. Test-taking anxiety can lead to better studying; fear of traveling can lead to careful mapping of transit routes.
Now watch her read this and do something crazy just to prove me wrong ;-).