Relatively little that has been written about the unique experience and cognition of highly, exceptionally and profoundly gifted people. In this article, InterGifted's founding director Jennifer Harvey Sallin explores how high+ cognition is defined by meta-thinking and mind-matricing, and illustrates the particular internal and social experiences of the rarely found highly, exceptionally and profoundly gifted minds.
written by Jennifer Harvey Sallin | originally published on Rediscovering Yourself
updated January 2022
LEVELS OF GIFTEDNESS
Giftedness is averaged to make up well less than 5% of the general population, and within that small number, there are subclassifications: mild, moderate, high, exceptional and profound giftedness. The latter three types make up only a very small portion of that less than 5%. The relatively little that has been written about the experience and cognition of the highly, exceptionally or profoundly gifted is proportionally consistent with the incidence of the phenomena, but the unfortunate result is that the net is cast wide in the existing literature on giftedness.
With various levels and concepts of “giftedness” often grouped together into a one-size-fits-all description, the highly, exceptionally and profoundly gifted are misrepresented in important ways. We all know that a mild or moderately gifted person can feel a strong sense of being an “alien” in a group of non-gifted people; so too can a highly, exceptionally or profoundly gifted person feel a strong sense of being an “alien” in a group of mild or moderately gifted people (the same is true between profoundly and highly gifted too, and so on).
|Mildly (or basically) Gifted||115 – 129||1:6 – 1:44|
|Moderately Gifted||130 – 144||1:44 – 1:1,000|
|Highly Gifted||145 – 159||1:1,000 – 1:10,000|
|Exceptionally Gifted||160 – 179||1:10,000 – 1:1 million|
|Profoundly Gifted||180+||Fewer than 1:1 million|
Source: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/underserved.htm, Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted Students: An Underserved Population by Miraca U.M. Gross
Traditionally, levels of giftedness are defined by IQ scores, but anyone who knows me and my work knows that I struggle to define any level of giftedness by intellectual intelligence measures alone, though I admit that intellectual intelligence is an obviously important factor in the make-up of a gifted person. My own model of giftedness is based on a very holistic view of intelligence, one which includes: intellectual, emotional, sensual, creative, physical and existential varieties of intelligence, rather than relying on intellectual intelligence alone. In my model, you could be highly, exceptionally or profoundly gifted in some areas and not in others. Each gifted person is like a variation on a theme.
COGNITION & HIGH+ GIFTEDNESS
Abstract thinking allows us to see connections between seemingly divergent aspects of life, to solve problems in more creative ways (thinking “outside of the box”), and at its best, to connect all aspects of “here and now” (feeling, thinking, intuiting, experiencing) to all aspects of “everywhere and nowhere” (being, existence, meaning, and the unknown). Without the ability to think abstractly, people generally have difficulty making conceptual decisions, moral judgments or solving complex problems. For these matters, those of average cognition classically rely on the system they belong to, and within it, the authorities that dictate moral or ethical choices, such as their country, their religion, their culture, etc. Those of mild+ or high+ giftedness do not so easily rely on any such “authority”.
The real difference in the way the three types think can be seen in their respective cognitive patterns:
Average cognition reasons in a step-by-step fashion
that is, one step at a time.
Mild+ gifted cognition tends toward “skip-thinking”
grouping steps together to be more efficient and quick.
High+ gifted cognition works in “meta-thinking”
finding simple patterns in complex information, perceiving relationships among various seemingly unrelated aspects, and detecting and creatively resolving logical discrepancies and practical problems in non-linear ways. In meta-thinking, one can think about one’s own thinking, one’s ways of learning, knowing, remembering and understanding, and can apply one’s thoughts to “big picture” or “non-linear” vision and insight.
While the mild+ gifted are better than average at discerning and summarizing abstractions, and generalizing from specifics to larger classes, the high+ gifted are known for creating their own complex matrices in order to understand large amounts of concrete information and give a very rich context to any one experience, feeling, thought, relationship, idea or object. They are able to see complex logical connections among very different types of information, and able to organize this data into larger self-constructed matrices, which are then available for use in future actions, reflections, analyses, and problem-solving.
Meta-thinking tends toward seeing everything in terms of metaphors, analogies, paradoxes and puzzles to be resolved by eventual abstraction. Because of this, the high+ gifted are often able to relatively quickly grasp the essential part of highly complex ideas. They are then able to reason through any given idea in relationship to their developed matrix – in the process, adding not only the given complex idea to the matrix, but also adding the complex relationships between the given idea and the existing matrix, as well as the new relationships that form in the synergistic interaction of the idea with the matrix. As a result, the reasoning processes, interests, behaviors and sense of humor of the high+ gifted can sometimes be particularly multi-layered, complex, and difficult for the people around them to follow or intuit.
MILD+ GIFTED MEETS HIGH+ GIFTED
To clarify, mild+ gifted “skip-thinking” does include finding patterns in complex information and perceiving relationships among seemingly unrelated aspects. After all, all gifted people are considered independent thinkers who detect patterns and problems and creatively find ways to innovate and solve dilemmas. However, there seems to be a “good enough” point for the mild+ gifted that the high+ gifted don’t experience; there is a moment (or moments) when the mild+ gifted experience the feeling of having enough information to “stay still” for a bit. For the high+ gifted, however, it is the extreme quality of these cognitive processes that sets them apart. For them, there really is no “good enough” point; everything is subject to change and question! There is never a place to stay, never real ground beneath their feet. Every supposed answer only generates a series of new questions, as though what most consider knowledge and facts were only a portal to more mystery and intrigue. Life, for the high+ gifted is like a never-ending puzzle!
Many high+ gifted clients report to me that they might meet a fellow gifted person (mild+, in this case) and feel energized by the synergy of thought they share with the other person; however, sooner or later, they come to feel quite or very disappointed that the other person’s openness of mind and curiosity seemed to stop at some arbitrary point. It is as if the questioning and exploration became “enough” for their peer, while for the high+ gifted person, he was “just getting started.” For high+ gifted people, this “arbitrary stopping point” of curiosity and questioning of mild+ gifted people seems to happen much too quickly in relationships. Just as a mild+ gifted person seems to feel they have to shift down gears, hold back or go slow with those of average cognition, so too do the high+ gifted feel with their mild+ gifted peers after a certain point.
Put in the simplest of terms, the mild+ gifted have an uncommon need to know and understand complex ideas, and the high+ gifted have the greatest need. If the mild+ gifted don’t need imposed structure, the high+ gifted often reject it altogether, and this sometimes violently. Above this, the high+ gifted not only need to make their own structure for their own lives, but they often have a drive to create structures for whole groups, thought-systems, disciplines and cultures – the “external” structures which can then be followed by others.
This is the essence of “meta-thinking”, and in fact, this is what much of my work is devoted to: supporting the high+ gifted in the structuring and development of their own “discipline,” which is usually then followed by others. In this way, high+ gifted people are often leaders, whether they like it or not – their propensity to create their own mold, so to speak, makes them leaders. In coaching, we acknowledge the natural influence of the high+ gifted on others and actively connect this inborn influence to match the client’s highest values. Thus, what has felt for many a curse (having such influence) becomes a life-affirming force majeure, helping the high+ gifted person express essential parts of themselves and influence others positively and profoundly (rather than a destructive force majeure from which they try to run away or hide from others for fear of ultimate rejection).
SIMPLE IS COMPLEX, COMPLEX IS SIMPLE
All of this extreme abstraction, information-matricing and questioning sets the stage for the fact that what seems “simple” or “obvious” for the concrete or mild+ thinker (i.e. time = hours, minutes, seconds, etc.) is quite “complex” for the extremely abstract or high+ thinker (time = a concept, a representation, a paradox, a puzzle). However, once enough patterning has been learned and the high+ gifted person has thoroughly immersed himself in the study of the paradox or puzzle at hand, the complex becomes simple again, and what is then “complex” for the concrete or mild+ thinker (i.e. the relativity of time) is now quite “simple” for the high+ thinker.
This is why high+ gifted people often seem so out of sync with those around them. The question “how are you today?” can feel extremely complex (How am I about which aspect of my life? Why are you asking? How should I be? and so on); but the question “do you believe time is real?” is quick and easy to answer (well, almost!). The first question might exhaust a high+ gifted thinker, whereas the second question might exhaust an average thinker. Mild+ gifted thinkers are, accordingly, somewhere in between. This is one of the main reasons why small talk and typical social niceties are not often considered specialties of high+ gifted people, and why, when two high+ gifted people meet, they can end up talking about theories of the origins of the universe or the concept of numbers or any other complex puzzle without barely knowing each others’ names.
In gifted coaching, it is often amazing to see how quickly we move from “hello” to extremely complex subjects, such as personality processing, intergenerational emotional legacies, and the nature of existence. It is rare that we spend much time on conventional details such as where one lives, one’s age, one’s sexual orientation, one’s parents or one’s personal relationships – unless of course, those elements are integral parts of the client’s personal puzzle we are actively aiming to resolve together. To an outsider, I as a coach might seem callous, as I breeze by the niceties such as asking, “how are you doing today?” or “how are your kids?” and get right to the heart of the matter. My clients might seem the same toward me. But for us, it works!
COMMUNICATING THE INNER MATRIX
In coaching and in the real world, learning how to effectively communicate what is inside one’s matrix, or the matrix in its entirety, can be extremely challenging for the high+ gifted. Because of the rarity of true peers that many high+ gifted people have in their lives, many often feel a physical, almost primal need to communicate the extreme mental and emotional intensity they have held back for years in an effort to fit in or not overwhelm or confuse others. Thoughts, ideas, insights, questions and dreams often come tumbling out like a waterfall in early coaching sessions (or in discussions in our HEPG Group), as though a dam had broken and the very universe or their essence of being is pouring out of the high+ gifted person’s mind.
This is because, for many, it is the first time they feel socially safe enough to share their matrix. But after years of holding it in, it often comes out jumbled and confused, and not rarely, the high+ gifted person himself isn’t entirely sure what he needs to communicate or not. In coaching, I help these clients learn to express what’s in their minds to the best of their ability, while at the same time coming to terms with the fact that, no matter how much we talk or write or sing or play music or dance or produce, it is never really possible to communicate everything that is in our minds, and that this is part of the experience and legitimate existential suffering of being an “individuated” adult.
Knowing this helps to reduce the sense of isolation and longing that many (if not all) high+ gifted feel, and makes communication more functional and less idealistic (this applies across all levels of giftedness). Still, communicating even smaller, selected aspects of the whole – or more importantly, representations of the whole – often remains challenging and is considered by me (and many others) to be one of the main sources of real “work” for the high+ gifted. At any moment, a high+ gifted person may be speaking, be aware of what they are saying, and at the same time, have another ongoing voice (or voices) or awareness in their own mind analyzing what they are saying, as well as actively presenting the possible counterarguments that could be waged on what they are saying or how they are saying it (or writing, or otherwise expressing). As usual for them, they are seeing their argument or subject matter from myriad possible angles and further questions are being generated as they speak or write.
And that can be very frustrating, because high+ gifted people can rarely (if ever) fully agree with what they are saying or have said – there are always exceptions, caveats, missing data, and further exploration to do! How can they communicate what is always changing? They can thus get stuck in thought-loop “black holes” where their need for clarification and precision, finding “just the right word” or explanation, or keeping their argument 100% airtight ironically actually prevents them from making important life decisions, expressing themselves adequately, creating or producing viable work to share (and income to live), or otherwise moving forward with their desires in relationships and life.
When I consult with high+ gifted clients who struggle intensely to express themselves, it is often because they believe that what they have to say is “unacceptable” or “inaccurate” since it necessarily only presents a small fraction of the whole; it is therefore “too simple,” or needs much more clarification before they can share their thoughts, ideas or desires. This can be agonizing, but as I said above, it is incredibly important to accept that all communication is necessarily flawed. We have to choose to say this instead of that, and commit to arbitrary borders in order to communicate concepts and models, when there might be a combination of truth, untruth and subtleties to both “this” and “that” and truths outside of the arbitrary borders we have chosen. One helpful example to remember is how beginning physics teachers teach that the atom is like the solar system, with electrons revolving around a nucleus. This is not true, but for the beginner’s mind, it is much easier to conceptualize this than to understand probability waves. Later, distinctions can be made, as understanding of basic concepts advances.
The high+ gifted person’s stringency with themselves and their own reasoning is only half of the problem: in reality, this stringency very often spills out onto their expectations of others, something very linked to a dysfunctional behavior of the gifted that I’ve termed binocular behavior in coaching. This is because many high+ gifted people do not realize they are high+ gifted, and thinking others should more or less experience the world as they do, they expect others to be as precise and holistic as they are. They expect others to work as hard as they do at finding “just the right word” or at deciphering layers of meaning. When they try to express as much of the whole picture as possible, or as precisely as possible, and when they expect or try to incite others to do so by demanding precision and higher-order analysis, they often find that it is very overwhelming for the person interacting with them.
What they often do not realize is that many people are simply unable (not necessarily unwilling, as it sometimes feels to the high+ gifted person) to engage at that level of abstraction and precision. The other person can go into overwhelm with all of the information given by or expected from the high+ gifted person. This helps us understand what is often perceived by non high+ gifted people as perfectionism or unrealistically high standards, and helps high+ gifted people to find compassion and respect for their non-gifted or mild+ gifted peers. When they realize that their intensity can be as disturbing to others as others’ lack of intensity can be to them, it becomes easier for the high+ gifted to relax a bit and connect better “across the divide.”
FINDING PEACE OF MIND IN COMPLEXITY
I have struggled personally with all of the things I’ve talked about it this article – a lot. It’s why I’ve obsessed for years over learning as much as I could about giftedness and high+ giftedness, to make sense of my mind and why my life experience always seemed to be so drastically different than that of most of the people around me. Now that I’ve been coaching gifted people for nearly a decade, have written extensively about the phenomenon, and have started InterGifted, I can honestly say that I no longer feel crazy or trapped in my mind (most of the time). I’ve come to see my mind as a variation on a theme, with its own particular resistances to work with (everyone has resistances within which to evolve, mine are mostly linked to the way my mind complexifies things, or sees the complexity of things). I can also say I have found a certain measure of peace of mind, even considering my mind’s non-stop push to expand its inner matrix. With a lot of intentional work and support, I’ve learned to slow down my inner process enough to produce good work and make a very positive difference in the lives of others (especially in the lives of my gifted peers around the world).
This all, despite the fact that the questions and doubts still continue to arise all day long, every day. I’ve learned to experience the non-stop complexity, questioning, doubting, imposter syndrome, and often too-insistent curiosity, much like the noise of a flowing river. It is always there, and has never left me, not even in my moments of meditative bliss. I’ve learned to tap into it when it is useful, much the way Eckhart Tolle suggests using the mind as a helpful tool when you need to accomplish something, but not letting the mind use you as a tool: "The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, it is not so much that you use your mind wrongly—you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you."
I actively dive into “the river” of my intense curiosity, thoughts, analysis, meta-thinking and questioning, in a very conscious way, when I have a temporary goal I want to pursue or when swimming around there is simply a pleasure, which it often is. There are many other moments, however, that swimming around there is anything but a pleasure: big ugly fish of social judgment, risk-perception, and existential angst seem to be hungrily biting at my feet, and I am just swimming around in circles tiring myself out. These are moments that I choose to float on a raft on the surface of the water, sit next to “the river” and simply watch and listen to it as a whole, take a walk with its whooshing sound as my soundtrack, or let it lull me into a state of meditative trance or to sleep.
What big ugly fish am I talking about? As I write this article, in the background, I hear the threats from the river that I’m going to look arrogant to any and all who read my thoughts; I see the faces of all my classmates from 20 years ago laughing at how stupid I am to believe I’m gifted even though I’m “obviously nothing special”; I see all the gifted specialists out there tearing apart my arguments and proving to me that I’ve not done enough research to even have a clue of what I’m talking about; I see future me’s giving up and erasing everything I’ve ever written, throwing my computer out the window, selling all my belongings and going to live as a hermit to avoid this paradox of having something important to say but having as much doubt as I do certainty that it is valid at the moment. At the same time, I see the faces of all the gifted clients I’ve helped in profound ways over the years, thanking me and encouraging me to continue; I see my husband’s face, and his love for me; I see my parents’ faces, who, despite everything, have come to love me for my crazy gifted self, and who are proud of me and the person I’ve become, especially in light of my peculiar challenges.
So, I see all of that and so much more as I type these words. It is the river of my mind, rushing, rushing, and making a lot of distracting and clamorous noise. Yet, over many years, with much help from people who have cared deeply about me and have taken dedicated years and much compassion to help me understand my own mind construction and heal from the intense feelings of loneliness and craziness I used to feel, I’ve learned to listen to it with relative calm. I can listen calmly because I’ve come to understand that I can’t take my mind out of my head. It’s always there been there, with all its noise, and I’ve come to peace with the fact that, unless I suffer a serious brain injury, it will be there till I die. It is, in some way, my constant companion, and instead of the love-hate relationship I had with it for most of my life, I’ve come to think of it in less black and white terms. It is not, in fact, a thing, as much as it is a process (like Max Tegmark’s Braid in Spacetime). The “river” is the accompaniment of me becoming. And most of the time now, that feels okay.
MY ADVICE FOR HIGH+ GIFTED PEOPLE
Find a coach or mentor
It is thanks to my mentor and a number of key people who have seen my giftedness (and its accompanying legitimate suffering) and have dedicated themselves to helping me channel it, that I am able to sit down and write any of the above thoughts. In my early 20’s I was stuck living someone else’s life (a life based on others’ expectations and my lack of knowledge of my giftedness) and I became crippled by social anxiety and a kind of panicked existential depression in which I had come to feel that my mind was a liability and that there was no way I would ever be able to do anything positive with my life. Along with some very courageous life choices, it was my mentor's guidance that helped me to accept my giftedness and figure out how to live a healthy – if not conventional – life with it. If you are ready to work with a coach or mentor, visit our coaching page to see if one of us is a good fit for work with you.
Learn about how your mind is structured
Learn about your ever-expanding cognitive matrix map. A qualitative giftedness assessment with me or one of the assessors I've trained is an ideal place to start, along gifted coaching and integration work. Our articles here and on my site Rediscovering Yourself are also helpful places to explore.
Learn to meditate
Not in a cliché way. Actively study your mind and learn how it operates, so you can have more control over where you direct your attention. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this step. Notice what voices repeat themselves over and over again; study the enemy within, get to know it, so that you can fight it with dignity or simply learn to ignore its empty threats. Notice what truly inspires you within your mind, and dive into that. Expand what gives you pleasure in your mind, study what gives you pain. Learn to differentiate between the two, and actively train yourself to value the pleasure over the pain. Join our partner project The Gifted Mindfulness Collective to learn about and practice gifted-specific mindfulness in a community of gifted peers.
Connect with other high+ gifted peers
Find like-minded peers. As a first step, you may find our main community a good place to start connecting with fellow gifted people. For the high+ gifted, I've also created a group called the "HEPG Group". This group is open to active members of our main community. You can learn more about that group here.
About Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Jennifer is founding director of InterGifted and is a psychologist who specializes in providing training and mentoring for gifted coaches and other helping professionals who support the gifted; in performing giftedness assessments; and in mentoring profoundly gifted adults. She writes extensively on giftedness and self-development and you can find her articles here on InterGifted’s blog and on her own blog at Rediscovering Yourself. She is based in Switzerland and works with gifted adults throughout the world. Learn more about Jen here.