Motivation Article #9: The Origins and Ends of Giftedness
Gifted children and prodigies display near-adult level skills and interests.
Winner argues that the indirect evidence suggests that many gifted children and
savants have enhanced right-hemisphere development, concomitant language-
related difficulties and autoimmune disorders.
1) Origins and Causes of Giftedness
a) The Disputed Role of Training
Most people in our culture subscribe to the nativist view of giftedness, in which
giftedness is believed to be a product of inborn high ability.
Psychologists argue that giftedness is entirely a product of what is referred to
as goal-directed hard work, or deliberate practice.
Ericsson et al showed that levels of expertise relate directly with the amount of
deliberate practice. They discounted as unreliable anecdotal reports about the
childhood feats of prodigies. Ericsson and Faivre argue that savants work
obsessively in their area of ability and it is the countless hours they spend
drawing, doing mental calculation or playing an instrument that have led to
the suggestion that the savant’s skills are the product of deliberate practice.
Csikszentmihalyi, Gardner and Gruber show that all great achievement is
associated with years of deep and prolonged work.
Bloom showed that eminent adults in a variety of domains did not achieve high
levels of performance without a long and intensive period of training. Their
training began in early childhood with warm and loving teachers, who were
then supplanted by more demanding and rigorous master teachers.
Winner points out that a careful look at Bloom’s work reveals that the
descriptions of these eminent individuals as children shows that at a very
young age, prior to any regimen of training or deliberate practice, signs of
unusual ability were present. The musicians were described as quick to learn
the piano and both their parents and their teachers recognized they were
special. Thus, Bloom’s work allows us to conclude only that intensive training is
necessary for the acquisition of expertise; it does not sufficiently explain
children’s high level of achievement.
Winner also believes that those children who have the most ability are also
more likely to be those who are most interested in a particular activity, who
begin to work at that activity at an early age, and who work the hardest at it.
Ericsson’s research demonstrated the importance of hard work but did not rule
out the role of innate ability.
Winner shows that the claim that savants achieve their astonishing level of
performance because they have practised their skill for countless hours leaves
unexplained the fact that, like gifted children, savants show extremely high
abilities right from the start, before they have spent much time working at
their gift. In addition, this claim cannot explain why savants are found only in
domains that are highly rule governed and structured rather than in looser
domains such as philosophy or creative writing. Thus, it seems more likely that savants and gifted children owe their gifts at least in part to innate abilities
that in turn reflect atypical brain organization.
Indirect evidence that gifted children and savants have atypical brain
1) Giftedness in mathematics, visual arts and music is associated with
superior visual-spatial abilities, and children with mathematical gifts show
enhanced brain activity in their right hemisphere when asked to recognize
faces, a task known to involve the right hemisphere.
2) Individuals with gifts in mathematics, visual arts and music are
disproportionately non-right-handed. This finding suggests atypical brain
organization, because non-right-handedness is a rough index of anomalous
3) Mathematically and musically gifted individuals have a more bilateral,
symmetrical brain organization than is usual, with the right hemisphere
participating in tasks ordinarily reserved for the left hemisphere.
4) Giftedness in spatial areas is accompanied by a disproportionate incidence
of language related learning disorders such as dyslexia, a finding reported
for artists and musicians.
5) Youths with very high IQs have an increased incidence of autoimmune
b) The Role of Families
Gifted children typically report that their family played a positive role in their
The research does not allow us to conclude that particular family
characteristics play a causal role in the development of giftedness. There are
two reasons why no causal conclusions can be drawn from the existing data:
1) There is a lack of relevant control groups
2) If causality exists, its direction could be either from parent to child or from
child to parent
The families of gifted children are child centred, meaning that family life is
often totally focused on the child’s needs.
Gifted children typically grow up in enriched family environments with a high
level of intellectual or artistic stimulation.
Parents of gifted children typically have high expectations and also model hard
work and high achievement themselves.
To achieve in a performance domain, one must submit to rigorous and early
training, even the most gifted children might not stick to such a rigorous
schedule without a directive parent who insists that time be spent on practice.
Parents of gifted children grant their children more than the usual amount of
Gifted children who grow up in “complex” families (those that combine both
stimulation and nurturance) are happier, more alert, more engaged and more
goal directed than are gifted children who grow up in families with only one or
neither of these traits. Gifted children from complex families report more states of flow and high energy and were rated by teachers as original,
independent and working up to their potential.
c) Implications for Education and Child Rearing
To be sure, no research has demonstrated that hard work, perseverance and
practice is sufficient to explain the existence of giftedness.
Parents and schools ought to hold and model high expectations if gifted
children are to reach their potential. Standards and expectations are not only
too low for the gifted, they are also far too low for the rest of our students. If
our schools were as rigorous as those in Western Europe and East Asia, then
many of our moderately gifted students, who are currently bored, tuning out
and underachieving would be appropriately challenged.
Too often parents fear pushing their children too hard. They fear they may rob
their children of a normal childhood if they make them work too much and
instead allow their children unlimited access to television, video games, malls
and such. However, we do not know how many more high-potential children
never develop their ability because they are not challenged but are instead
captured by the potent messages from their peer culture to avoid work and be
like everyone else.
2) Motivational Aspects of Giftedness
Gifted children have a deep intrinsic motivation to master the domain in which
they have high ability and are almost manic in their energy le