Intellectual Overexcitability in Action

To be intellectually overexcitable according to Dabrowski’s theory of Overexcitabilities is to love an intellectual challenge and to be driven to solve problems, ask probing questions, and engage in theoretical anaylsis.

This weekend, my parents and I had a conversation that demonstrated how these intellectual passions can manifest themselves. Between us, we have 7 degrees from Oxford, Harvard, Dartmouth, Cornell, London School of Economics, and the University of Sussex. I expect our average IQ is at least 140. My mother relaxes by doing the most difficult cryptic crossword puzzles she can find. I also love puzzles. When my mother and I took up Sudoku, my father became interested in questions like ‘How many Sudoku puzzles are there with only one solution?” It is a family with intellectual overexcitabilities.

Last weekend, the three of us took my four kids to the Ontario Science Centre. The Ontario Science Centre is large, busy, and loud. Before the kids could settle into exploring any one activity, they had to adjust to the crowds and the volume. They rushed through the building without seeming to take anything in. Eventually we arrived at a contained area with familiar exhibits and they began to relax.

From here, the adults tempted them into new areas where they spent time interacting with new exhibits. Eventually, they absorbed all that they could take and started running around again. This was our cue to finish up and make our way to the car.

I was exhausted, having spent four hours counting children, confirming my parents could see the ones I couldn’t, and managing my own sensitivities to the fluorescent lights and the volume. The children were drained and zoned out for the drive home, watching the world pass by at highway speed, and hardly talking. If I had been the only adult in the car, I would have driven meditatively, focusing only on the driving, relaxing into the present moment, and enjoying the silence from the back seats.

But, I was not alone.

My father remarked that the Science Centre doesn’t reflect his definition of “science,” and we were off. I was re-energized. The adults in the car dove into a passionate conversation involving these topics:

  • What understanding of science is embedded in the design of the Science Centre?
  • Is the Science Centre’s purpose to teach science or to stimulate interest?
  • How did we learn science?
  • What is my father’s definition of science?
  • Does defining science as “a body of knowledge based on evidence and models” sufficiently encompass our understanding of scientific methodologies or must acceptable forms of evidence be defined?
  • How does one teach methods of scientific research?
  • Why are high school laboratory curricula frustrating to bright students interested in science?
  • What sort of data did we falsify for lab reports in high school when our experiments didn’t work as expected, but we knew what the results should have been?
  • Did the science curriculum we had as students give short shrift to engineering?
  • How are science and engineering different?
  • How do visits to the Science Centre fit into a homeschooler’s science curriculum?

The conversation was fast and emotionally charged. The most in-depth part of the discussion focused on the definition of science, and we did not settle the question of whether one could simply mention evidence and models or whether one had to define what constituted acceptable evidence and models.

We concluded that the design of the exhibits we had seen reflected a focus on engineering, not science; playing with the exhibits could teach concepts of repeatability and variation while encouraging the kids to explore and ask questions; teaching scientific methods in school is difficult to do well; and the Science Centre is good for encouraging kids to experiment, notice patterns, and ask questions, but isn’t sufficient as a science curriculum.

30 minutes after my father’s initial comment, we pulled off the highway, and the conversation shifted to other topics, like what to have for dinner.

This is typical of conversations within my family: intellectual, passionate, reasoned, and covering a wide variety of related topics. We can’t let a topic go. When someone wonders aloud why something is the way it is or how it might be different, we have an almost obsessive need to investigate.

And that is Intellectual Overexcitability in Action.

16 thoughts on “Intellectual Overexcitability in Action

  1. I guess my own version is my mom (who has no college degree) and I (I have a masters in fine art from a public university) who can discuss, analyze, and dissect politics, personal history and human motivation endlessly and have been doing so since I was able to talk. Science? Not so much! Humanity? We can probably teach our own course. Thing is, my own kids have little patience for this–which is why I put all the things that puzzle me about the human condition into my writing.

    1. Christine Fonseca

      Yea, my story is much the same!!! It wasn’t until recently that I have come to embrace my emotional self, you know?!?

  2. Benoit

    So you’re lucky to have grown up in such a family !
    As an unidentified highly gifted boy (sorry for not being born in the USA) in “normal” family. I’ve never had such conversations. I had to keep all these questions for myself and suffered for the stupid talk of my parents. My mother “knew” because she’s my mother and my father always knew evererything because he was physician…and so he was always right…and I was always wrong. When questionning things, I was labeled antisocial and caracterial….
    I’ve only discovered my giftedness when I was 38 ! But I still look like an ET (sometimes like an UFO) when I discuss things the way you do in your family.
    Best regards🙂

    1. I agree that I have been lucky in that my family shares this characteristic. They have always been a refuge for this part of me.
      It is hard when our families don’t understand us. In my family, my emotional overexcitabilites were challenging to the family dynamic, and I am still working through how that has impacted my life.

    2. Being born in the US, even to an affluent family, is no guarantee, believe me. I got identified, but that was pretty much it.

      I am unbelievably jealous of having parents who engage in such conversations: the height of such in my house growing up was watching Jeopardy with my mother.

      I know that I want to be THIS kind of parent for my kids though, and I think we’re off to a pretty good start. Hurray for conversations that are actually ABOUT something!

  3. berlee

    incidentally, the thing that brightly blinked at me in this post was the mention of sensitivity to florescent lights. i’ve noticed major discomfort in all places with florescents, and noticed my daughter seeming really unsettled in those places as well. seeing someone else mention it makes me feel ever so slightly less crazy!

    1. My husband teases me that I always stay up way too late talking into the night when I get together with my family. I don’t see them often and these conversations feed me for months. I can’t just leave because I’m tired and have to get up in the morning. I just can’t. I come away from those conversations enthusiastic and alive in a way I rarely get to be. It is only recently that I have realized how special it is to have a group of people like this in my own family.

  4. Flourescent lights are evil, migraine inducing, insanity machines. I’d support banning them, but I’m generally against banning (which, being “overexitable” could lead to many hours of discussion) things. Your car ride is definitely my idea of a good time!

  5. Erin

    KNOWING THAT OTHER SUCH PEOPLE EXIST MAKES ME HAPPY. (/shout.) Jealous, maybe, but happy. Please, keep writing about them, and thank you.

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