The Truth about Overexcitabilities

Linda Silverman's picture
What is overexcitability (OE)? Is there empirical evidence that gifted children and adults have greater OE? Does OE portray gifted children as emotionally needy and peculiar? Why is the concept controversial? Can we distinguish OE from AD/HD, sensory processing disorder, and other issues? How should we respond to OEs? 
 
We are in a unique position at GDC/ISAD to answer these questions. We have been studying overexcitability since 1980, shortly after the concept was introduced in gifted education. We create and distribute the instruments to assess OE and guide research.
 
 
What is overexcitability? 
 
The concept of OE was a gift from Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, as part of his Theory of Positive Disintegration. OE is a greater neural capacity to respond to stimuli. It is the zing you experience when you are with certain people who seem to radiate excitement. 
 
Dabowski identified 5 OEs: psychomotor – abundance of physical energy; sensual – heightened responses of the senses and aesthetic appreciation; imaginational – capacity for fantasy; intellectual – curiosity and aliveness of the mind; emotional – sensitivity, intensity, empathy.
 
 
Is there empirical evidence that gifted children and adults have greater OE?
 
Yes, a considerable amount of research has been conducted since 1980, and new studies are published frequently. The OEQ-II has been translated into 7 different language groups and 14 languages.  Numerous studies have explored the relationship between giftedness and OEs. All show that the OEs differentiate between gifted and nongifted in a variety of ways.
 
The concept of overexcitability is statistically robust. It has been validated in several factor analytic studies. Reliabilities of the OEs range from .73 to .83, which is quite high (Silverman, Falk & Miller, 2015). 
 
Large-scale studies of the Big Five Personality Theory have found high correlations between intelligence and Openness to Experience. Intellectual, imaginational, emotional and sensual OE bear strong resemblance to Ideas, Fantasy, Feelings, and the Aesthetic facets of Openness to Experience (Gallagher, 2013). 
 
 
Does OE portray gifted children as emotionally needy and peculiar?
 
No, not at all.  OEs are primarily positive sources of energy. It is a misunderstanding of the “over” in overexcitability to represent OE as a burden or a deficit of some kind. The term literally means “superstimulatability” of the nervous system. The OEs can be thought of as an abundance of physical, sensual, creative, intellectual and emotional energy. 
 
 
Why is the concept controversial?
 
There are many misunderstandings. OEs are not signs of disturbance. OEs should not be used as excuses for bad behavior. A child can have OEs and AD/HD; they are not mutually exclusive. Some OE enthusiasts inadvertently overlook real issues that could be helped by interventions. Some proclaim that discussion of OEs will obscure diagnosis of disabilities and prevent a child from getting accommodations, but many respected diagnosticians of twice exceptional children also assess and discuss OEs. 
 
In addition, there are theoretical squabbles. OEs are innate, suggesting that gifted children are wired differently. Those who define giftedness as achievement motivation believe that it is the result of effort rather than innate differences. Some believe that OEs are not measurable. Others contend that if something hasn’t been measured with control groups, it doesn’t exist.
 
 
Can we distinguish OE from AD/HD, sensory processing disorder, and other issues? 
 
Yes. Much of the controversy can be resolved by recognizing the OEs as positive signs of developmental potential.  While there are some negative manifestations of the OEs, there are far more positive than negative descriptors (Piechowski, 1979; 2013). Abundant physical energy, deep aesthetic appreciation, capacity for fantasy, intellectual curiosity and profound empathy—the hallmarks of overexcitability—do not require correction.
 
Negative aspects of OE require further evaluation to rule out overlapping symptoms.  
Anxiety, mood swings, unusual activity level, distractibility, feeling easily overwhelmed, discomfort with certain textures, social withdrawal or lack of cooperation may have many other causes. OEs can co-exist with any disability. Children can have OEs along with AD/HD, Asperger Syndrome, manic depression, sensory processing disorder, social phobia, and many other issues. It is essential to rule out any other possible causes of problematic behavior, rather than just attributing it to OEs.
 
 
How should we respond to OEs?
 
Appreciation
Allow movement in learning
Create a beautiful environment
Give children experiences in nature
Provide a quiet place to retreat
Employ fantasy and imagination
Mindfulness training
Community service projects
Challenging work (Silverman, 2015)
 
 
Overexcitabilities are alive and well, describe the richness of experience of the gifted individual, and are to be celebrated.
 
 
REFERENCES
 
Gallagher, S. A. (2013). Building bridges: Research on gifted childrens’ personalities from three perspectives. In C. S. Neville, M. M. Piechowski, & S. S. Tolan (Eds.). Off the charts: Asynchrony and the gifted child (pp. 48-98). Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press.
 
Piechowski, M. M. (1979). Developmental potential. In N. Colangelo & R. T. Zaffrann (Eds.), New voices in counseling the gifted (pp. 25-57). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt. 
 
Piechowski, M. M. (2013). “A bird who can soar”: Overexcitabilities in the gifted. In C. S. Neville, M. M. Piechowski, & S. S. Tolan (Eds.). Off the charts: Asynchrony and the gifted child (pp. 99-122). Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press.
 
Silverman, L. K. (2015, October). Overexcitabilities: Myth, realizations and new research. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Colorado Association for the Gifted/Talented. Loveland, CO.
 
Silverman, L. K., Falk, R. F., & Miller, N. B. (2015, November). Overexcitabilities: Verifying the inner worlds of the gifted globally. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Gifted Children, Phoenix, AZ.