Overexcitabilities: Not Everyone is Excited About Them

James Bishop, Ph.D. LPC NCC

As professionals in the field of gifted and talent, there are a number of concepts that are immediately familiar to us, ideas that are part of the essential nomenclature of our field. One such concept is overexcitabilities. Overexcitabilities refers to a constellation of human intensities expressed in areas of emotion, intelligence, sensation, imagination, and physical expression. First theorized by the psychologist Kazimierz Dąbrowski, the psychologist observed that some people were naturally wired to be more intense. Dąbrowski also found that individuals with high intelligence seem to experience overexcitabilities with greater frequency than their intellectually-normative peers. The idea of overexcitabilities has developed a prominent level of acceptance in the GT field and is the subject of numerous articles and books written for parents and mental health professionals.

Yet recently, a growing chorus of GT researchers are criticizing the field’s reliance on (and they would argue blind acceptance of) overexcitabilities as explanatory factors in the problems and behaviors of gifted youth. Their primary argument is that overexcitabilities have been poorly-researched in the past few decades. They also express concern that legitimate psychological issues experienced by the gifted are being dismissed by mental health professionals as simply the product of overexcitabilities.

While I believe that there is no evidence that gifted youth are being misdiagnosed and treated on the basis of overexcitabilities, I do believe that there is a degree of substance to these researchers’ criticisms. All scientific concepts and theories need to be re-evaluated from time-to-time to determine if they still explain what they purport to explain and that they are keeping up with the march of science. And I believe that the concept of overexcitabilities would benefit by a concerted and unbiased re-examination. Part of the issue is that overexcitabilities are grouped into the social and emotional realm of the GT field and are of little interest to researchers - the vast majority of whom are more concerned with issues of academic performance, equity, and identification. Case in point, none of the researchers who are critical of overexcitabilities expressed an interest in conducting research on the subject when I discussed the issue with them.

I also asked the critics of overexcitabilities how they might hypothetically, as researchers, approach conducting current research on the subject. One of the most tantalizing suggestions was to conduct new research using an adversarial collaboration approach in which an advocate of overexcitabilities and a non-advocate conduct a study on the subject together. This decreases the likelihood that the research will be biased or have design weaknesses. Another thought is to replicate dated research on the subject to see if the findings still hold up. The most important factors, the researchers argue, are that the research must be reproducible and published under a peer review model in a respected academic journal.

I don’t want to send the impression that I personally have abandoned the notion of overexcitabilities. I see and recognize intensities both in my counseling clients and within myself. I believe I possess a number of those characteristics. But as a counselor, it is important that the interventions and approaches I embrace in my clinical practice are based on sound and current science. Too often mental health professionals embrace approaches to treatment that lack empirical support, solely because a theory or treatment modality is popular in the current zeitgeist. Perhaps we need to think more like researchers and expect more empirical support in the ideas we embrace. In this case, a little skepticism is a healthy thing.

James Bishop, Ph.D. LPC NCC is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Texas who specializes in working with gifted youth and adults. He is the current chair of the NAGC Social and Emotional Development Network. Instagram and Twitter: @dynamicbecoming

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of NAGC