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Neuroscience of Asynchronous Development in Bright Minds

*Previously published on 2e News and Variations Magazine at

“If you are always trying to be normal you may never know how amazing you can be.”

— Maya Angelou

There is a great body of evidence in neuroscience indicating that our individuality originates within our unique brains.

Recent studies illuminate that each of our brains is as distinctive as a fingerprint. With advances in brain mapping and imaging software, we know no two brains are identical — which makes sense. We each have our own genetic makeup, process information from our environment through our five senses, express unique ways of emotional processing, and are composed of our specific autobiographical memories. As a neuroscientist, I believe we are barely scratching the surface in our understanding of the human brain, both what we think we know and the vast world of the unknown. If you happen to be bright and have quirky behaviors, then your brain, body, and particular physiology may be at the core of how you navigate the world.

Early in 2006, a foundational study by Shaw and colleagues at UCLA Imaging Institute followed more than 300 children for 12 years, mapping brain development and growth. They created three-dimensional brain maps and calculated measurements of grey and white matter from brain scans from ages seven to 19. In the study, the children completed an IQ test and the participants were placed in three groups: average, high, and superior intelligence.

Researchers found that the children showed asynchronous brain development, meaning that regions of the brain grew at varying rates and various time points based on development. Brain growth was specific to the onset of puberty, when there is known to be vast brain expansions and major changes in the brain and body’s hormonal systems. Children in the superior intelligence group had an even greater increase in brain growth — specifically in the frontal cortex — from the onset of puberty through age 15.

The frontal cortex, which develops in humans all the way through the third decade of life, is the holy grail for executive functioning, intuitive problem-solving, communication, and emotional saliency. This is the mother lode for behavior and cognition, as well as planning, completing, and focusing on any sort of task. In bright children, a common challenge is remaining focused and being productive where there is a disconnect between their ability, functioning, and natural talents.

As we know, bright children often express extraordinary gifts but also have great challenges, which they either mask or are unaware of. Standard measures of intelligence, such as IQ tests, pose issues for 2e students because their weaknesses can preclude them from demonstrating their strengths. For instance, a child reading at a college level who struggles with writing may not be able to show the depth and complexity of her textual understanding; or my son, for instance, who was known as the absent-minded professor in middle school because he did his work ahead of time but forgot to turn it in. Missing those assignments was not a true evaluation of his abilities or even a remote understanding of his brainpower and functioning.

Asynchronous brain development may be at the heart of what we are seeing in these bright children. There may be one or more greatly over-expanded and well-developed brain regions amidst other regions that are developmentally behind, compromising cognitive processing and executive functioning skills. These are emerging perspectives about neurodiversity. To take a look at this more closely, imagine a three-year-old child with a well-developed brain area for audition (sensory processing for sound). For him, sounds are heard louder, sooner, and in some cases the sounds can reach a threshold of pain for the child. Given the child’s age, an underdeveloped frontal cortex could make it difficult to regulate this threshold, resulting in bad behavior. A child could be tagged as a problem case rather than understood as having a specific disability that causes the child to suffer. This misidentification and misunderstanding could cause greater stress in the child and everyone around him since the actual issue is not addressed.

Understanding that the frontal cortex greatly expands in puberty could be key to understanding asynchronous behavior in gifted and 2e children. When we see these troubling behaviors, it is critical that we completely understand their causes.

Are we doomed if we have a bright child? No, we simply have to pay closer attention to their particular ways of navigating in the world. We need to pursue positive strategies and learning opportunities for the child. We know that learning requires an emotional connection to create positive associations and positive neural plasticity. The best ways to support a bright asynchronous learner are:

•Identify the origin of their learning difference

•Implement appropriate accommodations

•Allow them to learn at their own pace

•Nurture strengths and challenges equally, providing more opportunities for success than failure

•Encourage divergent thinking

•Find out what they love and let them run with it

•Have them engage with like minds so they know they are not alone and become part of a community

For my little absent-minded professor, a simple solution was creating a single homework folder that was turned in to his homeroom teacher at the start of the day. This gave him a foundation and a simple repetitive task, which then translated into positive behavior and feelings of success. Ultimately, we changed the mind-body connection with a positive solution. Also, this coincided with his natural development, as his executive functioning skills caught up with his neurodiverse mind.

Mary Oliver wrote, “In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.”

It is our job as a society to find creative solutions to help these children thrive and move forward into the space of imagining a future with all shapes and sizes of neurodiversity as a way of life. As guides, we need to allow space and time for the bright mind to break free from the ordinary, experience the extraordinary, and then awaken to life.

Additional reading:

“The Human Connectome Project’s Neuroimaging Approach,” Nat Neurosci. Aug 26, 2016.

“Extraordinary Neoteny of Synaptic Spines in the Human Pre- Frontal Cortex,” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 2011

“Intellectual ability and cortical development in children and adolescents,” Nature. March 30, 2006.

“Brain Fingerprints,” April 14, 2017

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