Kazimerz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist whose work has been applied to the field of gifted children and adults, created a theory on ‘overexcitabilities’. An idea which has illuminated the concepts of intensity and sensitivity as they relate to giftedness.

In a nutshell – everyone responds to environmental stimuli – but the giften often seem to respond at much higher levels of intensity – as well as also being more sensitive to the stimuli themselves. Importantly – this happens in the brain. They experience the same stimuli as other people, but their brains process those stimuli at a more detailed and subtle level, and more intensely, than neurotypical people. This creates a heightened response in gifted individuals.

This heightened response, leads these gifted individuals to be so reactive, that their feelings, experiences, or visible reactions far exceed what one would typically expect.

Dabrowski categorised these or over-excitabilities, or over-sensitivities – into five main themes:

1. Intellectual Overexcitability

Insatiable curiosity, asking probing questions, concentration, problem solving, theoretical thinking – all of these are hallmarks of intellectual overexcitability.

These indidivuals have incredibly active minds that seek to gain knowledge, search for understanding and truth, and endeavour to solve problems. As youngsters, they devour books; as adults, they are still avid readers. Or some, still voracious readers.

Intensely curious as children, they ask so many questions that adults find their ears are tired. They are introspective and enjoy mental puzzles and challenges that involve focus, concentration, and problem solving, and they may be content to sit and contemplate by themselves for long periods of time.

Intellectually overexcitable people often focus on moral and ethical concerns and issues of fairness. They are independent thinkers and keen observers who may become impatient if others do not share their excitement and enthusiasm about an idea.

2. Imaginational Overexcitability

About three-fourths of gifted children during their pre-school years have one or more imaginative playmates who have imaginary pets and who live on imaginary planets in imaginary universes.

Adults with imaginational overexcitability are often dramatic in their interactions with others, as exemplified in persons like the improvisational comedian Robin Williams.

Adults can also be daydreamers. They can be gifted story tellers, fiction writers, and lyricists. Their mind-wandering may be quite creative and divergent and their mental reverie quite detailed and ornate, although they appear to be ‘spaced out’.

3. Emotional Overexcitability

This area, with its extreme and complex emotions and intense feelings, is often the first to be noticed in children by their parents, as being ‘highly sensitive’.

Emotionally overexcitable people show a heightened concern for and reaction to their immediate environment. They form strong emotional attachments to people, animals, places and things, and are often accused of overreacting.

The intensity of their feelings is seen in their compassion, empathy and sensitivity. These are the people who may begin to cry when they see a homeless person on the street, a small creature being killed, or when looking at powerful vista in nature, such as a sunset, a mountain range or the ocean etc.

They may show frequent temper tantrums as a child, and displays of rage, possibly related to losing a game, feeling left out, needing to be the best, or not getting their way.

Their strong emotions – profound sadness over the plight of others, as well as elation over some expected good fortune (or cognitive breakthrough when combined with intellectual overexcitability) – can be extreme, and also puzzling, to neurotypical people, or people who do not recognise these overexcitabilities as part and parcel of giftedness.

Adults who display emotional overexcitability tend to become involved in social or environmental causes, idealistically trying to help others or the natural environment.

They may become quite cynical or angry when they discover that their idealism and sensitivity is not shared by others.

4. Psychomotor Overexcitability

People with psychomotor overexcitability appear to have a heightened excitability of the neuromuscular system and an ‘augmented capacity for being active and energetic’.

They love movement for it’s own sake and they show a surplus of energy that is often manifested in rapid speech, fervent enthusiasm, intense physical activity, and a need for action.

When feeling emotionally tense, these persons may talk compulsively, act impulsively, display nervous habits, show intense drive (tending towards ‘workaholism’ or constant busyness), compulsively organise, become quite competitive, or even act out and behave antagonistically.

Though they derive great joy from their boundless physical and verbal enthusiasm and activity, others may find them overwhelming. They seem never to be still, and they may talk constantly, and so are often to be seen being told to sit down and be quiet.

People with psychomotor overexcitability are most at risk of being diagnosed as ADD/ADHD. Although children or adults with psychomotor overexcitability may be riveted to a task mentally, their bodies are likely to fidget and twitch in their excitement, in ways that can resemble hyperactivity. As adults, these individuals can be exhausting to be around.

Many of them learn to manage their psychomotor overexcitability through vigorous exercise or through doodling or knitting – activities that are generally acceptable – or they may jiggle their foot or legs, particularly when they are engaged with rapt attention.

5. Sensual Overexcitability

For the sensually overexcitable person, the sensory aspects of everyday life – seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing – are much more heightened that for others.

They may object to tags in the back of shirts, cannot wear socks with rough seams, or their seams have to be perfectly straight. The flicker and buzz of flourescent lights bother them greatly and may give them headaches. Odours, such as perfume, feel overwhelming to them. They react strongly to the texture or taste of certain foods. They become exhausted from the continuous presence of background noise.

Adults may find that the noise of meetings or the work setting bothers them significantly, or that they have an aversion to perfume, deodourants and strong scents.

Not surprisingly, many gifted children and adults with this particular overexcitability attempt to avoid or minimise environments of overstimulation and overwhelm.

On the other hand, they may get great pleasure from their unusual sensitivity to experiences with music, massage/touch/bodywork, language, art, and foods. They may even focus on pleasurable experiences so intently that the world around them ceases to exist for a time – which can also be a way of escaping the overwhelming environment.

Mostly taken from ‘Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Giften Chidren and Adults’, Webb, 2012