The High IQ TBI

In Brain Injury, High IQ (HIQ), High IQ TBI, Research by Emerson Jane Browne92 Comments

The thing about humans is that (at least prior to a brain injury) we all think everyone else thinks the same way we do. Therefore, if you are bright, dumb, or somewhere in between you think everyone is just like you and that you are nothing special.

Most people do not know they have a high IQ

… unless they have been told. Or in my case, I figured it out by lots of research when I was trying to understand what was going on with me.  Later I found out about some old test scores and then, got scored again as part of the Neuropsych Evaluation when my brain injury was finally diagnosed.

Giftedness is a double-edge sword.  There are benefits that cut one way but difficulties that cut the other.  I wrote a post about the questionable and common overrating of the benefits while ignoring the drawbacks quite a while back entitled: High IQ is Overrated! Or is it?

We are different.  We are misunderstood; even by ourselves.

In fact we are often misunderstood especially by ourselves.  If we have not known we have a high IQ we have been beating ourselves up for not fitting in.

That their own perceptions and judgments are unusual may have been obvious since childhood, but they may have spent their lives assuming that this difference was a deficit, a fault, even a defect of character or a sign of mental illness (Lovecky, 1986; Alvarado, 1989). Thinking independently may seem foolhardy or antisocial.2

Gifted adults can misinterpret their complex and deep way of thinking as craziness. They can mistake their emotional intensity for emotional immaturity or see it as a character flaw. Because they have never been given information to explain what is “normal for gifted” they frequently experience frustration in the world, alienation, anger, self blame and emptiness. Without an adequate explanation of their gifted difference, they develop a facade with which they cover their authentic self; a face that they show to the world in order to fit in and so avoid disapproval or sanction.3

In fact, I still have a terribly difficult time admitting in here – announcing publicly – that I have a high IQ.  I feel like I am going to get stoned for saying it.  I envision a sea of onlookers heckling me; saying “Who in the hell do you think you are to claim you are gifted?!  You are just trying to make yourself seem special!”  The chorus of all of all my fears, failures, and the difficulties I’ve had fitting in are shouting in my head.  It is the music we, the “gifted” live with when we do not acknowledge or understand the way in which we are different and how to work with those differences.

We are a minority.

Think about it.  Even if we look at my IQ from the Neuropsych Evaluation that was given after my brain injury, for each person who has the same IQ or higher than me there are over 1000 people who have a lower IQ. That means that I think differently than the majority of the people I come in contact with .  That can set a person up to be misunderstood at every turn of their life and especially when dealing with a TBI.

I think understanding our giftedness is very important for any person with a high IQ to heal from and live with a TBI.  The very things that make us different are the very things that make our TBIs different.  Having a TBI and a high IQ is a very mixed blessing.

Characteristics of Adult Giftedness

So, first off, what are some of the characteristics of being gifted?4 (No one probably has every single one.)

  • perfectionistic and sets high standards for self and others

  • is highly sensitive, perceptive or insightful

  • fascinated by words or an avid reader

  • feels out-of-sync with others

  • feels a sense of alienation and loneliness

  • is very curious

  • has an unusual sense of humor

  • a good problem solver

  • has a vivid and rich imagination

  • questions rules or authority

  • has unusual ideas or connects seemingly unrelated ideas

  • thrives on challenge

  • learns new things rapidly

  • has a good long-term memory

  • feels overwhelmed by many interests and abilities

  • is very compassionate

  • feels outrage at moral breaches that the rest of the world seems to take for granted

  • has passionate, intense feelings

  • has a great deal of energy

  • can’t switch off thinking

  • feels driven by creativity

  • loves ideas and ardent discussion

  • needs periods of contemplation

  • searches for questions in their life

  • is very perceptive

High IQ and Brain Injury

Recently, I have been corresponding with two members on the TBI Survivors Network about the issues we face when we have a high IQ and have a brain injury.

When a person has a high IQ to begin with, they still have one even though they have a brain injury. We actually don’t lose it. Brain injuries are more like holes, big spots missing due to the injuries. But the part that is still intact still has the IQ which is the person’s “normal”. Your high IQ is a big part of the reason this is all so painful. You (and I) acutely feel how much has been lost. Or in the words of my doctor “The holes can go deeper in you, than for us mere mortals.” (Yes, he said that!)5

An IQ is actually made up of Verbal and Performance scores. With a brain injury there is usually a big gap between the two. There is in mine.  It is a classic sign of a TBI.  A big part of our frustration is that part of us still thinks and feels the way we always have but our ability to process and convey the thoughts and feelings is shot to hell.

How a TBI intensifies the characteristics of a High IQ

The loss of ability is only one of the many things that is amplified by giftedness. Let’s look at the above list of High IQ Characteristics with an eye on how a TBI intensifies the characteristics of being gifted. Image: Handprint pushing a Help button.

  • perfectionistic and sets high standards for self and others

We do not stop adhering to perfectionistic standards for ourselves.  We try.  But it is pretty ingrained in us.  We must learn patience and compassion toward ourselves.

  • is highly sensitive, perceptive or insightful

Highly sensitive means highly sensitive in every sense of the words.  Gifted  (non TBI) people tend to be highly sensitive to noise, lights, smell, and touch – to the point of cutting labels out of all their  clothing, for instance. A TBI increases all of these sensitivities to way beyond bearable!  PTSD does too.  And TBI and PTSD often come together. I firmly believe that gifted adults and children suffer far more acutely in the area of hyperarousal than someone with a more normal IQ who did not start out as highly sensitive to begin with.

  • fascinated by words or an avid reader

Aphasia is caused by damage to the parts of the brain that control language. It can make it hard for a person to read, write or say what you mean to say.  When you have a deep love of words and language it feels like a part of your very essence is missing to not be able to find words.  (I am so very thankful for the power of computers and PowerThesaurus.org.)

  • feels out-of-sync with others

  • feels a sense of alienation and loneliness

Heck, that is something anyone with a TBI feels.  It is probably exaggerated in the gifted.

A brain injury changes how we interact with the world

A brain injury changes who we are, how we see ourselves, how we interact with the world and our life. Most of these High IQ attributes below change with a TBI.

  • is very curious

  • has an unusual sense of humor

  • a good problem solver

  • has a vivid and rich imagination

  • questions rules or authority

  • has unusual ideas or connects seemingly unrelated ideas

  • thrives on challenge

  • learns new things rapidly

  • has a good long-term memory

We relied on our High IQ

Image: A maze in the shape of a question mark.

One of the biggest difficulties for Gifted/Brain Injured adults is that all of our life we have been able to rely on our ability to pick things up quickly, make the thought connections between disparate ideas, multitask, multi-think . . .  We relied on it even if we were unaware that we were doing so. Suddenly those abilities have been stripped from us.  That is huge. We are completely at a loss how to navigate life.  Even with a very mild TBI executive functions involving planning, multitasking, and sequencing are usually compromised.  Because the gifted tend to “coast” relying on the enhances abilities, this fall from grace is into an especially deep pit.

The Brain gets Noisy after a Brain Injury

High IQ traits:

  • feels overwhelmed by many interests and abilities

  • can’t switch off thinking

Again, what is normal to us is only amplified by a TBI. The way I would describe this for myself is that, yes, I definitely had these characteristics.  But with the TBI, especially before I got help, it felt like all the thoughts, interests, head noise were going all over the place.  It was like pre-injury I had a lot of colored dots swirling around in my head but there was a pattern and rhythm to them. I could somewhat control their path, channel them into useful, productive actions or thoughts. After the TBI it was like all those dots were still in my head but they were going every which way at a frenetic speed.  There was no rhythm or pattern.  I could not channel them because in the first place the channels were all missing and even if I could grab one ball and hold on to it when I went to grab a second ball I would lose the one I thought I had hold of; heck usually I would lose them both!  But they wouldn’t entirely go out of my head.  They would stay there bobbing and flying around just out of reach!

Compassion is a blessing

High IQ trait:

  • is very compassionate

Here is a key blessing.  Once we really start to get a grasp on what has happened and start to explore who we are now, we can turn our ability to be compassionate inward to ourselves.  Additionally we can also turn our compassion outward to all the caregivers who are working to help us heal and help us to learn and accept this new person inhabiting our bodies.  I think our ability to extend compassion also helps us to be a good coach, friend, and support to others traveling on this bumpy TBI journey.

Brain Fatigue is the opposite of pre-injury behavior

High IQ traits:

  • has a great deal of energy

  • feels driven by creativity

Can you say “Brain Fatigue”?  The lack of brain stamina is horrific.  You think 3 thoughts and feel like you need to go to sleep for an hour; in fact, you do!  It is like taking a car going 120 miles an hour and having it suddenly slam into a solid brick wall.  Who is this person who can’t function and can’t even stay awake?

After a TBI; only more so!

High IQ traits:

  • feels outrage at moral breaches that the rest of the world seems to take for granted

  • has passionate, intense feelings

  • loves ideas and ardent discussion

  • needs periods of contemplation

  • searches for questions in their life

  • is very perceptive

Again, I am going to cover this group of characteristics with a broad brush by saying “After a TBI; only more so!”  Because things are out of whack in our brain and our life, we can exaggerate any and all of these characteristics.

For most of us with a brain injury, our emotional processing /activity is still intact and fast because it is seated deeper in our brain. But our logic processing is significantly slowed because of damage to the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, we get flooded and overwhelmed by our feelings and experiences. Add to that that the slower mental processes makes it more difficult for us to partake in the “ardent discussion of ideas” and we feel mentally crippled!

High IQ helps TBI Recovery!

However, giftedness giveth also.  Though our giftedness heightens or amplifies the changes due to a TBI, our gift also gives us many advantages in healing and dealing with the daily reality of the TBI. I will close with another quote from an email I wrote to a friend on the TBI Survivors Network:

Though the holes can go deeper, for us there is also a great deal on the positive side to having high IQs. We are tremendously  capable of developing good compensatory skills.  We are tremendously capable of using the attributes of our high IQ to help us heal, and develop a life that works. It is why I want you to get to a good TBI center. You will be able to take the help they give you and really use it! You’ll see. It is not going to make the TBI go away. It is not going to give you (or me) our old self back. But it can give us a life worth living; a life we can enjoy.6

Footnotes:

  1. The wonderful cartoon “Tis better to have loved and lost your mind” at the start of this entry is by Jeff Gregory of Jagged Smileand is used with permission.  I love his blog and his cartoons!
  2. Stephanie S. Tolan, Discovering the Gifted Ex-Child, Originally appeared in Roeper Review, August 1994.
  3. Lesley Sword & David Harrison, Gifted Adults, from the website of Gifted & Creative Austrailia This site is chock full of information for anyone wanted to learn more about Giftedness in Adults & Children.  I especially want to recommend their Articles page.
  4. Lesley Sword & David Harrison, Gifted Adults
  5. Emerson J. Browne, private email on the TBI Survivors Network.
  6. Emerson J. Browne, private email on the TBI Survivors Network.
Emerson Jane Browne
I am Emerson Jane Browne. I write about Brains, Apps, & Productivity, and many other aspects of Life. I speak to TBI support groups, speak and teach workshops at tech, music, and writer conferences. I consult with organizations on strategic planning and building a strong community.