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The High IQ TBI

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.  Maybe 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.

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 ???? in their life
  • is very perceptive

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.

The loss of ability is only one of the many things that is amplified by giftedness.  Let’s look at the above list 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.  Normal (non TBI) gifted 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 Thesaurus.com.)

  • 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.

  • 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

Most of these attributes change with a TBI.  It changes who we are, how we see ourselves, how we interact with the world and our life.

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.  At first 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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 ???? 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.

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.

About ejb

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.

24 comments

  1. Thank you for this! Years of scouring the internet produced nothing until today. I was told I had a brain injury until a psychologist decided to see how I scored on standard IQ testing. When he saw the results, he insisted there was no way I had a brain injury and convinced my neurologist that my symptoms must be stress induced despite undeniable neurological symptoms. Despite other specialists recognizing symptoms, his report has ended my treatment. He insists that I’m “smart enough to fake it.” I know that my brain is different since the accident. My thoughts are different. My personality is different. I feel as though I must do everything in slow motion. I hate it. I am so very bored with my life and can’t pursue my interests. I can’t read! That is devastating. My social awkwardness is a much larger obstacle than it used to be. This is the first glimpse of someone understanding. Thank you!

    • Hi M. How many years out from your accident are you? Is there any possibility of seeing another doctor to get a second opinion – specifically a physiatrist or a neuropsychologist who specailizes in traumatic brain injury? Are you near a place that has a top notch brain rehab department? Do some searching online to see where there is a good rehab place. Even if it is hours away you could still go there for an assessment.

      Or is there any possibility of getting a lawyer involved?  I hate to suggest the legal route but often when you have insurance denying claims a lawyer can help you get to the right specialists who can identify the problems and treat you correctly. And they are able to develop and present a case to the insurance to get your care covered.  But again, find one who specializes in TBI.

      If you can’t read, you absolutely need to find a way to get to a person who specializes in testing the eyes from a TBI understanding. With me it turned out that my eyes move at different speeds now so my brain was getting confused by the different incoming information. The therapist had me do all sorts of exercises to retrain my brain. They were not pleasant but they worked!! 

      For example I had to read something out loud while turning my head from side to side very fast. What I did was found articles that I wanted to read, printed them in 48 pt font so I could see it without my glasses, then taped the pages to my kitchen cabinets. So I would go around the kitchen reading the article out loud.  Looked funny and was really hard to do at first, but it worked.

      I am going to start posting a whole series on brain injury recovery. As you can see, I am still having some problems with my website. But I will be back to writing very soon.

  2. It’s good to know I’m not alone. The most frustrating part is when my family doesn’t have a clue-or want to.  That hurts the most and there is nothing to be done about it.  There are no support groups for high IQ TBI survivors either, at least not near me so it gets pretty lonely hear insider head.  I cope by trying to pretend everything is OK.  What else can you do? 

    • Sally, try to educate the people close to you instead of pretending everything is OK. Share this post with them. One of the big reasons that I have written this blog is so people will have content to share with family and friends.  There is so little written about and, as you say, so little support for people with HIQ TBIs. This post and some others can serve as conversation starters. I hope it helps.

  3. Charles Thomas Wild

    Emerson Jane Browne – Have shared this website URL (Dancing Upside Down) at the ADHD Bulletin Board – a Yahoo group.  Thank you.  Charles Thomas Wild (Inattentive ADHD) – http://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ADHD_Bulletin_Board/

  4. About 3.5 yrs ago I had a TBI. Before this happened I was a strung out, party kid who made horrible decisions. I feel the TBI actually either increased my intellect or freed the knowledge I had saved up over the years. There are a few subtle differences, but I’m ok with them. My nuerologist is truly blown away by me. I came out of the hospital. Waited one month. Went to college, graduated with a 3.5 GPA in computer programming. I have a pretty decent job, working on certifications. Had to drop out of master’s degree for cybersecurity due to having a little girl(who is highly advanced for her age.)

  5. @disqus_id2LT9zT5y:disqus Thank you for your comment.  I just started working part time so have not been posting as much.  I will get back to it very soon.  Comments like yours and the other ones below keep me going!!
    @scrambledsquid:disqus I will reply to you privately via email.  Not sure how much I can help but I will try to connect you with some good resources and treatment.  Please scroll down to see other resources I have mentioned.

  6. ScrambledSquid

    Thank goodness I found this blog.  I need help and am not sure what to do at this point.  Your post eloquently summarized all the challenges I am facing, without going into detail about symptoms and such.  

    Prior to December 12/28/12, I was brilliant.  Not going to bother beating around the bush here.  I also had synesthesia, a near-photographic episodic memory, and was referred to as the Human PDA for my uncanny memorization skills.  I was probably one of the most artistic-temperament types of people as well.

    Also, all the other things listed above in your post.  I was “in the closet” about my high IQ for years, and only realized it once “The Incident” occurred.  The irony of it was that, as you described, I perceived myself prior to this as bizarre, and was only able to see the extent of my brilliance once it was removed.

    I was diagnosed with Lyme disease at the beginning of December, began a strong cocktail of ABs, and waited it out.  I had increasing neurological symptoms that cascaded into an attack where my body was in chemical/neurological pain, and I lost the fine motor skills and coordination in my hands for a few days.  Then the pain finally subsided.  I thought things were looking up.

    A few days later, I was driving in my car, and a “switch” went off in my brain.  I immediately became lost (something that never happens, as I was also known as the Human GPS).  I felt it immediately.  Like nothing was getting in anymore, and I lost the ability to visualize and remember things.  By the next day, I was in the ER, and frustrated with no answers.

    I have all the symptoms of a TBI/ABI.  But here is the problem: nobody has any idea what has happened.  I did not get injured, did not have a seizure/lose consciousness, nothing.  Blood tests also revealed nothing out of the ordinary.  The symptoms were sudden onset, and global, so they also are ruling out degenerative processes.  They claim the ABs could not have done this, or there would probably have been evidence in the bloodwork.  

    At first, my mind was still firing quickly, acquiring new knowledge, but when it came to implementing any functions, it just hit a wall and stopped, like I was incapable of them.  Mainly executive functions were affected.

    I had another strange attack on 1/20, which left me unable to walk adequately for 3 days, and I slept often.  After this attack, the brain functions have dramatically slowed.  The quickness has disappeared, but I am feeling like things are processing through the brain a bit more globally, just abnormally slow and disjointed everywhere.  I am terribly concerned because I have lost orientation to time, and now to place as well.  My personality seems completely blunted, like sections were gouged out (personality meaning different from cognitive abilities and the ego-identification with being brilliant- like, taste in clothes? and food? etc.  i have flat-lined with emotions and cannot comprehend things of any kind on more than a surface level.  My memory problems are increasing.  I have suddenly developed asocial behavior (not out of shame of my handicap, but just a lack for human contact and loss of spontaneity in conversation.)  I fear if it was an isolated incident, it would not continue to get worse, and new symptoms would not be occurring.

    I have had a normal CT and MRI.  Lumbar puncture showed no abnormalities.  I have an EEG and neuropsych eval coming up.  I am faced with the same dilemma that if I score in the “average” range, it means I still took a massive hit.  (And I doubt this, because I can’t do even rudimentary “average” things with ease, like figuring out how to drive somewhere or planning dinner.). 

    I have no idea what is happening.  It all seems very atypical.  But I am afraid it is worsening.  Also, I have a terrible fear of losing enough of my mental capacities to be aggressive enough to seek answers, understand what is happening, and to be able to articulate symptoms to the doctors.  I LOATHE the thought of time passing and this sensation becoming the new normal for me, and forgetting how I used to be.  But I am a stubborn fuck and want to fight this.

    Does anyone have any advice?  People keep telling me not to worry because they don’t know WHAT it is yet, and it may get heal itself (albeit over a long period of time.).  They don’t seem to have a sense of urgency about this (they think it is reversible once we discover the cause), but I also now lack the skills to manage this myself and have to rely on them.  It is an unfortunate situation.

    I think the most important thing is addressing what is causing this ASAP, and then going from there before it does more damage.  Has anyone heard of anything like this?  The only hypothesis I have is that I was somehow poisoned by the ABs?  The stress from this is causing me to have borderline dissociative episodes, and I’m even unsure if it is stress-induced or an organic process at work.

    Sorry I cluttered your comments.  I just need help or guidance in some direction as fast as possible.  Thank you so much.

  7. Awesome blog! I just found it and couldn’t be more thankful for it.  Finally I actually feel like there are people who I can relate with.  I suffered my brain injury in May of last year.  I actually suffered the injury right before my college graduation so I have been very frustrated and confused.  I plan to enter graduate school before beginning a career because I feel like I have forgotten much of what I learned.  It’s really a day by day process though I don’t know if I will be able to succeed in my classes or my future job. I have been on an emotional roller coaster.  Thank you for this though, I find comfort in reading your blog.

  8. Oh my gosh!! I am reading through this post with tears running down my face! I feel like you pulled the words right from my heart. I am aching so bad at the loss of who I was…and yet the doctors think I need to be happy that I am still in the average to high average areas when they test me. Who are they kidding?! I never have known how to be average…and now to try to be average with a head injury feels insane to me. I feel so broken and no one seems to be able to see that. I am a VERY verbal person…I could have given a thesaurus a run for its money, Now my husband stares at me as he tries to piece the words together to make sense of what I am saying. Most people see it as a simple oversight (like calling a linen closet a laundry closet, or transposing numbers in a phone number) but when you have NEVER done this and now you do it on a daily basis, how does it not shake your sense of self? Most people just think I am forgetful or “flighty”…I know I should be grateful that I am not immediately pegged as disabled…but there are times I think it would be easier to handle a worse injury. Knowing who I was and having the doctor say I need to just accept the new person that I am and learn to love that person feels so impossible…how do you let go of who you were when you still think the same? I am so lost as this new person. I’m tired, irritable, and feel afraid to talk in fear that I will say something completely backwards. I am so desperately looking for help from someone that understands where I am coming from. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!!!

    • Shelly, first step is to read The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.  If you have trouble reading, the book is an audiobook and is very well read.  Your husband will want to read it too.  (Frankly, I think anyone with a brain should read the book but that is another post!)

      The Brain that Changes Itself is all about neuroplasticity and how our brain remaps over time.  The book is very well written and a joy to read.  It is fascinating and absolutely the most encouraging and hope creating book you can find.

      As I said to Mindy below, you WILL get better! I am here as proof of that.

      And now . . . I am going to go write that new post.  You and Mindy have reenergized me to get back to work on this blog.  Thank you.

  9. Wow, I’m so glad I found this post. I just got the results of my neuropsych eval and learned that my IQ has dropped post-injury by 24 points. But because it’s still in that higher-than-average range, everyone–including the neuropsychologist–is acting like the loss is no big deal. Are they kidding me? My brain was my job, my life, my identity, everything. Just because I’m “still smart” doesn’t mean this loss isn’t tremendous. I guarantee you, if some famous quarterback hurt his throwing arm, the experts would do everything within their power to help him get back to 100%. They wouldn’t say, “At least you still throw a lot better than the average person, so that’s good enough,” would they? Of course not. Yet somehow I’m supposed to be satisfied with where I am now, mentally? Learning to accept my limitations is one thing, but acceptance begins with grief and they’re all acting like there’s not even anything to grieve here! I’m so lost and frustrated and depressed, this post was exactly what I needed–just to know I’m not alone helps a lot.  Thank you.

    • Mindy, I am so glad I could help.  I love your comparison to the quarterback.  So very true!!

      Now for the good news – it gets better; a whole lot better!  In fact, now since I am a couple of years out from the date I wrote this post, I need to write a follow-up post to this one to let HIQ/TBI folks know what to do to help their brain regain/remap their smarts.  I will try to get to that tonight or tomorrow.
      Em

  10. Thank you for writing this blog, espcially the bits on high iq and tbi. I am in that situation and am one year post injury. I am a university professor and have to still see if I will be able to return to teaching. I am still me…needing intellectual stimulation but suffering when I chase it down. And doctors, etc. All find me highly articulate. one doctor (not for the brain injury) said to me the other day ‘you don’t look like you have a brain injury’. Like saying …’you don’t look like you have an enlarged prostate gland!’
    How do we show we are suffering inside?!
    Would love to see more posts on this topic,

  11. I just found your blog. Very helpful. How does someone in our situation get a job/keep a roof over their in this economy? Especially when they are a sober and drug free adult in their forties – single – male. It is hard to get TBI services because they want to treat you like an invalid and you are brighter than most of the social services team.

  12. Thank you!!! for writing about gifted TBI – I totally get it, because that is me too.

  13. hello, just find your blog through resilient heart. taken me an hour to get through this page but hooked already. i to am a tbi survivor & very encouraged by your blog. Although the footnote bit was hard for me to look at with the very bright blue words! I shall continue to read my way through you blog. :) very helpful

  14. Your blog was EXACTLY what I was looking for!!!
    I am s…l…o…w…l…y… writing a book about my recovery as I have or will have been to just about every level. I am a victim of TBI near my Uni in Scotland where I was working towards a Masters but I was flown back to Atlanta, Georgia (my home) USA by the St. Andrews University after my injury, 6.5 years ago. To Emory University, my undergraduate school plus the beginning portion of my graduate program and spent the next 5 years at the Center for Rehabilitative Medicine.  My auto accident occurred just 2 months before my graduation. Needless to say, I did not finish. I was in a coma for 4 months. I have grown up thinking that I did not have such a high IQ because these people have difficulties in their social abilities and I LOVED people!!
    It IS bitter-sweet.

    • Kristin, I just added some subscribe links.  When you posted I had just moved this blog over onto WordPress.  Hope you see this comment and are able to subscribe.  Glad you found the blog.

  15. Thank god I have found your blog. I teach at a uni in the UK, sustained a head inury and am now awaiting an appointment with a neuropsych for testing to occur. Because I am still articulate (although not nearly as good as before), people including some doctors do not take me seriously when I explain that I am much less able to concentrate / assimilate and understand new material. Your blog is therefore a massive blast of fresh air!

  16. Where can I get help? I now have a child and I thought she was just being very difficult because I am a lousy parent then I realizes she is gifted. Our society is so obsessed with “cleverness” and they think giftedness is something to gloat about so if I say, “Help, I have a gifted child” people would obviously think I’m just trying to show off.
    Only another gifted person can understand. Please help me if you come across any gifted parents who have successfully raised emotionally healthy and happy gifted children.

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