This Family Is Learning as They Go What It’s Like to Have a Child In Their Midst Whose Behavior Resembles a Pint-Sized Henry Kissinger’s—That Is, A Big Picture Thinker

Today’s commentary was prompted by listening to one mother’s frustration with a precocious, hyperactive six-year-old. Among other things, she says, “He never quits asking questions.” He also seems to be an extremely healthy demonstration of what chaos scientists call “self-organized criticality,” about which I’ll say more in detail later.

In general terms, this kid’s brain cycles between chaos and stability again and again, moment by moment, hour by hour, day after day, moving first one direction and back again. He’s predictably unpredictable on the outside and we can suspect on the inside, too, and it really takes a toll at times on the people around him, particularly those who love him most.

It is increasingly clear to his mother and father that something different is going on in their child’s head compared to many other children’s heads. And that this is surely going to be a continuing challenge to the adults in his life if they are not (1) agile enough in their own thinking to appreciate just how different his thinking is and (2) if they are not willing to work with the extra demands and needs this difference brings. Because we aren’t talking about a youngster whose behavior has him lagging behind. This kid is a kindergartner who already reads at a second grade level.

Noticing the things that don’t fit
Early on in my conversation with this often-exasperated mom, a snippet of dialogue from Sherlock Holmes’ famous story, “Silver Blaze,” popped into my mind. It goes like this:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

This child seems to be just the type of thinker who, like the ever-curious, ever-observant master sleuth from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, would notice that the dog did nothing in the night and wonder why not.

Then a few days later, while reading one of my favorite blogs, one that tracks children’s brain and learning research, I spotted a quote from another famous figure, the late, great scientist Richard Feynman. Feynman once said, “The thing that doesn’t fit is the interesting thing.”

And I knew instantly that Drs. Fernette and Brock Eide, the two gifted Edmonds, WA, physicians who write this blog, were onto something that the frustrated mother and father were going to find intensely interesting. (And, believe me, they have!)

Little people locked in a big-picture mind
It was yet another blog item that had triggered the Eides’ blog item. They had been reading management consultant Andrew Sobel’s thoughts on big-picture thinking. It’s the kind of thinking that CEOs will practically kill for. Henry Kissinger has been brilliant at it, for example. In 1968 he realized that the Soviet Union and China could both be encouraged to seek a common bond with America; this triangulation dominated superpower relations for 20 years, thanks to Kissinger’s big picture thinking skills.

Sobel’s revisitation of Kissinger’s and other leaders’ big picture thinking skills prompted the Eides to wonder if big-picture skills are showing up far earlier and more often in our children than parents, teachers and other gatekeepers for the young are realizing and responding to. And immediately they concluded, “Pint-sized big picture thinkers really do exist and they seem to be over-represented among gifted children who underperform or cause behavioral disruptions in their early elementary school years.”

Moreover, the Eides suggest that the issue is not that pint-sized big picture thinkers can think this way but rather that they really can’t think any other way. And that the implications of this are manifold:

• Count on it, these children are going to have time management problems. For them, their learning environment is upside down and can be a real impediment.

• Writing assignments are hard not because they know too little but because they know too much.

• They feel like if they are going to understand anything at all, they have to understand a lot of things better. They are driven to know the overarching framework into which new bits of knowledge fit.

• They need to know why something is true, not just that it is true.

• They like discovering novel things, and they use novelties to generate new hypotheses or rules; they are inductive, not deductive, learners.

• For them, complexity often brings simplicity because with enough
examples, a pint-sized big picture thinker can often spot a new pattern of meaning.

By now, I was hooked. I immediately forwarded the Eides’ blog item to the parents of what I’m just sure is another pint-sized big picture thinker in the making.

Meanwhile, I was off to surf the Internet for new findings on what’s happening inside such a child’s brain.

Butterflies are out, sand piles are in

One of the most intriguing discoveries of late was made just down Interstate 75 from me—at the University of South Florida, in Tampa. It involves self-organizing criticality, the behavioral pattern I mentioned at the first above.

Self-organizing criticality is a kind of chaos. When brain scientists first began trying to apply chaos theory in the late 1980s, they were all a’flutter over the so-called “butterfly effect” (so named because thanks to deterministic chaos, if a butterfly in China flaps its wings the small perturbation may eventually cascade into a blizzard over New York City). But they could find little in the brain’s electricity resembling the butterfly effect.

However, in the 1990s, a growing sand pile effect was quickly evident. If you keep piling on sand grains, eventually you are going to get an avalanche. This is self-organized criticality. For a while, the pile grows predictably, and then suddenly and without notice, it “goes a grain too far” and collapses. We now know that the brain makes frequent and apparently fundamental use of self-organized criticality.

Which brings us to what USF researcher Robert Thacker found. If you can keep the collapse of certain of the sand-pile-like electrical patterns in the brain moving for as little as a single additional millisecond (out of a typical 55 milliseconds), you can add as many as 20 points to a child’s IQ.

And how do you do that?

Well, how do create a suitable classroom and home environment for a pint-sized big picture thinker?

Big-picture brain research needs a kick in the pants
The Drs. Eides have suggested that you make such a child’s environment as rich and varied sensorially as you can. They think you should throw “chronologically advanced experiences” at the youngster out the kazoo (second grade literature for the kindergarten big picture thinker is just great!). Patiently answer their questions and feed them more. And especially feed their hunger for subjects, phenomena and ideas that can be compared and contrasted.

And probably—and this is my observation, not the Eides—this is going to help extend the duration of the sand pile collapses in a big-picture child’s brain, too.

If there is a fertile field in dire need of big-picture thinkers, it is brain research. As veteran split brain researcher Michael Gazzaniga says, “neuro” research badly needs a unifying theory. Currently, it is vastly fragmented and having to resort more often than not to borrowed story lines from fields like motivational thinkers and management theorists (thank you, Andrew Sobel!) to bring some coherence to all the insights and observations tumbling out of things like fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) laboratories.

Maybe that patience-testing, ever-questioning six-year-old kindergartner who is already reading at a second grade level will turn out to be the one who provides the new theory that Dr. Gazzaniga yearns for. Gazzaniga says it will come from giving neuro-research a good kick in the pants. And our friends’ son seems to be in training for participating in just such an act of levitation.

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