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Is Giftedness Innate? Or Is It Complex and Dynamic?

Science shows that intelligence develops in response to learning opportunities.

Key points

  • An infant is engaged in active brain-building starting at birth, or maybe even earlier.
  • People continue to build their intelligence as time goes by, even into old age, as they encounter new environments, people, and challenges.
  • Those who develop exceptionally advanced abilities in one area or another require educational changes in order to match instruction to ability.
Ismail Salad Osman Hajji Dirir/Unsplash
Source: Ismail Salad Osman Hajji Dirir/Unsplash

Albert Einstein objected when people called him a genius. He argued against people’s insistence that he had any natural advantages, that he’d been born exceptionally intelligent. Instead, he credited his remarkable accomplishments to his curiosity, motivation, persistence, and effort. He wrote, “It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”

Contrary to Einstein’s position, some experts continue to insist that intelligence is inherited, but the evidence offers only weak support for this position. The highest proportion of intelligence that has been scientifically demonstrated as inherited appears to be about 20%. That leaves a lot of the individual differences in intelligence to environmental factors, and most experts agree that intelligence is a highly complex trait that develops through the ongoing interaction of nature and nurture.

Intelligence Develops

What the brain science research shows is that the brain develops in a process called neural plasticity and in response to environmental stimulation. The individual baby or child is engaged in an active process of brain-building from birth, and maybe even before. As with strength and fitness, infants, children, and teens are active participants in learning processes that can lead over time to giftedness. This is true across race, culture, socio-economic status, geography, and every other way that people’s life experience differs.

Do Intellectually Gifted People Have Special Social and Emotional Needs?

As with physical abilities, a person’s social, emotional, and cognitive abilities develop independently of each other. There are, however, two circumstances where intellectual giftedness can result in special social or emotional needs. One of those is the sense of being different than others, of having nobody to talk to who understands. The other is when a child has gifted learning needs that aren’t being met. Both of these situations underline the urgency of meeting kids’ gifted learning needs as they emerge.

Intelligence Is Dynamic; It Changes Over Time

Giftedness is not stable. People’s cognitive advancement relative to others their age changes over time. Kids who test in the gifted range at 3 years old (or any other age) might or might not test in that range at 8 or 12 or anytime thereafter. Similarly, a child who misses a gifted cut-off at age 3 (or 6 or 15) might test quite differently at a later age. Some of this variability reflects measurement changes over time: Out of necessity, the way intelligence is measured at age 6 is different than the way it’s measured at younger and older ages. And some of this variability reflects individual developmental differences in temperament, personality, and opportunities to learn.

Taking into account the complex and almost infinite variations across children’s genetic predispositions as well as their learning interests, temperaments, needs, and opportunities, what makes the best sense for parents and educators is to stay open to the possibility of giftedness developing in any given child in any given area. When a child shows unusual curiosity and ability, give them the support and opportunities they need to keep learning. Carol Dweck, whose work on mindsets is widely known, wrote, “Talent is often very specific; it can wax and wane over time, and one of the most exciting questions facing researchers today is how to encourage and sustain talent—across cultures and across the lifespan.”

The fact that intelligence is not innate doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as giftedness, only that it’s more interesting, dynamic, and complex than many people realize, and that parents and teachers have an essential role in its development. Some dimensions of it may be innate—certain genetic predispositions and temperament factors—but for sure many dimensions of giftedness develop.

The Optimal Match: Exceptional Abilities Require Special Education

The evidence is clear that the child who is advanced relative to others their age needs learning opportunities that match their abilities, something that others and I are calling an Optimal Match. If a child isn’t challenged appropriately, they risk becoming a behavior problem, or else disengaging from school and learning, either of which can have tragic long-term consequences that damage both the child and the society that loses the contribution they would otherwise have made.

Because of the wide range of individual differences in how giftedness develops, parents and schools need access to a wide range of learning options, including acceleration—both subject-specific and across grades—as well as many kinds of enrichment, and full-time gifted classes for those who need that. There’s lots of solid evidence showing why it’s important to provide these and other options, and how to put Optimal Match into place, much of which is included in Being Smart About Gifted Learning by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster.


The New Genetics of Intelligence, by Robert Plomin and Sophie von Stumm

Nature and Nurture in Early Child Development, Edited by Daniel P. Keating

The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span, Edited by Frances Degen Horowitz, Rena Subotnik, and Dona Matthews.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck