We’ve all heard the adage, “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” and neuroscience research can help explain why perfectionism in gifted students can get in the way of their learning.
WHY FEELINGS MATTER IN THINKING
The inner workings of the brain remain, in many ways, a mystery. We know a lot about how the brain is structured, how it communicates signals, and the functions of its regions — but our understanding continues to evolve, and the brain continues to surprise us. The specific brain regions recruited for various tasks may be unexpected; for example, we use very different parts of the brain to write code as opposed to writing prose, even though both are “languages” with syntax and grammar rules (Kreuger et al., 2020). Educators, as you might imagine, are eager to get a peek inside the brain in hopes that a better understanding of its processes can help us teach more effectively.
The cognitive piece of neuroscience is not all that matters for our understanding of students, though, of course. Affective neuroscience — the scientific study of the origins, dynamics, and functions of emotions in the brain — combines neuroscience with psychology and can give us insight into the dynamics of our emotional landscapes. (Sometimes, when we are quite lucky, research findings even include colorful brain scans that let us imagine, for just a moment, that we can actually see what is going on inside our heads!) For educators and parents alike, understanding generated from this work can inform our understanding of developing minds and how people learn.
Caveat: applying these understandings to actual classroom practices or the parenting of actual children is quite tricky. The complexity of experimental design (read: the messiness of the real world) means that results may reflect a very specific demographic group, and often does not include children because of the ethical challenges inherent in such research. Gifted children, who are rare by definition, are even less likely to be the specific subjects under study; and special populations within gifted children — such as girls, or children of color, or twice-exceptional children — are an even smaller subset. What we are likely to learn from affective neuroscience, though, is what sorts of factors impact learning, either in positive or negative ways, and which ones do not really move the needle at all.
The goal is not to apply those understandings in the classroom or in your home in a kind of formulaic way (e.g., “if my child does this, then it means that this part of their brain is connecting with this other part, which means I must change my instruction/parenting in this way”), which would be impossible. Instead, according to neuropsychologist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a leader in the field, the goal is to expand our “knowledge about what learning in the real world actually entails and how curricula can be designed to better honor… students’ subjective experiences of learning” (2016).
GIFTED BUT PERFECTLY ANXIOUS
As we have previously described on this blog, perfectionism is a trait often observed by both parents and teachers of gifted children, and can be a significant stumbling block between them and the kind of learning of which they are capable. While there is not an academic consensus about whether or not gifted children are more likely to be perfectionists than other children, researchers have found them to have higher personal standards and a smaller discrepancy between those standards and their actual performance than typical peers (e.g., Yi & Gentry, 2021).
There are generally two ways that perfectionism in gifted students appears in our classrooms. One is that they have difficulty stopping working on a project that is finished, but they believe to be imperfect; it’s always just one more paragraph, example, or image away from being perfect.
The other is difficulty in getting started because they anticipate and are trying to avoid the experience of being unable to realize some ideal product they have envisioned; this is often referred to by artists and writers alike as the “fear of the blank page.”
HOW PERFECTIONISM WORKS
There is not a firm consensus about the dynamics of perfectionism, but one conceptualization describes two different types: normal or healthy perfectionism and neurotic, dysfunctional, or unhealthy perfectionism (Schuler, 2000).
Unhealthy perfectionists are concerned with many things external to their work, including what they think the responses of others will be to their work, especially parents. Sadly, they are often disappointed in their results, focusing on where their work fell short of a potentially unrealistic goal rather than on whatever success, mastery, or accomplishment the work represents (e.g., Silverman, 1999; Wood, 2010).
This type of perfectionism can make school very frustrating, as you can imagine: continually falling short of your expectations for yourself would be emotionally exhausting, making it hard to engage fully with learning at all. Even if your teacher proclaims delight with your work and gives you excellent grades, that does not mitigate the problem, because while the teacher’s comments are fleeting, the mental voice proclaiming dissatisfaction stays with you, following you from one class to another.
Worse, a continually-reinforced pattern can develop in which you perceive school as a (seemingly) never-ending series of these experiences, with every new presentation, assignment, or project offering another opportunity to endure anxiety, stress, and ultimately disappointment in not just the work, but in yourself.
ANXIETY IS AN OBSTACLE TO LEARNING
Seen through the eyes of a psychologist, perfectionism is a personality style that reflects a particular “flavor” of anxiety. Neuropsychologists have found that this emotion clearly affects learning — but not all learning.
Our brains do two kinds of learning simultaneously: explicit and implicit. For instance, learning new vocabulary is often explicit, while understanding of underlying grammar rules is often implicit. You probably learned in school what an adjective is and its use, but you were probably not taught the rules for ordering multiple adjectives in English.*
Somehow, you know that we say “lovely shiny black leather hiking boots” and not “hiking black leather shiny lovely boots,” even though both phrases include the same words. And, likely, you have consistently gotten that right, throughout your whole life, without anyone having explained it to you; even very young children know what order to put them in. That kind of knowledge is implicit — an invisible, behind-the-scenes storage-and-retrieval system you use all the time without conscious effort.
Carefully-designed experimental studies reveal that negative emotions like anxiety get in the way of acquiring new information through explicit instruction, but not implicit learning (Rathus et al., 1994). In other words, you can learn some things without knowing you’re learning, but it is harder to purposely learn something if you’re in an anxious state.
To apply this idea to our vocabulary example above, that means you were likely not to have perfect recall regarding the words “leather” and “shiny,” but you would still know what order to put them in. (It is important to note that these results are for sub-clinical anxiety, meaning “everyday” anxiety which does not rise to the level of a disorder; sub-clinical depression, on the other hand, had no measured effect on either type of learning) (Pike et al., 2020).
A large and growing body of literature on this topic suggests that anxiety is specifically interfering with your brain’s attentional controls — you are simply not able to encode and retrieve information as effectively if a portion of your attention is focused on whatever is making you anxious (e.g., Pike, et al., 2020). In fact, intentionally trying to ignore your brain’s anxious messages actually uses some of your cognitive energy, too, which may compound the problem.
This phenomenon is actually a biologically adaptive mechanism: if you’re worried that there might be a lion at the watering hole you’re visiting, you’re definitely going to pay attention to the world around you with that anxiety front-and-center in your mind. We may no longer have to worry about lions or fetching water, but that “original factory wiring” about attention is still in there because our brains have not changed as fast as our world has.
Unfortunately, if the thing you’re trying to pay attention to is a class project that you’re anxious about, the watering-hole-level attention that your brain is diverting becomes an obstacle to being able to do that presentation as well as you’d like.
ADDRESSING PERFECTIONISM in gifted students
The more we learn about anxiety and its effects on the way the brain processes learned information, the clearer it is exactly why the pursuit of perfection can be problematic: if you’re anxious, decreased attentional control of your brain makes it hard to move forward in a positive way.
It’s a bit like having one of your hands slip off the steering wheel while driving; there is probably never a great time to remove a hand from the wheel, but if there were a worst time, it is precisely when you need to execute challenging maneuvers.
Similarly, having their attention derailed — even partially — from the kind of deep, deliberative, and complex thinking that we know gifted children are capable of (and love to do!) can hinder them from working at their full capacity. It is with this in mind, then, that we can continue to be intentional about addressing perfectionistic anxiety in gifted students when it rears its ugly head in the classroom or at home. Helping gifted children move away from unattainable expectations and fear of criticism not only encourages productivity, but can help them engage more of their brains more fully in their learning and even maximize the cognitive firepower they bring to the table.
* Should you actually want to know, adjectives in English are arranged as follows: opinion, size, physical quality, shape, age, color, origin, material, type, and purpose. This very specific order can be a particular point of difficulty for people learning to speak English, as they must be taught this information explicitly. Those of us who are native speakers of English should feel great relief that we did not have to learn this in school. *phew!*
Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2016). Emotions, learning, & the brain: Exploring the educational implications of affective neuroscience. W. W. Norton.
Krueger, R., Huang, Y., Liu, X., Santander, T., Weimer, W. & Leach, K. (2020, May 23-29). Neurological divide: An fMRI study of prose and code writing. In 42nd International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE ’20), Seoul, Republic of Korea. ACM, New York, NY, USA.
Pike, A.C., Printzlau, F.A.B., von Lautz, A.H., Harmer, C.J., Stokes, M.G., & Noonan, M.P. (2020). Attentional Control in Subclinical Anxiety and Depression: Depression Symptoms Are Associated With Deficits in Target Facilitation, Not Distractor Inhibition. Frontiers in Psychology 11, 1660.
Schuler, P. A. (2000). Perfectionism and gifted adolescents. The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education 11(4), 183–196.
Silverman, L. K. (1999). Perfectionism. Gifted Education International, 13(3), 216–225.
Wood, S. (2010). Best practices in counseling the gifted schools: What’s really happening? Gifted Child Quarterly, 54(1), 42–58.
Yi, S. and Gentry, M. (2021). Academic perfectionism of high-ability and high-achieving students in mathematics and science: Differential relations by identification criteria of giftedness. Roeper 43(3), 173–186.
FURTHER READING on perfectionism in gifted students
Adderholt-Elliot, M. (1987). Perfectionism: What’s bad about being too good? Free Spirit.
Peterson, J., Duncan, N., & Canady, K. (2009). A longitudinal study of negative life events, stress, and school experiences of gifted youth. Gifted Child Quarterly 53(1), 34–49.
Roeper, A. (1982). How the gifted cope with their emotions. Roeper Review 5(2), 21–24.
Schuler, P. A. (2000). Perfectionism and gifted adolescents. The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education 11(4), 183–196
Silverman, L. K. (1999). Perfectionism. Gifted Education International, 13(3), 216–22