Researchers report 20% of Mensa members, with an IQ of 130 and over, have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, compared to 10% of the general public.
A new study in the journal Intelligence reports that highly intelligent people have a significantly increased risk of suffering from a variety of psychological and physiological disorders.
Lead author of the study, Ruth Karpinski, says the findings have implications both for the study of intelligence and for psychoneuroimmunology, which examines how stress responses to the environment influence communication between the brain and immune system.
“Our findings are relevant because a significant portion of these individuals are suffering on a daily basis as a result of their unique emotional and physical overexcitabilities. It is important for the scientific community to examine high IQ as being front and center within the system of mechanisms that may be at play in these dysregulations,” she says.
Karpinski and her colleagues developed a hyper brain / hyper body theory of integration. It posits that individuals with high cognitive ability react with an overexcitable emotional and behavioral response to their environment. Due in part to this increased awareness of their surroundings, people with a high IQ then tend to experience an overexcitable, hyperreactive central nervous system.
“A minor insult such as a clothing tag or an unnatural sound may trigger a low level, chronic stress response which then activates a hyper body response. When the sympathetic nervous system becomes chronically activated, it finds itself in a continuous fight, flight, or freeze state that triggers a series of immune changes in both the body and the brain-altering behavior, mood, and functioning,” explains Dr. Nicole Tetreault, co-author.
To explore the premise, Karpinski and her colleagues surveyed 3,715 members of American Mensa, Ltd. whose documented IQ scores fall at or above 130. Each was asked to self-report their experiences of both diagnosed and/or suspected mood and anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and physiological diseases that include autoimmune disease, environmental and food allergies, and asthma. The team compared the survey data against the statistical national average for each disease or disorder.
“If high intelligence was not a risk factor for these diseases and disorders, we would see a similar prevalence rate between the two groups,” explains Audrey Kinase Kolb, co-author. “However, in this study, the Mensa population had significantly higher rates across the board. For example, just over 10% of the US has a diagnosed anxiety disorder, compared to 20% for Mensans. For these conditions, having a high intelligence is related to having between 2 to 4 times the chance of having a diagnosis compared to the average American.”
“While falling within the extreme right tail of the Bell Curve is generally touted as a ‘gift’ leading to exceptional outcomes, this is not always the case,” says Karpinski. “Those with high IQ possess unique intensities and overexcitabilities which can be at once both remarkable and disabling on many levels.”
The results are surprising given that previous studies have shown high intelligence to be a protective factor for many health outcomes including heart disease, stroke, smoking-related cancers, respiratory disease, and dementia. However, these disorders and conditions are not specifically rooted in immune dysregulation. Additionally, these studies looked at increases in IQ, but stopped short of including participants with gifted intelligence in their samples.
“We know that for many of the examined conditions there must be a combination of genetics and environment for them to manifest,” says Karpinski. “The results of this study support our hyper brain/hyper body theory, and may help direct future studies regarding high intelligence as a potential genetic piece of a psychoneuroimmunological puzzle.”