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Hyper brain / hyper body: The trouble with high IQ

Updated: Feb 28, 2019

By Ruth Karpinski, Audrey Kolb, Nicole A. Tetreault, PhD, & Tom Borowski, PhD.

High IQ: A risk factor for mood and anxiety disorders, ADHD, ASD and immune dysregulation

Source: Intelligence Journal

Summary: A new study that investigated 3,715 individuals with an IQ at or above the 98th percentile revealed a strong link between high cognitive ability and the prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It also found an increased incidence of conditions involving inflammation and dysregulation of the immune system such as allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disease, when compared to national averages.  In short, highly intelligent individuals are at a significantly greater risk of experiencing psychological and physiological disorders according to the study published in the journal Intelligence, online October 8, 2017.

Claremont, CA. A new study released online by Intelligence reports that highly intelligent people have a significantly increased risk of suffering from a variety of psychological and physiological disorders. Lead author, Ruth Karpinski of Pitzer College, says that the findings could have implications both for the study of intelligence and also for the field of psychoneuroimmunology which looks at the way in which the stress response to one’s environment, particularly stress which is chronic and sustained, influences the 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. “In a subset of the high IQ population, a minor trigger such as a clothing tag or an unnatural sound may cause 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 verified IQ scores fall at or above 130. Each participant was asked to self-report their experiences of both diagnosed and/or suspected mood and anxiety disorders, ADHD, 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, our high IQ sample had significantly higher rates across the board. For example, just over 10% of the US has a diagnosed anxiety disorder, compared to 20% for our sample. 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.”

Overall, participants reported higher education levels and higher income than national averages which supports prior literature citing a relationship between high cognitive ability and positive educational and socioeconomic outcomes. However, “while falling within the extreme right tail of the Bell Curve is generally touted as a ‘gift’ leading to exceptional outcomes, this does not always seem to be 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. The present study explored disorders and conditions that are specifically rooted in immune/inflammatory dysregulation and therefore can not be compared with the health outcomes found in prior studies. While studies such as these did look at increases in IQ as a protective factor, they stopped short of including participants with gifted intelligence in their sample. “By stopping short of including specifically those with gifted intelligence in prior IQ/health studies, a potential nonlinear relationship, such as ours suggest, may have been missed. In other words, increases in IQ can be protective up to a certain point and then may stop as they climb up into the gifted ranges,” state the authors. Another limitation of the study was that Mensans may not be an adequate proxy for those with high cognitive ability. “We reviewed the literature and found “no scientific evidence that would preclude Mensans from being representative of the population of interest,” notes Kinase Kolb.

“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 exploratory study support our hyper brain/hyper body theory, and may help direct future studies that look at high intelligence as a potential piece of the psychoneuroimmunological puzzle.”


Corresponding Author:

Ruth I. Karpinski


Pitzer College

Link to study:

To Cite:

Karpinski, R. I., Kinase Kolb, A. M., Tetreault, N. A., & Borowski, T. B. (2017). High intelligence: A risk factor for psychological and physiological overexcitabilities. Intelligence. Advance online publication.

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