Funnel Analogy

by Shulamit Widawsky

Experience and Processing
The Funnel and Cylinder Analogy of Giftedness


There are differences in the intensity and quantity of experience any individual must process. The Funnel and Cylinder Analogy is a theoretical way to visualize this aspect of giftedness. The “funnel” in this analogy represents the aperture through which experience must pass to enter into a person’s being.  The “cylinder” represents the age, and therefore the processing ability one has. The size of an individual’s funnel dictates the speed at which an experience exposure will create fodder for the processing phase. Therefore, the larger the funnel, the greater the intensity and quantity of experience that must be processed. The smaller the cylinder, the faster it will “overflow” with experience.


Experiencing life differently

 Three 8-year-olds are sitting side-by-side, watching a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” None is fidgeting. All are engaged in the show. The first child enjoys the music and the dancing, and understands the basic story line. The second child is deeply aware of the stage lighting and set design choices, is impressed with how the choreography compliments the score, and laughs out loud when a character, who is not important to the scene, reaches his finger through his (empty) glasses rim to scratch his eye. The third child is riveted to the story throughout, and moved to tears when Tevya announces that his daughter is “dead” to him, due to her choosing to marry outside of her faith. After the show, child one is happy, and ready to go out with the group for ice cream. Child two is willing to go for ice cream, as long as the adults are willing to engage in a conversation about the stagecraft. Child three feels overwhelmed. This child is not ready to go out, nor to socialize. Child three is filled with thoughts and emotions regarding the possibility that choices people make could earn them ostracism from their family, and, as if that weren’t enough is also wondering about how families deal with changing times, and how times will change in this lifetime. 

 The average person takes in, analyzes, and synthesizes experience in proportion to their general age and emotional abilities. The “gifted” person may take in levels of experience that they are not able to process evenly. They are taking in, analyzing, and synthesizing experiences out of proportion to their general age and emotional abilities. This disproportionate system creates what is generally called asynchronous development. That means the gifted person is likely to mature faster in some ways, and slower in others. In the area of their gifts, they may be years ahead of their peers, while simultaneously lagging years behind in other areas, particularly in the emotional realm.

 One’s emotional age is often not the same as one’s physical age. People often do not “act their age” for a variety of reasons. One common reason is the ratio of processed to unprocessed experience with which a person must contend. The first child in the “Fiddler on the Roof” example has processed the show and is ready to move on to the next experience—the child took in no more than was immediately processable. The second child still has processing to do, but is willing to combine the processing with an outing for ice cream—this is the moderately gifted child. The third child is so overwhelmed with experience that the only comfortable alternative is to block off any more for a while. The third child is at capacity, and must process these experiences before allowing in more.

 The first child is an easy kid. Culturally, this child is normative and fits in well. While there are some gifted children like this, they are the minority. In this example, this does not happen to be a gifted child.

 The second child has very specific needs. This child is unlikely to find many age-mates who will be able to hold the kind of conversation this one needs in order to process properly. This is an extroverted child, who is gifted, with particular strength in creative areas. As long as the adults around this child are willing to engage in these conversations, this child will do fine. If the child is shut out…if the adults in this child’s life tell the child to “find friends your own age,” and the child doesn't have access to anyone the same age who can keep up, this child will quickly become unhappy and overwhelmed.

 The third child is highly or profoundly gifted. This child consistently takes in more than anyone else around (including the adults). This child’s ability to take in experience, and limited ability to keep it out (to say nothing of the child’s internal experience which also needs processing) is literally one in a million or rarer. This child is also an introvert—very common amongst the highly gifted. This means that even if there were an intellectual peer around, this child would need to process internally before sharing. This child is often accused of being unnecessarily sensitive. The internal workings of this child are not shared, and the level of experience of which this child is capable is qualitatively different than virtually everyone. People tend to be mystified by, and eventually angry at this child’s behavior, which is commonly viewed as anti-social as well as immature. Were this child in a group of true peers, other profoundly gifted introverts, the social and maturity levels would look perfectly fine, even advanced.

 While some part of emotional maturity reflects the overall level of experience a person has, a large part of emotional maturity comes from processing that experience. The processing sorts the experience, culling and organizing useful aspects, and releasing dispensable ones in such a way as to not leave excess, unprocessed bits floating around to distract and disrupt the mind. Each person’s processing speed, style, and ability are unique to them. When experience is matched to processing capability, development is likely to be consistent: emotional maturity and intellectual ability will develop in sync. When experience exceeds processing speed or ability, development will become uneven, asynchronous. The larger the backlog of unprocessed experience, the slower the emotional growth. Furthermore, for the person with a backlog of unprocessed experience, new experience may be perceived as an irritant, or even as an attack, to which the person reacts accordingly.

This is not to say that the more gifted a person is, the less maturity we can expect to find! To the contrary, when not overwhelmed, the more gifted a person is, the more likely they will show examples of surprising levels of maturity. When overwhelmed, though, it is common for the highly gifted person to react in a way that seems "immature" compared to how they generally are, or what you expect from them.


Funnel and Cylinder

 For analogy, imagine each person represented by a cylinder on a base. Its height is representative of the person’s age.* It is open at the top, and this is where experience falls in, like rain. In the analogy, if the cylinder were used to measure rainfall, it would do so accurately. That is, if the cylinder collected one inch of rain, we would confidently say one inch of rain had fallen. It is a standard cylinder. But what if the top of a cylinder is a funnel? Then the wider the funnel, the faster the cylinder fills with rain. Under otherwise identical conditions of rain, when the standard cylinder is filled to one inch, the cylinder with the wide-mouthed funnel will have filled higher.


 After some sunshine, one inch of rain has evaporated from each cylinder. It begins to rain again. The standard cylinder has processed all its rain before the next storm. Not so the funneled cylinder. If the cylinder is too short, or the storms come too close together, the funneled cylinder is more prone to overflowing, even with gentle rain if it continues long enough. In the worst storms, the standard cylinder might also eventually overflow…but the funneled cylinder will overflow much earlier. It’s easy to see how the funneled cylinder is “more sensitive” than the standard cylinder, when exposed to the same conditions.


Applying the analogy to the special needs of the gifted

 All young children are prone to times when experience exceeds their ability to process, and they become overwhelmed. If a child is 4-years-old, they have had only 4 years to learn to process their experience. The gifted child, however, is more aware, more capable of taking in life experience (and more able to independently create internally produced experience). If a 4-year-old child has as much cognitive, physical, and/or emotional experience as a 6 or 8 year old, that child will tend to be emotionally “immature.” That is, no matter how brilliant the child, they will still have more backlog of unprocessed experience than other 4-year-olds, and will become over-stimulated that much more easily.

 The gifted child takes in more experience than average. This doesn’t make the gifted child necessarily “better” than the “average.” To connect the analogy…most folks want a rain gage that measures accurately. They want to set the cylinder out, and not be bothered by irregularities and overflows. Now, if you’re looking to collect rain, you’ll want the cylinder with the funnel on top—but don’t expect it to measure rain accurately, and be prepared for it to fill up and overflow.


To continue with the analogy…

 As a person grows older, their ability to take in experience and knowledge grows, but it grows at a rate inconsistent with their age. In this analogy, when referring to the gifted, the size of the “gift” is the size of the funnel. At times a person’s “funnel” might be so large compared to their “cylinder” that they are overwhelmed by almost any “rainfall.” Think about age 2 or age 14 (most kids are at their most sensitive at those times). At other times, their cylinder will grow faster, and be significantly more able to accommodate large storms. 

Just because children go through stages where they can accommodate more “storms” doesn’t mean that is their new base level. Over the course of time, if their abilities to take in again outstrips their abilities to process, they will again become more “sensitive,” more likely to “overflow.” There is high correlation between “the size of the funnel” and developmental consistency. Therefore, the more gifted a person is, the more asynchrony they are likely to experience, and the longer they are likely to take before reaching an “adult” level of emotional maturity.

 While the “child prodigy” who becomes the 25-year-old CEO might be the popular myth of the highly gifted, in reality we see a high proportion of “late bloomers” amongst the highly gifted. And the young CEO’s that do exist, are most often the products of an emotionally supported childhood, combined with at least one very understanding mentor. (Gifted people need mentors!) Perhaps late bloomers are still doing the work of “processing” before they intentionally create a whole new adult arena of experiences.


Recognizing giftedness

 If someone is gifted, and their gifts are intellectual or academic in nature, it is reasonably easy to apply standardized tests to see if the person is gifted. Standardized tests, such as the Stanford-Binet, or WISC, etc., have been normed against large populations, and have been shown to have statistical accuracy. They can be tremendously useful. But not all gifted individuals conform to the standard measures. For a variety of reasons, these tests may underestimate or entirely miss the giftedness of an individual. So if a standardized test is not always reliable for assessing giftedness, just what is the definition of giftedness?

 It is important to know if you or your child is gifted, even if the word itself seems uncomfortable. As described above, gifted people have special needs. It is painfully common that gifted people, their families, and their teachers are unaware of the unusual emotional needs of the gifted. As in the example at the beginning of this paper, the gifted person who has their needs met will be more fulfilled and more productive in life. More fulfilled because they get the time and resources necessary to process efficiently. More productive because once experience is processed, then the person has time and energy to devote to applying their abilities.

 If intelligence tests are not a reliable way to define giftedness, how do we spot it? There are a variety of checklists and descriptions available, but they generally come down to four traits. The “gifted” person is more awash in experience than usual, and this means they are persistently:

    1. Receiving more information (large funnel)
    2. Encountering more emotional stimulation (filling up with unprocessed experience)
    3. Making more connections (creating more experience by their internal workings)
    4. Seeing more options (having to apply more emotional energy to deal with the results of all that processed experience)

 While all gifted people are taking in and processing more experience than 95% of the population, what kind of experience they are prone to taking in may or may not be applicable to academics, or only to one area of academics. An artist’s “funnel” might take in visual experience: color, placement, pattern, movement, etc. An athlete’s “funnel” might take in physical experience: direction, pressure, speed, body position, etc. A mathematician’s “funnel” might take in pattern experience: number patterns, visual patterns, musical patterns, etc. A writer’s “funnel” might take in human or natural experience: personal interactions, natural beauty, quirks, style, etc. The artist, the athlete, the mathematician, and the writer may all be gifted, or even profoundly gifted, and yet their “composite” scores on a standard intelligence test may underestimate or even miss their giftedness.

 Even as a small child, the athlete may be constantly overwhelmed with physical stimulation and experience. Any touch that isn’t readily categorized may be experienced as dangerous. This child will take years before realizing that few people possess this heightened sensitivity to the physical senses. Without proper direction and self-understanding, this child is unlikely to fit in well with peers, or to feel comfortable being so different than everyone else.


*Several people have commented that this is overly simplistic. True. It is. To make the analogy more robust, would be to expand it beyond the point of a quick read. And this IS supposed to be the kind of thing a person can give someone, to get a quick sense of perspective. Suffice to say, if the analogy were fuller, there would be a variety of filters for the funnel, widths for the cylinder, types of precipitation, etc. If you just can't stand the simplicity, then you are probably gifted. I'll be happy to get an email from you, with your written version of extensions and details that would make this analogy better. When I get a few good ones, I'll set up a page, and link to them.  

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Shulamit Widawsky
Educational Therapist
Serving the Gifted

Annandale, VA


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This page was last updated on 03/24/13.

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