An Interview with Sal Mendaglio: On Dabrowski and Gifted

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Senior Columnist
Eastern New Mexico University

Sal Mendaglio Ph.D. is the Editor of the book " Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration" published by Great Potential Press, Inc ( their web site is ).In this interview, he responds to questions about this very interesting, provocative book.

1) You have just finished editing a book on Kazimierz Dabrowski. Who
exactly was Dr. Dabrowski?

Dr. Dabrowski was a Polish psychologist and psychiatrist who was born in 1902 in Klarowo, Lublin, Poland and passed away in 1980 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Through a series of events, he took a position in a Montreal, Canada, and hospital in the early 1960's. In about 1965 he took a position at the University of Alberta, where he worked until he passed away. I understand that he was quite a musician as well as a poet and playwright. English was his fifth language. In the course of his life Dr. Dabrowski met many notables in psychology including Freud, Piaget, Perls, Aronson, Mowrer and Maslow. Maslow was interested in having Dabrowski go to Brandeis University but that would have meant his renouncing his Polish citizenship, which he did not want to do. And so because of immigration laws, Dr. Dabrowski took the position in Montreal instead. USA's loss was Canada's gain.

2) What was his main contribution?

Dr. Dabrowski's legacy is the theory of positive disintegration. Positive disintegration is his theory of personality. It is of the same ilk as the theories of Freud, Adler, Jung and Sullivan. In these grand theories of personality, theorists like Dabrowski proposed complex frameworks that attempted to explain human nature, personality, development and psychopathology. He was a prolific writer; most of his numerous publications are in Polish. Fortunately, he articulated his theory in several English language books.

Positive disintegration is a unique theory, an expression of Dabrowski's multifaceted creativity. He literally reframed familiar concepts in personality theory. Words like personality, disintegration, adjustment, neuroses, psychoneuroses, development, anxiety, depression, guilt were given new meanings which run counter to typical usage in psychology. But, the novel meanings all hang together—positive disintegration is one of the most coherent theories that I have encountered. The essence of the theory is that psychological growth cannot occur without a disintegration of our initial mental organization.

The term "positive disintegration" the process by which personality is achieved is actually a two part process. It includes the destruction of primitive mental structures and a reintegration at a higher level of functioning. In this theory, "higher level of functioning" does not simply refer to complexity but also to morality. The way I have come to understand the theory of positive disintegration is that in many ways it is a theory of moral behavior.

3) Of what importance is the issue of "overexcitabilities"?

Good question. Overexcitabilities (OEs) are by far the theory's most familiar term. The literature on positive disintegration both empirical and theoretical has focused almost exclusively on OEs. But they are simply a part of a larger concept of developmental potential which is only one of numerous concepts, assumptions and propositions that constitute the theory of positive disintegration.

Dabrowski spoke of overexcitability with five forms: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational and emotional. Those interested in the OEs can readily find detailed information so I will make a brief comment on each. Psychomotor includes high energy levels; sensual, high level of sensory pleasures such as eating; intellectual, curiosity, asking probing questions; imaginational, a rich fantasy life; and, emotional, not simply being emotionally sensitive but also being empathically connected with people. The last three forms, sometimes called the Big Three, are essential for advanced development.

Overexcitability is a property of the central nervous system, which serves to enhance awareness of and responsiveness to stimuli. From reading Dabrowski on this, this is how I have come to understand overexcitability: it is endowed differentially; everyone has excitability but not everyone has overexcitability; people may be endowed with varying levels of each OE and those with high levels of all five forms will experience internal conflict. In positive disintegration, the type of conflict produced by the OEs is indicative of potential for advanced development. But overexcitability can only be fully understood in the context of the entire theory.

4) Who were some of the individuals who wrote chapters in your edited text?

What I wanted to do in the book is to bring together experts in the theory who fit into two categories: those who knew the theory in gifted education and those who knew the theory from the man himself. Because of my own intense interest in the theory I got to know these people through their publications and attendance at the biennial conference on Dabrowski's theory and sessions put on by the National Association for Gifted Children.

Of the people on my list, Michael Piechowski is unique because Michael falls into both categories. He collaborated with Dabrowski at the University of Alberta and continued the work after moving on from Alberta. Michael is responsible for introducing the theory to gifted education. Many of us who never heard of either the theory or Dabrowski were introduced to both in Michael's chapter in Colangelo and Zaffran's book New Voices in Counseling the Gifted that came out in 1979. Of course, Michael published many articles on the subject since that introduction and his name is synonymous with the theory in gifted education.
The others who knew the theory directly were Dabrowski's research assistants and graduate students. Marlene Rankel was a primary research assistant of his who also co-authored two unpublished manuscripts with Dabrowski. Dexter Amend, a student, also worked closely with the man in developing a neurological examination and planned conferences with Dabrowski.

My good friend, Bill Tillier, was Dabrowski's last student. Bill has maintained an extensive archive on the theory; he also created a website for the dissemination of the theory. Also in this group is Laurence Nixon, who did not work with Dabrowski directly but with a close collaborator of his, Andrew Kowczak, a now retired philosophy professor in Montreal.

In gifted education, there were several people in addition to Piechowski. Next to Michael, Linda Silverman has been instrumental in applying the theory to giftedness. Her numerous publications in the area and her offering presentations on the theory have served to give the theory a prominent role in the social and emotional aspects of gifted individuals.

Nancy Miller has worked closely with Michael and Linda in this regard. Frank Falk is best known for his research on OEs. These four individuals, Michael, Linda, Nancy and Frank, have worked quite closely over the years and are chiefly responsible for developing methodology to facilitate research on the theory. Another Michael, Michael Pyryt is included as well in this group. A good friend and colleague, Michael and I have collaborated in many academic ventures over the years including Dabrowski's theory.

Elizabeth Mika, because of her fluency in Polish, has learned a great deal about the theory by reading books that are not available in English. She has done a great deal of work on the theory and its implications for giftedness.

5) How can those who are interested procure a copy of this book? Who publishes it and is there an 800 number?

The publisher is Great Potential Press, Scottsdale Arizona, telephone: toll free (877) 954-4200; email: I had two audiences in mind when I thought of doing the book. I wanted to help those in gifted education broaden their knowledge of the theory. And, I wanted to begin the process of introducing it to the area of personality in psychology, where I believe the theory actually belongs.

So, I was very happy when Jim Webb of GPP agreed to publish this book because GPP straddles both fields of gifted education and psychology.

6) How does this theory relate to personality and psychological development?

That's a great question—I spent the better part of four months dealing with that issue. I dealt with it by producing a chapter contrasting the theory with other approaches to personality. At the obvious level, the answer lies in the fact that positive disintegration, as I said earlier, is a theory of personality and as such addresses these two issues that you raise.

But personality and development are conceived rather differently than in other theories. In psychology, personality is seen as universally applicable—everyone has a personality. Not so with Dabrowski's view of things. In his theory, personality is achieved and it is a rare achievement at that. Unlike other theories that define personality as a collection of traits or characteristic ways of behaving, for Dabrowski, personality represents the highest form of human functioning incorporating such things authenticity, autonomy and the most positive of values, such as altruism, a sense of responsibility for self and others.

At first impression Dabrowski's personality seems to have a lot in common with Carl Rogers' fully functioning person—they both use similar descriptors. However, there are significant differences the most obvious being how this high level of functioning is achieved. For Rogers, it requires a persistent positive response from the social environment that he calls unconditional positive regard. For Dabrowski, the achievement of personality in fact is premised on transcending the social environment and is anchored to developmental potential which, through the creation of inner conflict, enables some individuals to move beyond both the demands of the social environment to conform and the demands of instincts to be gratified.

In Dabrowski's theory development is related to personality achievement. Development does not refer to the simple progression through the life cycle, birth to death. In essence, development means being on the path to personality achievement, even if we may never fully achieve personality. An essential feature of development is the creation of what he called a hierarchy of values that drive individuals' actions in daily life.

Development is equated with positive disintegration: existing primitive mental structures, those that are in the service of conformity and gratification of biological drives are destroyed and replaced by structures that support living a better moral life. So, development is not a neutral term that is universal.

In other theories, every one develops, even if they do not reach the last stage. For example, in Piaget's theory individuals go through at least some of the stages even though they may not reach the final stage of formal operations. In Dabrowski's theory some individuals never get past the first of his five level model, that is, some people do not develop,

7) How would this book help parents of gifted children or teachers of gifted children?

I have noticed over the years that both parents and teachers of gifted children have shown a great interest in the theory. Whenever they hear about the theory, their interest is immediately piqued. Those parents and teachers who already know of the theory only really know it as overexcitability. The book will help them develop a broader understanding of the theory. They will learn that it is a theory of personality, for example, and how overexcitability fits within the entire theory. The authors of the chapters have done a very good job of making Dabrowskian concepts accessible to readers who have no or little familiarity with the theory.

So, the book would be very useful for any one, parent, teacher, psychologist or researcher who wants to gain a deep understanding of Dabrowski's theory of positive disintegration.

8) How relevant it this book to the field of gifted education?

Of course, I believe that it is very relevant. Dabrowski's theory has become very popular in recent years. It has become a driving force in the social and emotional area of giftedness. But, as I said earlier, this interest has been focused largely on only one aspect, an important aspect, but still only one aspect of the theory, overexcitability.

Research on the theory has focused almost exclusively on this concept. My friend Bill Tillier and I recently reviewed the published research in the area of positive disintegration. The article was published in 2006 in the Journal for the Education of the Gifted. Except for some studies in the 1980's that also looked at levels of development, the research is basically all on OE. This also extends to educators and other practitioners who have applied the theory to several topics of interest in gifted education, such as reframing dual exceptionality—they all have focused on OE. I think that the book will serve to educate many people who have been introduced to the theory through OE to understand the context in which OE rests.

Becoming familiar with other concepts such as positive disintegration itself, dynamisms, level of development, the role of values and emotions in development will lead to more diversity in research on the theory. Essentially, the book extends the work already done by Piechowski, Silverman and others. As the full scope of the theory becomes understood, I think that it will encourage novel perspectives on the nature of giftedness.

Published August 28, 2007


August 28th, 2007

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Senior Columnist

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