How Science can help us see the Highly Sensitive Trait in a Positive Light

One of my pet peeves when explaining the trait of High Sensitivity to people is when they call the trait ‘hyper’ sensitivity. To me, ‘hyper’ means excessive.


I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being thought of as excessively sensitive. I prefer to think of myself as exquisitely sensitive or having an enhanced sensitivity or even a keenly developed or highly-tuned sensitivity. Some articles I’ve come across are still mistakenly calling the trait hyper-sensitivity. For the authors of those articles, here is the definition of hypersensitivity from Wikipedia: Hypersensitivity (also called hypersensitivity reaction or intolerance) is a set of undesirable reactions produced by the normal immune system, including allergies and autoimmunity. These reactions may be damaging, uncomfortable, or occasionally fatal. Hmm – definitely not how I view High Sensitivity, and on that note, I certainly don’t agree with the Wikipedia explanation of High Sensitivity either, which seems to dwell mainly on the negative aspects of the trait.

Let’s redress the balance with a more positive view on High Sensitivity!

If we take a look at the science behind the trait, we know that the trait is certainly real & not ‘made up’. Also known by researchers as ‘Sensory Processing Sensitivity‘, or ‘Vantage Sensitivity’, the trait appears to be a temperament rather than a personality trait. You are born with your temperament, whereas environment & upbringing plus temperament all form your personality. This research shows that High Sensitivity is an innate trait that we are born with, not something that becomes broken over time, & it does not need fixing! 2 neurotransmitters – Serotonin & Dopamine have both been associated with the trait of High Sensitivity. Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain & body and are what our brains use to tell our hearts to beat, our lungs to breathe & our stomach to digest. They also affect mood, sleep, concentration & weight, & when out of balance can cause problems. Things like stress, poor diet, toxins, genetic predisposition, drugs including alcohol & caffeine can all cause our neurotransmitters to be out of balance.

A recent study has also shown that people who have the gene variant ADRA2B (Highly Sensitive People!) perceive positive and negative images more vividly. ADRA2B influences yet another neurotransmitter – norepinephrine. Norepinephrine imbalances can cause anxiety when high levels are excreted and are associated with low energy, decreased ability to focus and problems sleeping with low levels. Adam Anderson, professor of human development at Cornell University and senior author of the study into the ADRA2B gene variant states “Emotions are not only about how we feel about the world, but how our brains influence our perception of it. As our genes influence how we literally see the positive and negative aspects of our world more clearly, we may come to believe the world has more rewards or threats.” At a very simple level, these studies on neurotransmitters all show that a person is genetically predisposed to their sensitivity and is wired to experience the world differently. As Elaine Aron so beautifully says: “It’s innate and it has advantages. What people want for us to get over are the disadvantages, but we can’t and don’t need to and shouldn’t want to or be asked to stop being highly sensitive.” Other research into the trait has shown that the Highly Sensitive brain also works differently from the non-Highly Sensitive brain.

fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) studies revealed that the brains of Highly Sensitive People had greater blood flow in the areas associated with empathy, awareness & emotion. Dr Arthur Aron interprets the results as showing further evidence that HSPs are generally highly tuned into their environments & that especially high levels of awareness & emotional responsiveness are fundamental features of humans characterised as Highly Sensitive. Thomas Boyce, a scientist at the University of British Columbia, thinks that sensitivity evolved so that we could use it to sense all the good things in very good environments and take full advantage of them, and react strongly to bad environments so that we would be more careful in them. As the trait has been found in over 100 different species, including cats, dogs, fruit flies & bats as well as humans, always in the same percentage – 15-20%, it does indicate that having a small proportion of the population that is Highly Sensitive is crucial for the survival of that population.

Yes there can be disadvantages to being Highly Sensitive. Because of our tendency to process things deeply we can’t always come to a quick decision. Because our senses are heightened, we sometimes get overwhelmed by lights that are too bright or environments that are too busy or noisy. We prefer to be comfortable and will notice when our clothes have scratchy labels in them, or the room gets too hot or too cold. The news can upset us & sometimes we cry – that’s because we’re empathising with the pain & suffering in the world. But it’s also all of these tendencies that make us great friends, artists, writers, film-makers, counsellors, teachers, doctors, scientists… Like many super-powers, we need to learn to use our heightened abilities to our advantage rather than letting them get out of hand. Think of your High Sensitivity as a blessing, not a curse. Focus on all the ways it enriches & enhances your life. The next time you watch the sun set, appreciate that you’re experiencing it on so many more levels than someone that isn’t Highly Sensitive. If you’re not convinced of these differences I recommend you read Jamie Williamson’s coffee shop scenario described from the points of view of both a Highly Sensitive & a non-Highly Sensitive Child in ‘Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child: Seeing an Overwhelming World Through Their Eyes’.

Do you have any pet peeves, things that make you cringe when people talk about High Sensitivity? Please share them in the comments below!


August 2011: Comfort Zone ONLINE, HSP Research: Recent Genetic Findings

Why Some People Are Genetically More Sensitive or Empathetic than Others –

Are You a Highly Sensitive Person? What You Need to Know About the Science of This Personality Type | Alternet –

What are Neurotransmitters? –

How Do Your Genes Influence Levels of Emotional Sensitivity –

Wikipedia –



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