Article: Highly Sensitive People Use Their Brains Differently

( -- An exploratory study has examined highly sensitive people and found the first evidence of neural differences between them and less sensitive people. Most studies have focused on the social implications of these traits, but the new study concentrates on the differences in how people's brains respond to stimuli.

Approximately one in five people are born with Sensory Perception Sensitivity (SPS), a personality trait that can lead to people being highly sensitive, and sometimes inhibited, introverted, shy, or even neurotic. Children with SPS may seem to be slow to adjust to situations, or may cry easily, have unusually deep thoughts, or may ask odd questions. Until now, there has been little study of how the brain's responses may be different in highly sensitive people.

The study first examined the responses of 16 subjects who each completed the "highly sensitive person"ť questionnaire, which is used as a standard measure of SPS, to determine their level of sensitivity. The researchers then asked the subjects to compare two photographs of the same scene and to spot any differences, at the same time as their brains were being scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The results showed that subjects with higher SPS (the more sensitive people) had greater activation in areas of the brain concerned with high-order visual processing, including the bilateral temporal, medial, and posterior parietal regions, right claustrum, and left occipitotemporal regions, as well as the right cerebellum. Those with SPS spent longer looking at the photographs and paid more attention to detail.

The researchers were from Stony Brook University in New York, and from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Southwest University in China. They found people with SPS took longer to make decisions, needed more time alone to think, were more conscientious, and became more bored with small talk than other people.

Previous studies have shown that people with SPS are also more affected by caffeine, are more easily startled, and are more uncomfortable with noise and crowded situations. The researchers said these effects could be due to an innate preference for paying more attention to experiences.

Over 100 other species are known to have individuals with the sensitivity trait, including dogs, fish, primates, and even fruit flies. Individuals exhibiting the sensitive trait are always in the minority, but they may give the species an evolutionary advantage at times, since highly sensitive individuals tend to explore with their brains first, while others rush in, and this can be advantageous when a more thoughtful approach is better or less dangerous.

The paper was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience in March.

More information: The trait of sensory processing sensitivity and neural responses to changes in visual scenes, Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2010), doi:10.1093/scan/nsq001

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1. HSPs: A wrong sense of being flawed 

Highly Sensitive Person test from Dr. Elaine Aron. Answer T/F.

  1. I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input.

  2. I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.

  3. Other people’s moods affect me.

  4. I tend to be very sensitive to pain.

  5. I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days,into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.

  6. I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.

  7. I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells,coarse fabrics,or sirens close by.

  8. I have a rich,complex inner life.

  9. I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.

  10. I am deeply moved by the arts or music.

  11. My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to go off by myself.

  12. I am conscientious.

  13. I startle easily.

  14. I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.

  15. When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).

  16. I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.

  17. I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.

  18. I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.

  19. I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.

  20. Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me,disrupting my concentration or mood.

  21. Changes in my life shake me up.

  22. I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art.

  23. I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once.

  24. I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.

  25. I am bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes.

  26. When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.

  27. When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.


If you answered more than fourteen of the questions as true of yourself, you are probably highly sensitive. But no psychological test is so accurate that an individual should base his or her life on it. We psychologists try to develop good questions, then decide on the cut off based on the average response.

If fewer questions are true of you, but extremely true, that might also justify calling you highly sensitive.

See the HSP website

1. From The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Dr. Elaine Aron, psychotherapist

  • Everyone, HSP or not, feels best when neither too bored or too aroused. Furthermore, people differ considerably in how much their nervous system is aroused in the same situation under the same stimulation.

  • The difference lies in a more careful processing of information, whether sights, sounds, space, temperatures, emotions, physical sensations, etc.

  • Being an HSP is not the same as being an introvert. Extroverts and introverts can both be sensitive, they can both be over-stimulated, they just relax differently. Extroverts relax with people, introverts alone.

  • If you can find an environmental factor for your over-stimulation this makes social situations easier.

  • Do not confuse being sensitive with being shy. Sometimes you just don't want the extra stimulation.

  • Do not associate over-arousal with fear or anxiety. It can relate to any number of emotions.

2. From Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, writer

A cultural analysis of systems, beliefs, and structures that support extroversion.

  • Actual research confirms that talking more does not equal more insight.

  • Open plan offices have been found to impair memory and reduce productivity.
    In one study, programmers with quiet, private workplaces outperformed other programmers by a 10:1 ratio.

  • Excessive stimulation impedes learning: people learn better after a quiet stroll through the woods than a walk down a busy city block.

  • One design company has “no-talk Thursdays” where creative people aren't allowed to talk to each other so they can concentrate and get things done.

3. From Solitude: A Return to the Self, by Anthony Storr, Jungian psychotherapist

  • The individual can suppress his inner world in such a way that he becomes over-compliant with external reality. If the individual regards the external world merely as something to which he has to adapt, rather than as something in which his subjectivity can find fulfillment, his individuality disappears.

  • The capacity to be alone is different than the need to be alone...the capacity to be alone thus becomes linked with self-discovery and self-realization; with becoming aware of one's deepest needs, feelings, and impulses.

  • A contented, relaxed sense of being alone allows us to discover what we really need and want, irrespective of what other may expect or try to foist upon us.

  • An inhibition of motor activity occurs when we are thinking. We are scanning possibilities, linking concepts, reviewing strategies. Eventually, this results in physical action. Many people find this postponement of action difficult.

  • Some development of the capacity to be alone is necessary if the brain is to function at its best, and if the individual is to fulfill his highest potential. Human beings easily become alienated from their own deepest needs and feelings. Learning, thinking, innovation, and maintaining contact with one's inner world are all facilitated by solitude.