April 7th, 2010
12:59 PM ET
Ultra-sensitive? It's in your brain
By Elizabeth Landau
If you are particularly sensitive to the world around you - whether it's music, caffeine, other people's emotions, you may have a personality trait called "sensory processing sensitivity."
People who are highly sensitive in this way tend to look and observe and process things deeply, as opposed to boldly going ahead, says Elaine Aron, professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, who helped pioneer research on the subject in the 1990s. Having vivid dreams and being aware of subtleties in your environment are also characteristic of this temperament, she said. Take this quiz to see if this fits you.
Now, Aron's group has shown evidence in the brain that these people are more detail-oriented. The study is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brains of 18 participants. They found that people with sensory processing sensitivity tended to have more brain activity in the high-order visual processing regions, and in the right cerebellum, when detecting minor details of photographs presented to them.
"They are better at noticing subtle details in their environments than people without the trait," said Jadzia Jagiellowicz, lead author and doctoral candidate in the department of psychology at Stony Brook University.
Sensory processing sensitivity has been associated with introversion, but only loosely - about 30 percent of highly sensitive people are extroverts, Aron said.
Highly sensitive people probably make good counselors and recruiters, said Jagiellowicz, because of their attention to detail. They are able to more deeply process details as well as emotions, which are good skills in these professions. Accounting, which requires taking in a lot of information at once, may also be a relevant field, she said.
But the study showed that highly sensitive people do not quickly take in these details; in fact, they spend more time looking at them, so a job that requires a quick assessment of minutiae may not be the best fit, she said.
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I am definitely one of those persons, acutely. I can tell you that we can also get anxiety in situations with information 'overload', where we can't process everything on the level we're used to when it's a quieter environment.
We're also good artists and cooks btw; we parse subtleties well.
We should have tools to see if children are this, and therefore make smart suggestions to them and their parents of what fields they might be good in later in life or courses of studies to pursue (or hobbies).
It's nice to read this article and not feel like such a sensitive freak! I'm just in possession of a bit ol' SPS I guess. 🙂
neat research. i took the quiz and scored as highly sensitive. as an adult i believed i fell into the category of an "empath"/ intuitive. many of the characteristics in the quiz fall into the same category of one being intuitively inclined.
i just put it all down to some people see deeper, feel deeper, and are more aware of the world around them. if there is a drug to stop being so highly sensitive to the world, i would like a prescription.
interesting research. i think Ms. Aron should get a quick tally on how many of these highy sensitive people have migraine tendencies. I am sure the number will be fairly considerable.
It is NOT in the Brain....it IS the Spirit inside us which makes us sensitive!!!
I should know..I am an empath.
I have this exact analysis and I'm sometimes introverted and happy to be alone and never lonely. I have a knack for quickly identifying subtle patterns that represent problems a vivid imagination that sometimes is able to connect my subconscious mind to my conscious mind which produces amazing ideas, concepts and problem solving. I also think emotionally deep which is a pain because I get disabled from acting on the obvious since i sometimes don't see the solution. Great article!
Is there anything to stop it to make one more normal? It's a burden at work.
finally a name for what I have, besides paranioa or worse.
I had a look at the quiz and thought that many people with those characteristics might have spent years in theraphy, trying to figure things out, searching problems in their childhood to try and understand why they´re so sensitve and now they find out it´s all in the brain, it´s a physical thing. So what is what? How can one know whether they should go into therapy or at least 'change' aspects of their personality so that they adjust better to the world or not? I mean, if it´s a physical thing, what can be done about it?
From my experience you can't change it but you can work with it. There's a website http://www.highlysensitivebody.com which talks about the physical aspects and how to take care of yourself since it's easy to get overloaded and stressed out!
This sounds like my entire life but would they be prone to seizures because 7 years ago I had a series of massive grand mal seizures where I lost almost everything I knew and remember and the ability to process short term memory into long term. I'd like to know more because the doctors can't find any single reason on why I would have had the seizures. I don't do drugs, I don't have anything wrong with my brain or anneurysms or signs of stroke or epilepsy the only thing we could conclude was that it may have been medicines but now I'm wondering if the overwhelming could also cause a misfiring of neurons and cause seizures?
Thank goodness people are finally paying attention to the fact that some people around us are more sensitive and should be respected and accomodated as such in their worklives as opposed to simply being dismissed as irrational or "too sensitive". This should be seen as a blessing, not a drawback, since sensitive people have a lot to contribute in ways that others simply cannot.
So, can we also take this as an explanation for the existence of political correctness, liberals, PETA, and all of the other nut cases around the world who are "sensitive" and want to make everyone else conform to their particular ideas?
If so, let's just isolate these sensitives and let them drive each other off the wall while the rest of us, who don't give a flip about the foregoing, get on with real life.
I wonder if there has been any connection found between this personality type and alcoholism....
Of course, being ultra-sensitive is associated with certain things in the brain, just like all cognitive and emotional functions. What is new about that?, what is the point of writing an article about that?What is the point of citing some scientists using brain scanner to detect certain activities in the brain?, hardly any surprise at all, and absolutely not worth an article. Please only write an article when scientists have been able to intervene with certain activities in the brain to make an ultra-sensitive person less sensitive while retaining all other characteristics of that person's psychology.
Too tired of reading articles about brain his brain that, just like the classic nonsense story of the brain flipping the up-side-down image in the retina to make things stand up right 'in the brain'. A bunch of nonsense. Let's just write an article when scientists are able to do something with the brain so that the brain stop flipping images and people see everything up-side-down.
Quit writing nonsense things about the brain.
Aron et al. suggest that high sensitivity is "innate" (genetic)? It's not clear from the CNN article or Aron's website why they come to that conclusion and rule out alternative explanations. For example, is it possible that experiences during fetal development or early childhood influence the development of high sensitivity (as assessed by questionnaire, observation, and brain imaging)? I do not mean to be dismissive of their work: I just think neuroscience is too quick to label differences as innate, and sociology (my own discipline) is too quick to frame differences as socially constructed. While the import and recognition of differences are socially embedded, perhaps a richer understanding of ways of seeing and being in the world would arise from combining insights from the human sciences (including sociology and neuroscience). It would be great if scholarly journals and popular media encouraged their authors to mention the possibility of a wide range of alternative explanations.
This description fits me to a T. I've spent my life trying to overcome this sensitivity to be like everyone else, but with very little success. It's a relief to know that there's a name for it and it isn't "just me". However, the careers mentioned in the article would be a death sentence for me. Give me art, creativity, and hands-on work and I'm happy. The sensitive energy works through my hands and quiets my brain.
Thanks for the article!
I totally agree with the art, creativity, and hands-on work, Carrie. Something about touch and movement is really soothing.
When I read this article, I said to myself "They're talking about me!" as I really like to think things over before acting.
I'm an engineer, which is very detail oriented. I also feel distressed if I'm asked to quickly make a determination until I've processed the information to my my satisfaction and feel I must add qualifiers to the results. Perhaps I'm violating my "program".
Also, my hobbies are hi-end hi-fi (audiophile) and astronomy and I "observe" what's going on in both hobbies. Finally, when I read a book, I read it slowly so I can completely "process" it.
So this seems to fit me to a tee.....but let me think about it for a while.
I think that this describes me. Interesting. I notice that I notice things that others do not.
This is anamazig story. It is another example of bored scientists who will reach for anything to try and justify their high salaries. Humans are diffrent in the way they live and emote and thik. There is no need to try and assign a "diagnosis" to our individual style. The fact that we are different in many respects does not mean that being different is "pathological".
Also, we are body, mind and spirit. Some souls are more gentle or more sensitive that others and they live and act accordingly. This is not "in your brain". Our brain is just another organ that supports our higher functions. It does not determine our higher functions. This purely mechanical view tries to reduce human beings to biological machines with no free will, no free choice, no responsibiliy and no spirit. This attitude is blind to our true nature a spiritual beings. It is also dangerous because it denies our highest nature as spirits, not machines.
So, the article makes sense and everything...But what can this "sensitive" person do in order to improve on some of the things that seem to hinder performance/happiness, etc.? This article says nothing of that.
While slightly interesting, I am not sure what the value of the article is. Since everything that makes up who a person is, resides in the brain, there is nothing very informative in the title of the article. I found mildly interesting the paragraph which says that ultra sensitive people take longer to process minutiae. I would like to add that Ultra-sensitive people can become good at jobs that require the rapid processing of minutiae, if they become "experts" as a compensating factor.
What is the connection between this identified personality type and sensory processing disorder, which is currently being considered for inclusion as a separate disorder in the DSM-V? People with SPD tend to have difficulty with transitions and are prone to anxiety; is that true of "highly sensitive people" as well?
This is very interesting. I have always been told I am too sensitivite and I should grow a pair. It has hunted me all my life. Nice to know that I fit in and it is ok to be who I am..
Sensory processing sensitivity? Fantastic. I've not heard of it before, but I know, without a doubt, that I possess this trait. I've thought about this in great depth, at times, and came to the conclusion that I am the opposite of a sociopath. Which can really be debilitating at times.
Thank you Elizabeth for writing about this topic. I'm going to do some more research, now.
This pretty much describes me. It's almost a pain for me though. The reason being is I want to start living for me. After raising three daughters , i feel it's my time to live, but can't because I am so concerned about how others feel or would feel.
I do agree that it's in your brain, but I don't agree that is all psychological. I believe these people have enlarged or more active Pineal glands. The gland controls far more than we previously thought from being sensitive to magnetic fields including EMF radiation, to light and dark sensitivity, and controlling adrenaline, other hormones, and metabolism, and controlling seratonin, and preception of reality.
Couldn't this be classified as ADHD? The symptoms on the test sound all too familiar. I never received treatment until I was 23, the extra stimulation of everyday life was simply too much for me to process, resulting in many failed jobs and inability to go back to school. Do other people with "enhanced sensitivity" have ADHD?
Everyone who is interested in this, and related topics, should try academic search engines (go to your public library– a University library would be even better) and you can look at all the latest research.
The nit-picky can't help being nit-picky then?
Lots of great comments on this! My two cents is that, as per usual with the studies regarding the brain, the media (I can't speak for the researchers and the actual study) represent this as if it originated in the brain, and has a purely physical origin. Could it develop over time, as a product of one's upbringing or environment? How is it tied into other aspects of a person? They've only found a part of the brain that deals with it, but have no idea how it got there.
Comments seem to be mixed about the value of the article. If it helps even one person feel better about themselves and their sensitive/detail-oriented personalities and habits, it's worth being written about it once in a while. In my adult world others do pay attention to details on their own generally, but don't think of it as being detailed or sensitive in themselves. It seems to border on OCD or ADHD, but details are important in many cases. Feeling stressed or too sensitive can affect your physical health so be careful. I do manage better on a very low dose of anti-anxiety RX that's taken when a bit of drowsiness is okay. Adrenal levels are low. Trying to resolve some of that as well to see how much of a difference it makes with my level of sensitivities.
Elain N. Aron's series of books on 'the highly sensitive person' from 1996 to now has already brilliantly identified these wonderful traits, and Dr. Aron offers great coping mechanisms for finding peace in such a chaotic world. This CNN article adds that these 'sensitive traits' show up in MRI scans (not surprising). I also want to add that neuroscience is beginning to prove that one can consciously change one's brain structure [and resultant experience of life] by changing one's thoughts (e.g. by meditating a lot). If you are determined enough you can perhaps train your self not to feel anxiety so much etc. but it does take effort!!! See, for example, the research of Rick Hanson, PhD and Richard Mendius, MD.
Jim Hohn asked: "I wonder if there has been any connection found between this personality type and alcoholism...."
Self-medication was sure the route I tried to cope with this, and it sure didn't work. Elaine Aron's book "The Highly Sensitive Person" has been eye-opening for me. I'd much rather cope with – and celebrate – being sensitive rather than try to medicate or disparage it out of existence 🙂
Perhaps you may be hypersensitive because of your brain, but your interpretation of the subtleties of your environment and the emotions of others must be from a different source, like experiences and the environment in which you were raised, or your role models (parents, etc.)
I know/have known hypersensitive people who passed everything around them through a self-absorbed filter and everything became about them. For instance, you are tired and not talking as much as normal and they automatically think you are mad at them even though you may be thinking about something totally removed from them. Or you have a "sour" look on your face and they automatically think you are mad at them even though you have a headache, are tired, and the sun is shining in your eyes. I think you get what I mean.
Hypersensitive/introverted people need to understand it's not all about themselves.
A lot of this explains a lot of what happens with me.
For instance, my hearing is very good. So good that even little noises keep me from sleeping at night. In order to sleep at all, I have to have some type of white/pink noise going to mask any other noises.
You'd think with such good hearing that I'd be able to understand anything anyone around me might be saying, but this isn't always the case.
If there are other conversations going on, they all blend together. I seem to be unable to separate one conversation from another.
I ended up checking 17 of the items on the "quiz". I have also been considered an empath as well. Although empathy tends to have different forms. Either way, I know I am very sensitive to a lot of things, but unlike the one person who posted, I am not and never will be part of an organization such as PETA, NAACP, and other so-called civic organizations, where all they really do is look to get their own 15 minutes of fame rather than actually take on the real issues they claim to represent.
Sensitivity patterns can probably also be attributed to other influences besides being totally brain-oriented to start with. The seizures mentioned in the comment area after the article? Researchers will probably find more answers about whatever causes them in the coming months and years. I think that some that I had were sensitivities to certain natural compounds that my system didn't accept as well as some other people. It's hard to recreate the factors that might cause the seizures. Who would want to anyway? The advances in health research are providing more answers if the information can be networked accordingly. Information overload can be a problem.
Wow! Reading other people's comments, it's nice to know that there are others out there who feel/act/think similarly. It was kind of creepy taking the test. Almost ever single question was true for me.
I work in Data analysis and i'm very good at it. I love going into the details and finding out what my data is trying to tell me. On the other hand, I can't be rushed. It's taken some time, but the people that I work with finally understand that I'll work as quickly as I can, but DO NOT RUSH ME. Rush me and everything will get messed up. I promise.
I like being alone. Few of my hobbies and intersts are "social". The few that are more socially inclined are artistic and very tactile. In my small group of friends, I am the one people come to with problems or to talk. I'm always the one to welcome new people to our group and try to make them comfortable. I almost instinctively know what people need.
I've always considered myself very intuitive, but I really think that my brain is putting together details that I don't conciously see. I am a "sensitive" and have great empathy. I'm not too sure that I'm happy that my specialness has been defined so scientifically. 🙂
Wow! Finally a diagnosis of my 'disorder' has proven what I knew all along, I'm better than all of you! This article, and many of the comments, makes so much sense. I grew up shy, prefer being alone, am an introvert, prefer to analyze projects completely because I believe every detail matters, am educated in Engineering, worked in accounting, grew up teaching myself astronomy, can sense weather changes based on headache/migraine patterns, get easily overloaded with other people'sdemands, don't like to see others suffer, and many other things I just can't think of right now. But wait, maybe I'm just a hypochondriac......hmmm, I'll have to ponder this further to see if the deatils fit my prognosis.
Thank you for bringing this to the light of day!! I have always known I was more physically sensitive – extremely ticklish, low pain tolerance, sensitive to caffeine, etc. At some point I got sick of being told I should "get over it" or "toughen up", and started to really think it must be physical – more nerve endings, or nerve endings tuned more highly, or something. After all, it's not like I WANT to feel pain more easily, or get palpitations from coffee... And... since I'm more sensitive to physical sensation than many, it seemed to follow that I'd be more sensitive to emotional and psychological stimuli, too. It is WONDERFUL to have that confirmed and supported!!
AND... it explains some things I've been pondering about being labeled a bit of a hypochondriac by family and friends: if I actually physically feel more sensation, and also am more acutely aware of both emotional and physical stress – how am I supposed to differentiate between injury/disease and "normal" sensations, or the physical manifestations of stress? I'm not a hypochondriac by the traditional definition – I simply have a cranked up sensory system. Again – THANK YOU for getting this out there!
We also make very good computer programmers. When writing good code, every detail counts (and there can be hundreds of details) Debugging is also a matter of finding the subtle flaws that others may overlook.
Being introverted makes sense when you think about the Ultra-sensitive person's experience. When I walk into a party or conference with dozens of conversations going on, I instinctively try to track all of them rather than shutting them out as background noise. Let's not even talk about bright lights, strong scents our temperature variations!
Ken – I agree completely. I'm over fifty now and when I look back at my life, I wish someone had recognized and supported the development of these abilities in me. The problem was, and still is, that most people see these as disabilities. I'm always told that I am, "Too much..."
"Aron et al. suggest that high sensitivity is "innate" (genetic)?"
The word "innate" doesn't appear anywhere in the story. (I haven't read the paper, so maybe they go into more detail or speculate on it there.) From the summary given, I don't think they are trying to draw conclusions on what caused the differences, just showing that there are differences in brain function that seem to correlate with this kind of behavior/thinking.
"It is another example of bored scientists who will reach for anything to try and justify their high salaries..."
"I am not sure what the value of the article is..."
"What is the point of citing some scientists using brain scanner to detect certain activities in the brain?..."
This was a peer-reviewed article published in a scientific journal. It's interesting research; they proved something that nobody had thought of before, or maybe someone had suggested it but nobody had really proved a connection.
Figuring out how different personality traits/problems map to brain activity IS very useful research. The technology to do this sort of study hasn't been available that long, so often they're looking at things that seem pretty basic. Basic research isn't always glamorous, but it's really important in the long run. And I really doubt these guys are getting rich.
"So, can we also take this as an explanation for the existence of political correctness, liberals, PETA, and all of the other nut cases around the world who are "sensitive" and want to make everyone else conform to their particular ideas?"
Generally it's the right-wingers who tend to want to push their moral values on everyone else. (e.g. ban abortion, ban drugs/alcohol, ban anything else viewed as "immoral", if you don't support pouring money into the military and executing suspected terrorists without trial you're a traitor) Left-wingers do tend to be more economically "socialist" (which can be equally pushy and contentious sometimes), but not so much socially.
PETA's gotten so far out there I hesitate to even call them "liberal". They're probably closer to radical anarchists than the Democratic party right now.
There was some really interesting research done a few years ago that showed trends of different brain activity between people who identified themselves as liberal and conservative. http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-sci-politics10sep10,0,2687256.story
Dr. Elain Aron has done a lot of work and research on highly sensitive people (HSP). For people who are interested in what defines "highly sensitive" or are looking for coping strategies so that they can thrive despite being highly sensitive, Dr. Aron has several books and a website that I found very, very helpful. http://www.hsperson.com/
I personally have been diagnosed with Sensory integration dysfunction. It is this sensitivity but to the extent that it inhibits my normal life. Unlike those you are talking about I have never had trouble processing and seem to process faster than most. There are some studies that have been attempting to find an association with these individuals and those labeled "gifted". These studies have some promise and one theory is that the information overload as some have phrased requires an individual to learn information processing to an extent beyond normal.
Great little piece. Nothing new, but a good reminder that I'm not the ony one like this. Many times I feel like a minority in fast-paced American culture. Like others have said, I see this mostly as a gift and not so much of a curse. I feel like I process things on a deeper level – and am able to circumvent the minutiae of our "world" and really focus on the spiritual aspect of our collective experience. As a high school teacher, this can be maddening – as well as an incrediblly rewarding tool that helps reach kids.
Someone asked – what can I do to help this? My answer – eat healthy, exercise, yoga, chill out, and live a balanced life. It's the only way.
Geez people, get over yourselves. I'm a highly sensitive person too ( INFJ ) so what! The article wasn't an invitation to tell everyone your life story.
To the "empath" that says it's not in the brain but in the spirit...the spirit/will of a person steers a body into action so why would we not see the result of stimulation in a sensory organ like the brain? It's not an either or thing. All parts work in succession.
This article makes me feel a lot less weird.
I wonder how many of us also get prescient dreams and experience clairvoyance; I certainly do.
What's rough about all this is it makes it pretty difficult to fit in with the world being as rough and competitive as it is. I think my type of personality doesn't like to mess around fitting in or perpetuating the status quo as much as making a genuine contribution.
Wow this sounds like me and a lot of my autistic friends.
Makes me wonder about links to autism!
This is amazing, and what I have lived with my whole life while wondering why I was so different. I used to describe it as being "born without skin" because others emotions and states of mind were so overwhelming. Nice to read the comments here and realize that I'm not alone in this. Great test as well, described to a 'T' many of the issues I have at work. Fortunately I'm in IT, and attention to detail is prized. I also have spent many years studying meditation and learning to monitor and control my thoughts and feelings which has helped tremendously. I used to struggle in traffic, crowds, and high pressure situations at work, but have become very organized and adept at "single" tasking. The more strong and calm I am inwardly, the better I can handle chaos in the outer world.
I agree this sounds very much like ADHD. I think I have ADHD and this sensitivity thing is right on
WOW - Now I know! My mom used to tell me to stop being so sensitive, my ex-husband said the same thing. I have two daughters with this, too. One was diagnosed with ADHD, but the medication just made her crazy so we stopped it and learned to cope. I can cry at the drop of a hat, including when a boss is yelling at me and that's not good for the career. Thanks so much for exploring this.