High Sensitivity

High Sensitivity

I recently came across Dr. Elaine Aron’s work on high sensitivity. Aron posits high sensitivity as a trait exhibited across a variety of species that favors awareness and evaluation over unreflective action. While some animals, hoping to catch a tasty snack, may immediately dart after something new in their environment, others may stay back and check to make sure that this new arrival does not constitute a threat. Both strategies have their advantages: action first animals can score meals they otherwise would have missed, and evaluation first animals can avoid being caught and eaten themselves and may even act more quickly in appropriate situations to capitalize on patterns they have observed in the past. This trait of high sensitivity, argues Aron, is found in humans and carries its advantages and disadvantages into the human domain. And, in this domain, its advantages become even more pronounced, since sensitivity amplifies what distinguishes us from other animals: our ability to “imagine possibilities”. Highly sensitive people think things through, comparing present experience to the past and possible futures, and, as a result, invent solutions to the problems that confront them.[1] The disadvantages for those with this trait are that it can waste energy, lead them to be more quickly overwhelmed and fatigued, and, when past experiences have been bad, predispose them to be unwarrantedly anxious about the future.[2]

Aron explains the trait of high sensitivity through four features handily encoded in the acronym DOES: Depth of Processing, Overstimulation, Emotional Reactivity, and Sensing the Subtle.

  1. Depth of Processing.  Sensitive people process information more deeply than others. They not only do this consciously by pausing to rationally reflect on a situation, comparing past present and future, but also unconsciously through intuition. Aron observes:

“The highly sensitive use more of those parts of the brain associated with ‘deeper’ processing of information, especially on tasks that involve noticing subtleties. In another study, by ourselves and others, sensitive and nonsensitive people were given perceptual tasks that were already known to be difficult (require more brain activation and effort), depending on the culture a person is from. The nonsensitive people showed the usual difficulty, but the highly sensitive subjects’ brains apparently did not have this difficulty, regardless of culture. It was as if they found it natural to look beyond their cultural expectations to how things really are.”[3]

This is the core feature of high sensitivity and has been overlooked by empirical psychology because it cannot be easily inferred from superficial behavior.

  1. Overstimulation. As a result of processing things at a deeper level, sensitive people will become stressed and fatigued more quickly than non-sensitive people. This, Aron contends, must not be confused with sensory processing disorders (such as those associated with autism spectrum disorder).
  1. Emotional Reactivity. Sensitive people react more strongly to emotions in others, both positive and negative. “We do not just have an idea of how someone else feels; we actually feel that way ourselves to some extent.”[4]
  1. Sensing the Subtle: Sensitive people are aware of subtle differences in both their internal and external environments. As a result, they can have a cultivated aesthetic sense and a greater semantic awareness of the meanings of concepts and their interrelations.

Two aspects of the Aron’s book struck me as particularly noteworthy. First, Aron’s characterization of the highly sensitive person tied together disparate features I would not have previously associated. She notes, for example, that highly sensitive people are more affected by hunger than others, require more sleep, are more sensitive to medications and caffeine, can be overwhelmed with images and sensations when they close their eyes, and may have archetypal dreams and visions, experience synchronicities, and work well with Jungian depth psychology. She even notes that they may even be more liable to interact with extra-ordinary beings. One of her interviewees recounts:

“One night the cat shrieked and leapt off my legs and out the door, so I opened my eyes in alarm, instantly awoke. There at the bottom of my bed was a ‘creature’ about four feet tall, hairless, not naked but in a sort of skinsuit, with minimalist features: slits for eyes, holes for a nose, no ears, and around him was a strange light that seemed made up of colors I didn’t recognize. I was not the least bit afraid. He ‘thought transmitted’ to me, ‘don’t be afraid. I’m only here to observe you.’ And I ‘said’ back to him, ‘well, I don’t think I can handle this, so I’m going back to sleep.’ which, amazingly, I did.”[5]

The second noteworthy aspect of Aron’s account was her observation that this trait is normal for 20 to 30 percent of the population. It is an ordinary psychological trait, characteristic of “a special breed”[6] of human, not the symptom of an underlying pathology. She points out that much damage has been done by Western culture’s idealization of the non-sensitive and denigration of the sensitive (especially for men and boys). Though sensitivity may be associated in some individuals with mental disorders, such an association is not necessary, since it is due in large part to the cultural choice to pathologize and disparage sensitivity.[7] This has not only caused needless suffering to sensitive people, but the culture itself has languished in the absence of the traditional priestly class that these people once constituted.[8]

[1] Elain Aron, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You Rev ed. , 46.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] Ibid., 275.

[6] Ibid., 64. “They are genetically quite different, although still utterly human, just as bloodhounds and border collies are quite different, although both are still definitely dogs.”

[7] A similar case is made in Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

[8] Ibid., 53-54.

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