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Friday, August 6, 2010

Being a "Highly Sensitive Person"

I've had this sense of just being out of sync with others for a while now. I started to use the same neurobiology and psychology I’ve learned and turned my resources and my focus inward to analyze myself. I started to take lots of tests: IQ tests, personality tests, temperament tests, cognitive tests etc. I've also been to a couple therapists for some professional guidance to try and make sense of my whole situation to try and see if there was some sort of logical explanation available to see why I felt so disconnected from others. When it rains it pours, I found myself with some answers and tons of new questions. Questions I couldn’t help but chase down. The next few posts are going to be specifically about the results of these tests and how I reacted to them. I'm sure others who find themselves in a similar situation will find my experience helpful. If not directly, then perhaps just to know that you’re not alone.

The end result was frankly... mixed. First off I am a "Highly Sensitive Person". A group which represents a good 15-20% of the population, depending on which statistics you adhere to of course. This is a genetic trait which exists in several different species, bugs, various mammals, etc. These individuals have a much keener awareness of the surroundings around them, and would be evolutionarily necessary to alert the group to threats before other individuals would even be aware of the presence of a threat. I'd explain it like being a hyperactive radar machine, picking up bugs and birds in addition to enemy bombers. This sensitivity can be biological or created. The mind of a PTSD patient creates a hyper-sensitivity to anything that may remind them of the traumatic event, some people are just born with an inherent sensitivity to both internal (thoughts, sensory experience and medications) and external stimuli. I have found this both good and bad.  

What exactly is a "Highly Sensitive Person"(HSP)? It refers to a set of characteristics. I'll give you some personal examples.

There are 4 people in a room talking, a non-HSP enters. He notices that there are people in the room, where the chairs are situated, and his relation to the door, and begins to introduce himself to them.

There are 4 people in a room talking, a HSP enters the room, he notices everything all at once, the facial reactions of the people sitting down, two are sitting close and friendly, he intuits they must be a new couple. The other two seem frustrated and not pleased. Was he the reason for their dismay? The house seems to smell like something... odd. He hopes it's not mold or something to be concerned about. Maybe that's why the others have a negative expression on their face. Wow, it's bright in here, maybe he should take off his sunglasses, would that be rude to the host?

The amount of time that went by is the same for both individuals. You will see that the depth of qualitative experience is considerably deeper for the HSP. Now, the attention of the human mind is fairly limited, the more things that enter it tend to increase the arousal level (not sexual, but things like blood pressure, heart rate, diaphragmatic breathing depth, etc.) Everyone has a different arousal level that allows them to function at optimum performance, staying in the “g” spot in this performance area is referred to in the psychological community as being in “flow”. Too much stimulation and you’re overwhelmed, too little and you’re bored, just enough stimulation and you lose yourself in the task, time flies or slows, you lose self-consciousness and become one with what you’re doing. Some might refer to this as being “in the zone”.

Take a rave for instance. Bright light shows, loud thumping bass rhythms, dense crowds of people dressed up in stilettos and costumes. New smells, new thoughts. The more sensitive individual may not be able to function in these loud stimulating environments as easily. Unable to close your ears from hearing, your tongue from tasting, your body from feeling, you are at the mercy of your environment, it floods the mind. The amount of intense stimulation may just be too great and overwhelm the body and mind of the HSP. A less sensitive person however may thoroughly enjoy themselves, each new source of stimulation adding flavor to their positive experience, clicking in a hitting their groove. HSP’s can be sensitive to each of their senses, including thoughts.

A clap or loud noise to a HSP can sound deafening, and overwhelming. The light emitted from a LCD clock at 2am may be enough to keep an HSP awake. A grazing touch from another person may illicit a slew of internal questions, was he/she flirting? Am I making this up? Did they even mean to touch me? Sensitivity has its pros and cons. One specific factor is in emotional sensitivity. While others experience happiness and sadness, the HSP may be prone to experiencing more intense emotions, elation and depression. I have found myself on both ends of the proverbial emotional spectrum. I could hear a new instrument enter a song, or the progression of a melody, and a chill runs up my spine, leaving me with goose-bumps, teary eyes, and a big goofy grin. On the other side, depending on context, a disappointment could turn into a tango with hopeless depression.

I have found my sensitivity to facial expressions an exceptionally large two edged sword. For one, it allows me to maintain group positivity. I can pick up on subtle queues that someone feels ignored or bummed out and use it to invite them back to join the group. On the other hand I find the negative expressions very taxing and emotionally draining in trying to deal with, and typically find myself sacrificing a lot to maintain relationship cohesion. This may be a "self sacrificing schema" if you're interested in further research or googling.

Being sensitive does come with its challenges, it is instrumental to learn more about yourself, so you know what efforts you can take to better your situation. There are “HSP” tests readily available online if you’re curious. Creativity and sensitivity are closely related. Picking up on the subtle, nuanced and illusive is what makes you so unique. A multitude of notable artists and scientists have had this personality trait, and seems to be an important factor in motivating the individual towards personal growth.

I will end this post with a quote I found that sums up the complete experience very well. It was written by Pearl S. Buck, Pulitzer prize winner and the first American woman to ever receive Nobel prize for literature.

"The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.

To him... a touch is a blow,

a sound is a noise,

a misfortune is a tragedy,

a joy is an ecstasy,

a friend is a lover,

a lover is a god,

and failure is death.

Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create -- so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating."

Thursday, August 5, 2010


I'm back! In my time off I've found myself doing all sorts of reading on all sorts of things. The most valuable idea I've acted upon is learning about yourself. You're going to be living with yourself your whole life, seems the most relevant information to absorb to me. I've decided to move the focus from this blog from the purely scientific, to the journey through the scientific and the artistic.... with a bit of a brain bias. As you may or may not know, I have been studying neuroscience very intensely for especially the last couple years, I've read tons of scientific articles, more than your typical grad student (if the syllabuses I've been reading are any indication), and have learned about the brains mechanisms to deal with stress, to neural effects of gambling and everything between. I still find it as relevant and intriguing as ever.