For the first time last week, scientists gathered for a conference to discuss how highly sensitive people process information and what researchers could learn from such individuals.
According to the Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Bernstein, the event shed light on the little-understood personality trait, which is held by nearly one in five people.
The traits of highly sensitive people
Highly sensitive people—known as HSPs—respond more intensely to experiences than the average person and can become easily overwhelmed by positive or negative stimuli. The innate trait, called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), occurs on a spectrum and was first discovered in the 1990s by Elaine and Arthur Aron, who created a 27-question test to determine an individual's proclivity to high sensitivity.
Individuals with high sensitivity tend to process things more deeply, are more easily overwhelmed, and tend to have greater emotional responses than their non-sensitive counterparts. And, while being a HSP is not the same as being an introvert, HSPs tend to withdraw from social situations or overact when their brains feel overwhelmed. Arthur Aron, a research professor at Stony Brook University and visiting scholar at the University of California-Berkeley, says, "They're processing information more thoroughly, so they are more easily overwhelmed."
In addition, HSPs tend to approach relationships more empathetically and feel more pleasure when their partner is happy. "They think more deeply about things," according to Lucy Brown, a clinical professor of neurology at Einstein College of Medicine.
Many HSPs also learn to cope and deal with their feelings, often better than individuals without raised sensitivity levels, according to a March study in Personality and Individual Differences.
The science behind SPS
Research over the years has shown differences in the way the HSPs process information in the brain.
For example, a 2014 study found that HSPs show more neural activity in the primitive reward system of their brain when looking at pictures of their partners smiling. The same study found that part of the brain responsible for empathetic responses were more active when an HSP sees happy or sad photos.
Research suggests that the trait is genetic, but the responsible genes have not yet been identified. However, some research indicates the serotonin transporter gene could play a role, as well psychological and physiological factors (Bernstein, Wall Street Journal, 5/18).
The takeaway: Nearly one in five people are considered "highly sensitive," meaning they process things more deeply and get overwhelmed more easily than the average individual.