What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

Chances are you’ve come across terms like “highly sensitive person”, “environmental sensitivity”, or “high sensory intelligence”. They are different descriptions for the same underlying trait known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS).

But what does that mean?

I will try and explain as simply and clearly as I can…

Highly Sensitive Person is the most commonly used term for the biological trait of sensory processing sensitivity found on 15-30% of humans. It was coined by Dr. Elaine Aron in the 1990’s. She published her book of the same name in 1996, which explored early research into SPS.

In this context, “sensitivity” describes two core biological functions. Firstly, how an organism (i.e. human) perceives sensory data from its environment (e.g. through sight, sound, smell, taste, touch). The second function is how sensory information is processed and stored in the nervous system. And in the case of humans, how we cognitively process through thinking deeply and reflecting on our experiences.

In this sense, everyone is sensitive. However, the research shows that some species members (across more than a hundred observed) are more sensitive than others. Scientists generally define sensitive people as those more strongly affected by what they experience.

A Different Survival Strategy

It hopefully goes without saying that sensitive people are no “better” or “worse” than less sensitive folk. However, they tend to react differently to stimulation and may employ alternative approaches. Especially when faced with novel and complex sensory data. For example, a sensitive person is more likely to “pause to check” as their nervous system (mostly unconsciously) scans the inner, outer, and social environment for signs of danger and safety as they decide how to proceed.

This is why highly sensitive people might (but not necessarily) be judged as shy, reluctant, or overly cautious by those unaware of their need to observe before acting. And why it can be frustrating for sensitive people if they feel rushed or pressured into making quick decisions before they feel ready.

From a social perspective, awareness and understanding of the trait are helpful for all of us.

On the one hand, knowledge about high sensitivity allows sensitive people to manage these tendencies so they can work with them rather than seeing them as an unpredictable curse. On the other hand, it gives everyone better scaffolding from which to build environments, relationships, and experiences that allow sensitive people to explore and express their deep and varied potentialities.

The Sensitivity Spectrum

Research has shown that people tend to sit in three different groups along a sensitivity spectrum. 30% score as low, 40% as medium, and 30% as high in sensitivity. You might have heard these described as dandelions (low), tulips (medium), and orchids (high).

Similar differences have been observed in many other species, including dogs, fish, birds, and even fruit flies, which suggests a neurobiological basis for the trait as having an essential role in adaption to the environment. In other words, there is a good reason we have evolved with this spectrum of sensitivity. We all have a role to play in surviving, adapting, and thriving as a species.

What Does Heightened Sensitivity Mean For The Highly Sensitive Person in Practice?

Dr Elaine Aron’s original self-test scale provides 27 statements for respondents to assess their sensitivity. They reflect the four elements of sensitivity that she depicts in the DOES acronym:

Depth of Processing

Highly Sensitive People perceive and process sensory information deeply. Most of this happens beneath the level of conscious awareness as the nervous system perceives and filters signs and signals for helpful information to keep its person safe. This deeper processing can lead to connecting dots and getting beneath how things appear to be on the surface.

Overstimulation

Receiving and deeply processing lots of sensory data means a sensitive nervous system reaches capacity more quickly than others. This is why highly sensitive people need plenty of restorative downtime around the margins of sensory stimulation. For example, they might reach a natural limit and want to leave or take breaks from a social gathering earlier than others.

Emotional Reactivity (and Empathy)

Emotional reactivity is the sensitive responsiveness to positive and negative experiences. Research has found that HSPs react more than non-HSPs to positive pictures. This is especially true for those who had a stable upbringing.

Emotional reactivity is linked to empathy, which is shown to be high in many sensitive people. The brain’s mirror neurons are more active in HSPs, so they might be able to “feel” things they are not directly experiencing. Brain activation has been observed in HSPs who look at photos of unhappy or distressed loved ones. They have a deep seated urge to take action to help.

There are indications that this aspect of sensory sensitivity helps with learning, adaptation, and planning. For example, by reflecting on mistakes that led to a strong emotional response, HSPs are more likely to correct their course next time. This could theoretically conserve energy. Likewise, they might be able to strongly anticipate the emotions a particular decision might bring to others and work towards outcomes that will bring strong positive emotions to themselves and others.

Sensing Subtleties

Awareness of subtleties is not about having extraordinary senses. It’s about the activation of the brain during the complex processing of sensory information. In other words, it can catch and connect with subtle flavours, nuance, and meaning beneath the surface. When feeling calm and safe, a highly sensitive nervous system might pick up on nonverbal cues from others and notice environmental signals indicating potential changes in things like the weather.

While no specific research links high sensitivity and creativity (creativity is too hard to define concretely), creative practices are a valuable part of the sensitive toolbox. I’ve seen many who wouldn’t consider themselves “creative” connect with their innate creativity as they begin exploring new horizons through the lens of their sensitivity.

It doesn’t require much of a stretch to see how the characteristics of a highly sensitive temperament can lead to creativity. But it’s also clear that creativity can be a cathartic way to process deeply, express big emotions, and connect the dots between the lines where words can’t fully articulate what wants/needs to be said.

This is why I built The Haven as somewhere to explore the contours of sensitivity through an accessible creative lens. Creativity allows us to raise awareness and increase understanding alongside others without getting overwhelmed by information and burned out by information overload.

Maybe you have already hoarded knowledge about high sensitivity and feel stuck or confused about what to do with it. If that’s you, I’d love to invite you to come and spend some time with us in The Haven. You are welcome to come and be who you are. Explore. Observe. Connect. Engage at your own pace and in your way.

Join us here.