THE BLOG

Shades of Sensitivity

05/14/2015 02:27 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

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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, and 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.

- Pearl S. Buck

In 1997, Elaine and Arthur Aron introduced the notion of the highly sensitive person: those who tend to have intensified experiences and responses to their surroundings. They concluded that about 15-20% of the population have this form of sensory-processing sensitivity, which causes them to become overaroused by intense sensory stimuli, such as strong smells, loud noises, bright lights, and strong tastes.

To measure this form of sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS), the Arons developed a 27-item scale. They found that those scoring high on this scale tended to score high on a wide variety of intensified experiences, from crying easily to having daylight sensitivity to loving intensely to remembering dreams more vividly.

Since the scale was created, a number of studies have been conducted on highly sensitive people. What is becoming clear is that there are different shades of sensitivity. This includes narcissistic sensitivity and moral sensitivity, but for this post I'd like to focus on the different shades of sensory-processing sensitivity.

Kathy Smolewska and colleagues identified three forms of sensitivity measured by the Highly Sensitive Person Scale: Ease of Excitation, Low Sensory Threshold, and Aesthetic Sensitivity. Those who score high in ease of excitation tend to become mentally overwhelmed by internal or external stimuli, those with a low sensory threshold tend to experience unpleasant arousal in the face of external stimuli, and those scoring high in aesthetic sensitivity tend to have a greater awareness and appreciation of beauty.

Here are the test items so you can see where you fall on these dimensions.

Ease of Excitation

  1. Do other people's moods affect you?
  2. Do you tend to be more sensitive to pain?
  3. Do you startle easily?
  4. Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short time?
  5. Are you annoyed when people try to get you to do too many things at once?
  6. Do you try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things?
  7. Does being very hungry create a strong reaction in you, disrupting your concentration or mood?
  8. Do changes in your life shake you up?
  9. Do you find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once?
  10. Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
  11. When you must compete or be observed while performing a task, do you become so nervous or shaky that you do much worse than you would otherwise?
  12. When you were a child, did your parents or teachers seems to see you as sensitive or shy?

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Low Sensory Threshold

  1. Are you particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine?
  2. Are you easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by?
  3. Are you made uncomfortable by loud noises?
  4. Do you make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows?
  5. Do you become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around you?
  6. Are you bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes?

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Aesthetic Sensitivity

  1. Do you seem to be aware of subtleties in your environment?
  2. Do you have a rich, complex inner life?
  3. Are you deeply moved by the arts or music?
  4. Are you conscientious?
  5. When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment do you tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating)?
  6. Do you notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art?
  7. Do you find yourself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where you can have some privacy and relief from stimulation?

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Sensitivity and Well-Being

New research suggests that these three forms of sensitivity aren't all equally related to well-being. Across two studies, totaling 380 female psychology undergraduate students, researchers found that ease of excitation and low sensory threshold showed the opposite pattern of associations with well-being compared to aesthetic sensitivity.

Those scoring high in ease of excitation and low sensory threshold were more likely to report stronger negative emotions and neuroticism in their daily lives, and reported lower levels of extraversion and subjective happiness. In contrast, those scoring higher in aesthetic sensitivity tended to report greater positive emotions in their daily lives and also reported higher levels of openness to experience.

These results suggest that ease of excitation and low sensory threshold are governed by a different biological system than aesthetic sensitivity. The researchers found that both ease of excitation and low sensory threshold, but not aesthetic sensitivity, were associated with the behavioral inhibition system (BIS). According to the British psychologist Jeffrey Gray, the BIS is related to sensitivity to threat and punishment. He proposed that the BIS system causes anxiety. Indeed, research suggests that introversion, neuroticism, shyness, and high sensory-processing sensitivity all have their roots in BIS.

However, while all of these personality dimensions are characterized by a predisposition to higher arousability and inhibition of approach behavior, they are not all the same thing. The researchers found that ease of excitation and low sensory threshold showed a small positive relationship to introversion and only a moderate relationship to neuroticism.

Ease of excitation and low sensory threshold are best thought of as relating to a particular aspect of neuroticism called "withdrawal". Interesting new research suggests that people who score high in the withdrawal aspect of neuroticism show increased amygdala activation (the amygdala is associated with the fear response) in reaction to a wide variety of stimuli (positive and negative).

In contrast, aesthetic sensitivity is related to the dopamine system. The unifying function of dopamine is exploration. According to Colin DeYoung, "the release of dopamine, anywhere in the dopamingergic system, increases motivation to explore and facilitates cognitive and behavioral processes useful in exploration." *

The Paradox of Sensitivity

On the one hand, this research confirms that ease of excitation and low sensory threshold are related to negative life outcomes. This is consistent with prior research that has found that these forms of sensitivity are linked to lower levels of meaningfulness and self-efficacy, and are positively related to anxiety, depression, poor social skills, poor attention details and difficulty describing and identifying feelings, avoidant personality disorder, social phobia, and agoraphobia.

On the other hand, this research suggests that sensitivity need not be negative. As the researchers note, "for some sensitive people, sensitivity does not necessarily have to be debilitating. Rather, it could enhance their complex inner lives, and possibly lead to higher subjective well-being." Prior research has found that aesthetic sensitivity is related to a variety of beneficial outcomes, including greater attention to detail and communication skills and higher levels of affilitativeness and openness to experience.

Of course, the interesting question is why aesthetic sensitivity is more strongly related to psychological well-being. The researchers propose the following:

"One possibility is that this type of sensitivity leads people to embrace their uniqueness and to cultivate their sensitivity... being especially sensitive might allow such people to appreciate and use nuances unnoticed by others. Consistent with this idea, they reported more positive affect, being less neurotic, more conscientious, and more open to new experiences. These findings support a claim by Aron and Aron (1997) that some sensitive people enhance their well-being by using their aesthetic sensitivity to pursue and further develop their interests."

As Elaine Aron noted in her 1996 book The Highly Sensitive Person, highly sensitive people may thrive in a more peaceful environment. In such solitude, these individuals may be better able to take advantage of their sensitivities. Indeed, many famous artists, musicians, humanitarians and scientists were exquisitely sensitive to their environments, and used their experiences as grist for the mill of their extraordinary creativity and compassion. Sensitivity is not only associated with creativity, but also with spirituality, mystical experiences, and a connection to nature.

Therefore, while living more intensely may make life difficult, psychologist Sharon Lind points out that "being overexcitable also brings with it great joy, astonishment, compassion and creativity." Likewise, in his discussion of the paradoxes of creative people, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes: "Creative people's openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment."

This study certainly has it limitations (all female population, use of self-report measures). Nevertheless, I'm pleased to see research that more finely differentiates between the different shades of sensitivity. After all, there is a wide world out there, and we've only begun to understand the implications of those who are more sensitive to its many glorious colors and textures.

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© 2015 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

* Differences in aesthetic sensitivity are most likely related to reflect variation in salience coding neurons (which increase curiosity and the desire to obtain information). This is in contrast to value coding neurons (which indicate the incentive reward value of attaining a specific goal) and are more strongly linked to differences in extraversion.