The Highly Sensitive Brain – Part 1: Having a HS Brain really is ‘A Thing’…(or Having a Head full of Spaghetti is REAL)

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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

In my previous post I shared my first and second HSP ‘aha’ moments, which were #1 when I stumbled across information about the Highly Sensitive Child (HSC) and #2 when I then discovered the information about the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).  My overriding feelings were relief, validation and excitement,  accompanied by the thought, on repeat “OMG, that’s amazing! It’s ‘A Thing!!’”. 

From my experience, this is a pretty standard reaction when someone makes the same discovery, and this description of it as ‘A Thing’ seems to be an HSP short-hand for all those BIG emotions we feel that seem excessive to everyone else and the head full of spaghetti feeling ALL THE TIME that no one else seems to experience or even to understand (How often have you had someone say to you “You think too much!” – as if thinking were a bad thing?).

For anyone reading this who may not be sure, and who may be trying to work out whether they are HSP or not,  here’s part 1 of the introduction, here’s what that ‘thing’ is…

 The Highly Sensitive Brain – In a Nutshell

Some people just seem to be more finely and keenly attuned to and more ‘sensitive’ (both physically and emotionally) to their environments.  They also think about and feel things very deeply. And they cry easily, about anything!

It was the psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron who, in the 1990s, first used the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ (HSP) to describe people who share these common characteristics.  It’s now widely accepted that these characteristics are a core part of an innate temperament trait, which Dr. Aron called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (not to be confused with Sensory Processing Disorder).

Some Basic Facts

  • Being HS is something you either are, or you are not.
  • Like me, 70% of HSPs are also introverted, which means that 30% are extrovert.
  • The trait is found in 15-20% of the population. It’s found across all cultures, in equal numbers of males & females, young & old. It’s normal, a bit like being left-handed.
  • The trait is not unique to humans.  Similar distinctions are found across the animal kingdom in the same 20% HS 80% non-HS proportions.
  • Neuroscience has now confirmed that the brains of HSPs are wired differently from those without the trait characteristics.  HS brains process information more deeply, connecting current information with past knowledge and experience, and with the emotional centres of the brain, in a way that non-HS brains don’t.
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Photo by Fabian Burghardt on Unsplash

In evolutionary terms the consensus is that High Sensitivity is one of two survival strategies that together ensure species survival.  The highly attuned nervous system of the HS animal enables it to notice more quickly when something has changed in the environment, and to spot something new – a tactic useful in identifying danger, and also in spotting opportunities more quickly.

So it’s a really important trait – which in the modern world allows us to see insights into difficult issues and problems that others may miss.  It is undoubtedly a high energy strategy though, and perhaps 20% is the maximum any system can adequately support before it becomes a disadvantage.

The 4 Keys of an HSP : In terms of humans, Dr. Aron has identified four components of the trait, which must all be evident to some degree for someone to be considered as having the trait (rather than simply having sensitivities). They are reflected in the acronym DOES:-

  Depth of Processing

O   Overstimulation & Overwhelm

  Emotional Reactivity & Empathy

  Sensitive to Subtlety and Sensory Sensitivity

Depth of Processing: HSP brains process everything very deeply, all the time.  This is the nub of the trait.  This could be information about what they are feeling, experiencing, thinking, remembering, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting – anything.  It means that we are highly reflective and thoughtful, and this can be seen in our decision making (sometimes painfully slow to those around us),  in how we approach problem solving (often very insightfully and creatively), in how we respond to others, especially our empathy, and in the meaning we create and attach to most things in our lives.

It’s this intense and deep processing of everything that causes the spaghetti in the head feeling and which makes the way we experience the world so very different from the way in which everyone else does.

It’s also what’s behind the other three ‘keys’ of emotional reactivity,  sensory sensitivity and propensity for overwhelm common to all HSPs.  It is these aspects of being HSP that others are most likely to notice in us.

Over-stimulation and Overwhelm: Because our brains are taking in and processing so much information so much of the time, our  brain ‘bucket’ gets full more quickly than other people’s and we find ourselves with that all too familiar feeling of ‘too much’ .  The hustle, bustle, noise, bright lights and general pace of modern life compounds the issue for us.  We feel a much greater need than others to withdraw and to ’empty’ our buckets, especially if we are also introverted.  We can also become quite irritable and snappy when we are feeling overwhelmed, because we literally cannot take any more stimulation, and if we can’t withdraw, we sometimes lash out!

Emotional Reactivity and Empathy:  Our HS brains naturally draw on our emotional centres to help us make sense of things, and this allows us to more readily create meaning from a situation, to apply relevant context and to see amazing insights.  It also enables us to be more quickly attuned to the emotions of others, and HSPs are generally very quick to pick up on what others’ are feeling and to show natural empathy.  This is one of the great gifts of the HS brain, but it can also be problematic because, strange as it may sound, it can sometimes be difficult for HSPs (especially HSCs) to fathom whether what they are feeling is ‘theirs’ or someone else’s emotions, and this contributes to overwhelm too.  I have a future post planned on this specific subject, so watch this space!

Sensory Sensitivity and Subtlety: The HS brain notices a lot more than the non-HS brain. Fact. This is not because we have a better sense of smell, or better hearing or eye-sight etc. it is simply that we filter out a lot less than other people, we pay attention to the detail.  And because we also process what we notice more deeply, we see the small things that others miss.  This might be something that has changed in our environment, where someone has moved a piece of furniture slightly, or it might be a slight change in the mood of a room, but the first person to notice, is most likely an HSP.

This means that we tend to be more quickly affected by sensory over-load, whether that be bright lights, strong smells, uncomfortable fabrics (discomfort from scratchy fabrics and seams are commonplace amongs HSPs!), lumpy seats or beds (think the Princess and the Pea!) and so on.  We are also more reactive to stimulants like caffeine and alcohol, are more sensitive to medication, and sadly can be more prone to allergies like hay-fever and immune system illnesses like ME.

Elaine Aron’s website has more information about DOES and the trait, including a short questionnaire to help you determine whether you are HS or not.  Take the Test.

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Photo by Rosemary Armao on Unsplash

In a nut-shell though, having an HS brain simply means that you have a heightened, highly attuned, highly sensitive nervous system, which enables you to notice subtleties more readily than others, and to make sense of those things more readily.   This capacity for noticing the subtlety, and understanding the implications, has lead to HSPs being described as ‘human antennae’, the proverbial ‘Canary in the Coal mine’, and also the ‘rose in the vineyard’ – providing an early warning signal for when things are not right, and also for being able to interpret that information in a meaningful way.

There are very real challenges to being an HSP in the modern world, but huge benefits too, both for the HSP and for society as a whole.  These are things that I will delve into in the coming weeks, as understanding all of this is where the journey happens.

But in the meantime, look out for Part-2 of the beginners guide, which highlights the first key lesson that all HSPs must learn if they are to accept who they are, and that is that ‘It’s Normal’.

 

 

 

Quiet Revolution: Time to Start Making Some Noise?

Normally when I think of feathers, I conjure up images like these….

Photo by Ray Hennessy and Photo by Jenelle Ball  both on Unsplash

Spitting Feathers…

But this week I was thrown into complete apoplexy and I was “spitting feathers” when I turned to the pages about personality in my recently purchased book “How to be Human. The Ultimate Guide to Your Amazing Existence”.   The book is a New Scientist book,  a popular science forum, so I wasn’t expecting detailed coverage of the finer nuances of personality theory.  I also had no expectation whatsoever of any reference at all to the Highly Sensitive Person (though it would have been nice).  But I was expecting something that was objective and largely evidence based.

I can only describe what I read as the worst form of stereotyping, bordering on parody, that I have seen on the subject for a long time and I needed to refer to my thesaurus of emotions to fully comprehend my visceral reaction to what I read.  If you want to look at the book it’s on page 18, but I replicate below the key features:

Extrovert  Introvert
Cheerful and radiate joy Seldom amused
At home in crowds and parties Loners
Friendly and Open Reserved
Always busy Happy to take things easy
Natural Leaders Followers
Lovers of Excitement Overawed by commotion

Added to which were some simple pictures to further illustrate the differences…(Extrovert: super smiley face, party popper, man conquering mountain, all in a bright, happy yellow…..Introvert: slightly concerned looking/mildly miserable looking face, lone man reading, lone man under a tree, all in a dark, slightly gloomy purple).

bull-46368_640Well, it my HS brain launched into full-on emotional response, I mean COME-ON New Scientist, I thought you were better than that?!  So my week has been spent constructing various responses to share through the appropriate channels in due course, starting here with the personal bit.

Words Really Do Matter

The strand of spaghetti that has come loose this week has been all about the negative language that so naturally seems to attach itself to the words “Introvert” and “Highly Sensitive” and which seem to paint the picture that all introverts and HSPs are either too much hard work (‘too’ sensitive, quiet, emotional, weepy, fussy, reserved) or just not that great to be around (humourless, loners, dull and boring).

Language is such an important part of how we gain an understanding of who we are and how we ‘fit’ into the bigger picture, and sadly this conceptualisation of  Introverts is ridiculously common, even though it’s not a true reflection of us at all (although I think sometimes we come to start believing it just because it’s said so often, that we begin to think surely it must be true?).  And anyone who’s an HSP will know that it’s even worse for the sensitive among us.  (If you haven’t seen the TED talk from Elena Herdieckerhoff  The Gentle Power of HSPs take a look, it sums up the issue beautifully).

So as a Highly Sensitive Introvert I have grown up constantly rubbing up against other people’s focus on the negative aspects of both traits, with little affirmation of the positive ones, and blimey that’s hard – especially when all that brain-spaghetti is reflecting, interpreting, ruminating, about this constant, sometimes subtle (more often as subtle as being whacked on the  head with a mallet like those ‘whack-a-mole’ games), feedback that how we are is somehow ‘wrong’.  But because we’re introverts, we don’t talk about it. And if you’re HSP as well, you are acutely aware of just how different people perceive you to be, so we don’t want to draw attention to it, so we don’t mention it.  We therefore remain un-blissfully unaware that actually there are quite a few other people who are feeling the same, even people we know, but who are also pretending that they’re not.

The ‘Story’ of Temperament

I recently watched a TED talk by Barry Schwartz called “The way we think about the world of work is broken”.  He argues it’s broken because so many of the systems used don’t actually sit very well with how human’s actually operate.  It drew many parallels for me with where we have ended up in terms of our skewed society, which is very one dimensional in terms of what we overtly value in a person.  It’s all about the stories that we make up.

The concept of Story is a big one (and I can feel a dedicated blog on this in the ether), but for now suffice to say that human nature is such that ‘story’ is a massive part of how we operate.  It’s how we create certainty in an uncertain world, and our brains like certainty.  The problem is that we create this certainty even if it’s not true (and this is a core part of any therapy – getting the root of false stories and changing it to better reflect the objective reality).

Schwartz highlights the issue of story for work and organisations, which is that unlike the technology of ‘things’ whereby if technology, or the design of something is bad, it ‘dies’.  With ideas, he argues,  they can perpetuate even if they’re not true.  He says “false ideas about human beings will not go away if people believe they are true”, because if people believe they are true they construct systems around them that are consistent with this idea.  And because we are a highly adaptive species, we mould ourselves to fit, whether or not it’s good for us (us being ‘us’ as individuals, and also ‘us’ as a collective species).

For me this is precisely what has happened with temperament (and if you go along with Susan Cain’s argument in her book ‘Quiet’ it stems from the same place as much of what is wrong with modern workplaces too – i.e. Industrialisation).  Inadvertently, as the discipline of psychology has evolved, and the study of personality alongside it, there has been a merging of this industrialisation ‘story’ that the gregarious, outgoing, alpha male extrovert is the ‘ideal’ with the ‘story’ of abnormal psychology that the optimistic, ‘happy’, easy-going, talkative ‘extrovert’ (as opposed to the morose, solitary, fearful, depressive ‘not extrovert’) is the healthy, well adjusted place to be, to create a modern world story that to be well adjusted, you need to be an extrovert.  Over time, the constructs and taxonomies that have been used to understand our natures have simply resulted in self-serving and reinforcing those views, even though they are not really true, because everything is ‘framed” in an extrovert context.  The evolution of The Big 5 personality taxonomy, which has become the ‘go to’ framework for personality theorists since the 1970s, has perpetuated this ‘myth’ about introversion, because rather than being seen as a different underlying trait from extroversion, it has been used as a means of describing the ‘opposite’ of extroversion, the ‘low-scoring’ end of the Extroversion-Introversion continuum.

The same is true of High Sensitivity.  For decades having a more sensitive disposition was seen as a ‘vulnerability’, making you far more likely to ‘suffer’ mental ill-health and related social problems. Consequently therapies and other social ‘interventions’ were constructed on that basis.  And of course this created the story that if you have a highly sensitive nature you are inherently more fragile and ‘flaky’.

These perceptions are in significant part the result of the extrovert paradigm within which researchers were (and still are) operating, which contributed to the creation of labels such as ‘shy’, ‘fearful’ ‘hesitant’ ‘reserved’, ‘hyper-sensitive’, ‘anti-social’, ‘slow to warm-up’ ‘timid’ – all of which can be true of introverts and HSPs,  but which are not necessarily true, and which are certainly not the only defining features of being introvert or HSP, (and which some extroverts experience too, sometimes).  But when children are labelled in this way, they grow-up believing this to be true, because this is how the world talks about them and interacts with them. And so the story survives.

The Key of Neurosciencebrain-2773466_640

Neuroscience will be the key to helping us change these deeply embedded perceptions as it will give us a new language.  We already are able to demonstrate what HSPs and Introverts already intuitively know, which is that we are just wired differently.   And this different wiring simply means that we interact differently with the world around us and we think differently.  We also now know that being Highly Sensitive can be a disadvantage, but ONLY where the person has received poor parenting during childhood.  With the right conditions, being Highly Sensitive is actually a positive advantage – supporting the development of greater resilience and better outcomes in life (look out for future blog post on Orchids and Dandelions).

Time to start making some noise?

The world of personality psychology seems to be being slow to catch on though.  Since Susan Cain’s book and TED talk, which have been read and watched by millions of people, and which saw the ‘launch’ of the Quiet Revolution (which has, there is no doubt, lead to greater open debate, more writing on the subject, and the beginnings of change in workplaces), I have not noticed a commensurate change in the way in which personality research is framed or interpreted.  The Big 5 remains the mainstay and in its’ present usage does not allow for a way of viewing personality and temperament that accommodates these more recent findings.  It’s time for a step-change in the wider scientific community on the subject of understanding temperament in order that the language used to frame and interpret temperament is better reflective of the whole range of characteristics associate with a trait, not just a select few.  It’s time to start making some noise so those scientists start hearing!

How has language affected you? Do you think it’s time to shout louder? I’d love to hear your thoughts!