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The science behind sensitivity


Scary movies, large crowds, and obnoxious party lights are things that can bother all of us from time to time. But if you find yourself avoiding these types of things at all costs, you may have a trait that makes you do so.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Ted Zeffexplains this trait and how those that have it are considered to be highly sensitive people, or HSP. Zeff is a leading authority on the trait of high sensitivity and holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is also the author of several books including “The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide.”

“Having the trait of high sensitivity is a totally normal trait,” Zeff said. “Twenty percent of the population, or approximately 50 million Americans, have trouble screening stimuli and can easily be overwhelmed by noise, crowds, and time pressure.”

Other sensitivities can be to:

  • Pain
  • Caffeine
  • Violent movies
  • Bright lights
  • Strong smells
  • Changes in day-to-day life

But whether these sensitivities are seen as good or bad really depends on culture, says Zeff.
In a study, kids that are HSP in China were viewed as the most popular in their class. While kids in North America that are HSP were viewed as the least popular. This is especially true for men, as Zeff says 90 percent of North American men who are HSP were teased about it.  

This could simply be that other cultures are able to see more of the positive aspects of HSP.

Positive aspects include:

  • Loyalty
  • Conscientiousness
  • High intuition
  • Appreciation for art and music
  • Compassion
  • Heightened sensory for danger

Although people that are highly sensitive tend to have these characteristics more often, it is not black and white to those that aren’t HSP. Zeff uses his own dad as an example, saying he was not HSP but still had many of the good qualities a person with the trait would have.

But Zeff says there may be a scientific reason why some are HSP – mirror neurons. This means that when a highly sensitive person sees someone suffering, they feel their pain, or can mirror it, and try to help in some way.

“There are MRI studies done that showed different parts of the brain light up for sensitive people than non-sensitive people,” Zeff said. “There’s this innate emotional connection with other people.”

However, having this connection can sometimes be tiring and hard to turn off. To try and ease this feeling, Zeff recommends some sort of daily calming technique, and to not be afraid to tell people when a situation is too overwhelming.

“It’s essential for highly sensitive people to speak their truth and state what they want and what they don’t want,” Zeff said.

But although there are now studies that support the label of HSP, Zeff says this does not mean there should be a separation between those that are HSP and those that are not.

“Instead of saying, separation—sensitive, non-sensitive—how can each group of people work with each other to connect and bring out the best traits in both?” Zeff said.