by Lynn Parramore
Psychologist Elaine Aron has pioneered the study of a category of human personality that is generating considerable buzz both in the media and in the scientific community: the highly sensitive person (HSP). People in this group look the same as everyone else, but they don’t respond to the world the same. The way they think, work, feel, and even love is distinctive. Tendencies like acute awareness of emotions, heightened response to loud noises and other stimuli, and the deep processing of information are all things that set HSPs apart.
Aron reckons that up to 20 percent of humans on the planet are highly sensitive, a trait that is found in animals too. I spoke to Aron about what science has to say about HSPs, and how understanding how their brains are encoded may help society to better accommodate these people and make use of their considerable gifts.
Lynn Parramore: Research suggests that some people are genetically predisposed to high sensitivity. What scientific methods have been used to investigate?
Elaine Aron: There are two studies. One used was the more common method of looking for an association between a genetic variation and a personality trait. That is to take one candidate gene that we think is important for the personality variable; in this case, sensitivity. The candidate gene was a variation in the serotonin transporter gene, what is called the short-short variation, which refers to two short alleles, as opposed to one short and one long, or two longs. The short-short variation had been inconsistently associated with depression and other problems. It was seen as creating vulnerability. But many people with this genetic variation are not depressed, so researchers began to question their understanding of it, and found in numerous studies that it actually bestows many advantages. It only caused trouble when carriers had had a stressful or unsupportive childhood, or else, in some cases, were immersed in stressful life events.