Here's a talk given by Highly Sensitive Person author Elaine Aron:
The important thing to understand is: while it's true that Highly Sensitive People suffer more than Less Sensitive People from negative stimuli, from bad environments and experiences, etc., they also benefit more than Less Sensitive People from positive stimuli and good environments and experiences. Hence it's correct to designate the Highly Sensitive temperament as equal to the Less Sensitive.
Four characteristics of the Highly Sensitive Person:
-Greater depth of processing, a brain that uses incoming stimuli in a more thorough, elaborate way, as opposed to a summarized way
-More easily overwhelmed or overstimulated
-Naturally high empathy
-Greater ability to detect subtle stimuli
I took the Highly Sensitive Person test for the first time when I was about 18 or 19 years old. I recognized many of the traits in myself (answering yes to 14 or more questions out of 28 makes you a HSP and the last time I took the test a few months ago I affirmed 16). At the time I viewed the designation purely as a disadvantage, like in order to do as well in life as most people, I would have to avoid many of things that they could engage in freely, with no problem.
Earlier research on sensitivity was conducted within the Diathesis-Stress Model. According to this model, certain people contain more "vulnerable" alleles than others, genes that would make this same person more resilient if they had the more common variety. It's often been used to explain why Person A will develop things like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc. when exposed to certain stressors while Person B, when exposed to the same stressors, seems not to suffer at all. The theory says that those with Vulnerability Genes will suffer tremendously under negative conditions, but achieve parity with the Resilient under positive conditions. If that were accurate, then no one on earth, given the choice, would choose to be Vulnerable rather than Resilient; Vulnerability would clearly be inferior.
Fortunately, we now know this isn't the case.
Aron has stated that about 20% of humans are Highly Sensitive. 20% is the same percentage of humans that a related group of temperament researchers now claim are equipped with gene variants that cause them to be much more sensitive than the other 80% to their environments, both for worse AND for better.
What's happened is that, over the last decade and a half, the Diathesis-Stress Model essentially has given way to the more accurate Differential Susceptibility model. New evidences indicate Diathesis-Stress only tells half of the story; these genes are only more "vulnerable" under negative circumstances; under more positive circumstances, they're more "vitalistic" and those who possess them achieve more than parity, they achieve superiority. Those who are most at risk for being the human race's worst wretches also are most likely to become its shining stars.
The pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce has described the temperamental difference between Highly Sensitive People and Less Sensitive People as the Dandelion - Orchid Spectrum, referring to how dandelions can grow in any environment but the end result is usually merely "pretty", while orchids wilt in bad environments but are outstanding when properly cared for. The "canary in the coal mine" metaphor also applies to the Highly Sensitive. If a society's Orchids tend to underperform or struggle in life in comparison with the Dandelions, you can be confident that this society is structurally and constitutionally suspect and the problems of the Sensitive will soon also be plaguing the Less Sensitive, hence it's in the best interest of Less Sensitive people to pay close attention to the well-being of orchids.
To give just one example of a gene redeemed by this new research: scientists had previously identified the 7-repeating allele of the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene (known as DRD4-7R) as a Vulnerability gene that greatly increased the likelihood of antisocial behavior. "People had dubbed it the ADHD gene, the drinking gene, the bully gene, even the slut gene. Now Knafo, in effect, was calling it the snack-sharing gene." In an experiment at Jerusalem University, psychologist Ariel Knafo noticed that the minority of children who had the DRD4-7R allele AND had skilled, nurturing, empowering parents, were more much more likely to share their snacks with others. A team of Dutch psychologists at Leiden University achieved the same result; they had children watch an emotionally evocative UNICEF video urging them to donate to charity. Children with DRD4-7R and high quality parenting were the most charitable givers of all (conversely, children with DRD4-7R who had harsher, more distant parents were the stingiest of all, consistent with the Orchids tending to represent either the best or the worst of humanity, and being underrepresented in the midranges).
The serotonin transporter allele 5-HTTLPR (the "short short" version) and the 2-repeating allele of the MAOA gene have also been identified as being in the Orchid-Plasicity-Highly Sensitive category, and Differential Susceptibility's Wikipedia article lists several additional alleles:
Vantage Sensitivity is the term invented to describe specifically the advantages of being Highly Sensitive. These advantages appear in myriad performed experiments and surveys where sensitivity is a factor, whether the possession of a large number of Orchid genes, or a score of 14 or above on the HSP Test.
Research on Vantage Sensitivity is numerous and ongoing; I've selected three of what I think are the most noteworthy and important articles to share:
HSPs presented with positive stimuli experience greater happiness. Highly Sensitive and Less Sensitive people participated in an experiment where they were shown emotionally evocative photographs of people. Those higher on the HSP Test, while their brains were being viewed with magnetic resonance technology, displayed much more activation of numerous areas than the Less Sensitive, and this was especially the case if the HSP had a good childhood. It doesn't take much to make a HSP really happy.
HSPs seem to be better at detecting subtle stimuli. The German psychologist Friederike Gerstenberg had a test group divided into HSPs and Non-HSPs and each member of the group was given the task of looking at screens containing black letter Ls and determining whether or not a letter T was hidden among them. HSPs completed the task more quickly and more accurately than the Non-HSPs. The bad news is, their stress levels were also higher after the test was over; a high-caliber performance extracts a steep cost.
HSPs respond more positively to intervention programs. Michael Pluess had students undergoing a depression prevention program take the HSP test and then measured their depressive symptoms after the program ended. Those who scored in the Highly Sensitive range had far fewer depressive symptoms after completing the program; sadly those who were lower in Sensitivity hardly improved at all. This is consistent with a study on 136 orphaned Romanian infants, under the age of 30 months, who either stayed in the orphanage, or were adopted into highly quality foster care. The adopted children with an Orchid/HSP allele of the COMT gene showed much fewer depressive symptoms when reexamined at 54 months of age than children who lacked this allele. Aron has said such interventions should be targeted towards the Highly Sensitive because they receive the most tangible benefits.
In study after study, benefits to being Highly Sensitive were observed. So why was it that only the weaknesses of this temperament were discussed and not the strengths? Differential Susceptibility's main proponent, Jay Belsky (professor of psychology at University Of California, Davis), when asked about this, responded: "Most work in behavioral genetics has been done by mental-illness researchers who focus on vulnerability. They don’t see the upside, because they don’t look for it." Additionally, Janine Ramsey has lamented that the modern-day Western world usually casts Sensitivity as a liability, seeing the word as a synonym for "vulnerable" rather than being more susceptible to everything, good or bad, and preferring psychologies that are "tough, resilient, highly productive and expedient." (by contrast, China and Japan usually see Sensitivity as asset and might be more hesitant to see that it has a dark side too). This bias would explain why the only the disadvantages of sensitivity were researched first, and also might slow public acceptance of the idea, yet hopefully a widespread enough acceptance would eliminate that bias entirely.
To anyone who's taken the HSP Test and scored as Highly Sensitive, let me ask you: Do you see yourself as troubled, damaged or even broken? Is your normal day-to-day mood more glum than joyful? Are you suffering from a mental illness, an addiction, a developmental disorder, or even a personality disorder? Do you feel like you don't have a place you belong? Do you lack a sense of purpose? Do you feel like you're failing in life?
If so, I urge you to consider: maybe you're not constitutionally worse than anyone else. Maybe you were just planted in bad soil. Further, maybe if you could be replanted in more nourishing soil, not only would you usually feel decent, you'd shine with blinding beauty.
Think about it: from an evolutionary point of view, if there were genes that conferred only disadvantages, the people who had those genes would often end up less fit, and hence less able to reproduce, and eventually their genes would go extinct. Differential Susceptibility gives an explanation as to why we can't seem to escape those "bad genes"; they're the same genes that translate positive life experiences, or good soil, into the ability to achieve the most greatness.
The exact factors that constitute good soil for a Highly Sensitive Person are something that I'm not quite firm on yet. While exercising more than once a week, mental health improvement techniques like visualization, drinking enough good water, mutually loving relations with ones peers and family are a necessity for everyone, some other factors may vary from individual to individual. Ask yourself: what things do you do that make you grateful to be alive? Do those things, and do them often. Give yourself the good stuff. Take advantage of your temperament.
Learning of Vantage Sensitivity prompted me to express gratitude and count my blessings. It inspired me to adopt a life strategy of continually nourishing or building myself up, so if something unpleasant happens to me, I'll have plenty of positive stimuli to fall back on to counter and defeat it.
One final thought: Any skilled, experienced florist knows that different flowers require different care to thrive. People are the same. Current research on Differential Susceptibility deserves universal dissemination among doctors who care for children. It would be vastly beneficial for all if, at the earliest possible age, measurements were taken so that every child on Earth's levels of Sensitivity were known, and from there parents, educators, religious officials, etc. were given clear instructions on how to care for them, what to do in current situations, what to expect from them, and so on, depending on their temperament. The flourishing of so many people, and the alleviation of so much misunderstanding and sorrow depends on it.