Why you won't see a lot of citations in my blog posts
As mentioned in the About page for Sensitive Thrive, part of my job is to translate the knowledge about High Sensitivity, coming from research, into advice and insight relevant to helping organisational leaders understand how to help Highly Sensitive people thrive in their workplaces.
As I do this, through blog posts and information on this website, along with what I share in person, I don't usually refer directly to research studies. This is because I've synthesised the information gained from a variety of sources, often over time, and applied it to the current focus. Those sources include my own experience and insights, and the experiences of other Highly Sensitive people I've spoken with.
Research papers are also usually very specific, and rely on prior knowledge and subject expertise to interpret accurately. This is why I seek out Dr Elaine Aron's interpretations, wherever possible. As the pioneering researcher for this temperament, she has a broad and deep understanding of what it means and where to place new findings within that framework.
The role of research about High Sensitivity
There is more research being done all the time, which is excellent. While we know, largely, what constitutes the temperament and how it plays out in a person - how it feels to be Highly Sensitive and how it influences our experience, personally, and through observation of many HS people - continuing research helps others to understand, 'believe' it, and apply the findings to specific situations. It creates understanding about underlying factors, like genetics and brain processes, and effects, such as higher sensory stimulation, increased empathy, and careful decision-making.
The more that's known, through research about this temperament, the more we'll be able to provide conditions within societies which support, rather than let down, Highly Sensitive / Responsive people. My hope, and that of many who work on this, is that our societies will then benefit far more from the vital gifts that Responsive people offer, and that they will also be better able to thrive themselves, no longer hindered by conditions set to the needs of Non- or Low-Sensitive, Un-Responsive people.
As I write often, we need each other: the Responsive and Un-Responsive. Each group has gifts to share, arising from our differing temperaments. One shouldn't be elevated over the other, because that leads to missing out on the essential services of the other.
Published articles and summaries of research to refer to
Let me, then, share a few of the original research findings and their interpretations by Dr Aron, for those of you interested in the supporting evidence more explicitly. You can also search, at any time, on a scientific or psychological research database for word combinations such as High Sensitivity, Sensory Processing Sensitivity, Responsive and Unresponsive personalities, vantage sensitivity and differential susceptibility.
Here's a sampling of articles and summaries I've used so far in my work, and which you can refer to if needed:
I hope you'll find this sampling of articles and summaries useful in your work, and also that it will help reassure you of the legitimacy and accuracy of what I report. I look forward to working together, and helping your organisation harness the needed gifts offered by Highly Sensitive / Responsive people.
The role that neurotransmitters play: serotonin and dopamine
I wrote, recently, about serotonin and sensitivity - how a variation of the serotonin transporter gene leads to better decision making, and that the same percentage of people have this gene variation as have a Responsive temperament.
The link hasn't been definitively found yet - I'm not sure it's even been looked for. But it does make sense, when you take into account the many points of data already known about this temperament - like the greater tendency to pause before acting, to make decisions more carefully, and the increased sensitivity to good and bad environments - which correspond with what this serotonin variation does.
There's an even stronger link between the other famous neurotransmitter - dopamine - and sensitivity. You're probably familiar with dopamine as 'the reward chemical', and know that it influences our desire to work towards an expected good.
Our temperaments - and personalities - influence what we consider rewarding; what we're motivated towards and away from.
A Responsive temperament predisposes a person to move towards situations in which they will be able to use their gifts well, and away from those where they won't. For example, they will instinctively seek calm environments and avoid crowded places. You're far less likely to find them at a late-night club than on an overnight hike with friends.
What does this mean for Responsiveness/High Sensitivity?
So, how do we know that the Responsive/Highly Sensitive temperament is innate? And why does that matter for schools, workplaces, and other public places?
Many dopamine alleles (alleles represent variations in a gene) have been found to be associated with High Sensitivity/Responsiveness. A set of 10 of these alleles actually predict a medium-to-high chance of being Highly Sensitive.
These 10 dopamine alleles, like the one we looked at for serotonin, are related to doing better than others in good conditions and worse than others in poor conditions. (This is what's known as differential susceptibility - illustrated by the orchid/dandelion theory).
This is one of the ways we know that Responsiveness is innate: the high correlation of this set of 10 dopamine alleles with this temperament implies that Responsiveness comes much closer to being a genetically-inherited set of traits than any personality trait. (Personality traits are also very heritable, but associated genes haven't been found, as they have for Responsiveness/High Sensitivity).
Why does this matter for the workplace?
Therefore, what do we learn?
That, "it's innate, and it has its advantages" (Elaine Aron).
The value here, for workplaces, schools, and more, is that Highly Sensitive people can't 'get over' the differences which arise from their temperament. It's not something they can, or need to, change.
Just like an un-Responsive or non-Sensitive temperament, a Highly Sensitive or Responsive temperament brings both advantages and disadvantages . They come hand-in-hand.
If a Responsive person can be highly creative, insightful, conscientious, and empathetic; if they can perceive more than others and make more careful decisions, then they also, necessarily, become overwhelmed when there's too much data, without space to process it. They are, correspondingly, more negatively affected by too-bright lights, loud noises, time pressure, and close observation.
You can't get the good without the conditions required for producing it. You can't have a person who's more aware of the nuances without that person also being more affected by them.
If you want the benefits that high Responsiveness brings, you need the conditions which produce them, or allow them to arise.
This is the reason for all the advice I share, all the recommendations for changing workplace environments that I give. The changes you'll make aren't just a nice service to society; they're smart and concerted actions towards harnessing the real potential - all the actual benefits, currently perhaps hidden - of those who have this Responsive temperament. Of providing the conditions which will help them to thrive, not just survive.
Without those changes, your workplace will continue to miss out on the advantages of having thriving Responsive people. Those who are in your team will continue to languish, and the disadvantages of their temperament will keep being a liability - for them and you. A tragedy, and a lost opportunity.
Yet, you have an alternative: harness their strengths, and benefit exponentially.
Which will you choose?
Choose to harness the advantages.
You’ve probably heard about serotonin. It’s one of the two major neurotransmitters (the other is dopamine, which I’ll write a little about another time). How much a person has available depends on genetic factors.
Every gene has 3 possible variations – ‘short-short’, ‘short-long’, and ‘long-long’ (how’s your high school biology memory going?). There’s a gene called the serotonin transporter gene. Its ‘short-short’ variation, called the ‘s-allele’, gives a person less available serotonin.
Now, you might think immediately that this is a bad thing – after all, serotonin is about feelings, isn’t it? Less serotonin = depression. Right? Wrong , actually. This is what researchers used to think, because SSRI (selective serotonin uptake inhibitor) drugs help alleviate depression. But this is, in fact, a ‘very inconsistent link’, says clinical psychologist and researcher, Elaine Aron. Further research has found that serotonin isn’t linked to depression, per se. So what is it linked to?
Having less available serotonin, due to the s-allele variation, isn’t about depression itself, but about sensitivity to good or bad environments. (Does this sound familiar?). S-allele carriers ‘took substantially longer to reflect before making difficult choices’, and were ‘emotionally risk-averse’ (more careful) when there was a low probability of winning, but emotionally eager to take a risk when there was a high probability of winning.
So, people with this s-allele are more careful decision-makers; more reflective and thoughtful – more cautious – when making complex decisions and considering risks. Overall, this gene variation seems to lead to better decision-making.
And what’s really interesting is that about the same percentage of people carry this variation as have a Highly Sensitive temperament. One of the markers of this temperament is… more careful, reflective decision-making. People with this temperament have a strong ‘pause-to-check’ impulse – stopping to think before acting, when risks are involved or it’s a complex decision in other ways.
On the other hand, they can have a strong curiosity impulse – the desire to discover, learn, and take creative risks. So, unless they’ve had very difficult childhoods or other traumatic past experiences, these two impulses can serve them very well, balancing each other and leading to a well-rounded person who is both creative/innovative and sensibly cautious when it matters.
Doesn’t someone like this sound like a highly valuable person to have around? A gift – and a protection – in an organisation aiming to operate smoothly and successfully? How are the Highly Sensitive people in your organisation going? Do you know who they are? Do you know how to help them play this vital role?
I help organisations learn about the gifts and needs of sensitivity, identify who has the Highly Sensitive temperament, and create workplaces where people with these gifts can thrive.
My workshops and consultations will help you answer these questions, and begin to truly harness the unique gifts of the Highly Sensitive people in your workplace.
A well-functioning society depends on many things, but one of these is the balance between less-sensitive and more-sensitive individuals. There's a reason why the ratio of Highly Sensitive to non-Sensitive people remains constant at around 15-20%.
Let's look at a helpful overview from a group of experienced researchers into this temperament, then I'll put it into some plainer language.
High Sensitivity 'is a genetically-based trait associated with greater sensitivity and responsivity to environmental and social stimuli.'
What does that mean?
High Sensitivity or Responsivity is an evolutionary adaptation - something selected for - that is beneficial to a society or group, because those who have it are more aware of subtle things which influence survival and well-being, and which those without it more often miss. It allows people to connect better with each other, understand and help each other more effectively, and co-operate as a result.
It's called a 'stable trait' here because this distinguishes it from disorders (that's why the title says, 'seemingly related disorders' - these are disorders which can seem to be related to High Sensitivity, but are not), which are not stable traits.
‘Deep integration’ means that Highly Responsive people apply all the little pieces of disparate information to form a whole picture of understanding. So, where most people are letting a lot of information 'bounce off' them, Highly Responsive people are taking it in, then deeply integrating each of those pieces of information with their existing knowledge. This creates insights which no-one else is getting. They have more information at their disposal, and they know how to use it.
(They are, uniquely, details and big-picture people!)
A Highly Sensitive person will tend to have a very good memory, since they have so deeply integrated the details of what they’ve heard, read, and experienced. The sensory data that they absorb isn’t floating around in its original form, but has been connected and made meaningful. This cements it into their minds, so that when the time comes where it’s needed, the applicable knowledge arises, available to apply to the situation at hand.
* The exception to this ability to apply highly relevant, detailed information to the situation at hand is when a Highly Sensitive person is in a situation where the stress response occurs – what we call ‘fight-or-flight’. This bypasses that excellent ability to recall and apply salient information, and creates a ‘deer in the headlights’ experience instead. This is one reason why it’s SO important to have conditions which help Highly Responsive people to remain calm and able to take in, integrate, and recall everything that they are uniquely and so well able to do.
High Sensitivity is a group of traits that make up a temperament shared by about 20% of people.
There are a lot of things that go into any one genetic trait, so there are a huge number of factors which affect what High Sensitivity is and how it works. I want to share just a few that I think are easy to understand and really interesting.
1. Dopamine - this is your 'reward' chemical. You probably know that it affects motivation and feelings of accomplishment or reward. It also works with each person differently. A Highly Sensitive person is driven less by external rewards and more by internal rewards; so they will be more motivated to avoid certain situations, like loud parties or crowded places, and seek out others, like natural settings and calm environments. These are the things which allow them to process well and use their gifts positively, while those they're motivated to avoid are the things which depress their gifts and overwhelm their senses.
2. Mirror neurons - these are what help us to understand and be empathetic towards others. We observe people and compare our takings with our own experience. These neurons are more active in HS people, along with other areas that process social and emotional data. This means high levels of compassion and empathy, along with a lot of concern about and interest in others' wellbeing. It allows them to be insightful and caring about others' experience.
3. Emotional regulation - the vividness of a person's experience during emotional moments is increased in HS people, meaning they feel things more strongly/vividly than others in response to their environment. Now, we all feel things deeply/strongly at various times; this doesn't mean that HS people are the only ones to experience things deeply. What it does mean is that they experience them more vividly. They're having an immersive experience while someone else is having a pleasant time.
4. Awareness - Highly Sensitive people are more alert and conscious - more aware - in various situations, especially those involving others. In the brain, this can be seen as more activity in the cingulate and insula, which are responsible for consciousness and moment-to-moment awareness.
Information adapted from 4 Brain Differences of Highly Sensitive People
Responsive and Un-Responsive
In any workplace, you're likely to have two groups of people, speaking about temperament.
What does this mean? Responsive people are responsive to the inner (intrapersonal) and outer environment. This means that they:
(When I use these terms, they don't have moral value - an 'Un-Responsive' person refers to biological elements in how they naturally respond to the environment. 'Non-Sensitive' is the same - it's the name used for their temperament).
Not less resilient
Due to the effects of these two factors, it can seem like those with a Responsive temperament are less resilient or more sensitive, in the negative way in which that term is taken, than those who are Un-Responsive. This is because they're more affected by seemingly the same things or situations. But they're actually having a different experience.
The result is that the Responsive group is seemingly more easily overwhelmed by apparently the same things - the same data. In fact, they're taking in more and processing it more deeply, meaning that they're experiencing more. This is energy-intensive, as you can imagine. It's draining. And that is why they are overwhelmed seemingly more easily. It's just that it's all happening within, so it's not visible to others.
We could also say that Responsiveness means having a wider range. They are more positively and negatively affected by situations. So they will thrive in good environments and languish in the poor. Said another way, Responsive people do better than Non-Responsive people in a positive environment, and worse than them in a negative one.
Those who are Unresponsive are less affected, both positively and negatively, by their situation. This is why we could say that they have less range.
This is all part of the Responsive experience. You can see, I hope, the sorts of consequences of such a range. Perhaps you can see the possibilities - the potential in that for your organisation. I can!
More than that, though - beyond what you or your group can gain from helping them to thrive (so they can experience and produce more of the positive end of their range), how right and good it also is. How much they can bring, of this light and potential, to the rest! And because they are so responsive, the changes one needs to make to help them thrive at work, for example, don't need to be enormous or difficult. They will respond to the smallest differences, and the benefits for them and everyone will be exponential.
This is the exciting thing about the wider range of experience that Responsive people encompass. What possibilities there are!
If we recognise that those in the Responsive group have an essential service to perform in our society, and provide the space for them to do what they do, they can provide those services as they're meant to. Without that space, everyone misses out on the best form of those services, and people with this temperament miss out on fulfilling their potential.
If organisations, governments, and individuals can recognise and celebrate what those in the Responsive group have to give, then
We're Simply More Responsive for an overview of the research about the two traits of responsiveness and unresponsiveness (otherwise known as sensitive and non-sensitive). Easy read.
Vantage Sensitivity: Individual Differences in Response to Positive Experiences - research regarding differential susceptibility, which is what leads to this difference in range that I've described. Psychological journal article.
Also this journal article, about Differential Susceptibility to Environmental Differences.
Tamara - Sensitive Thrive is my consulting business. I believe that the world needs Highly Sensitive people who are flourishing. We need their hope, insight, wisdom, and awareness of beauty and possibility. My vision is to help create a culture where this temperament is known, understood and valued; where organisations seek Highly Sensitive people to work for them, because they know what they can do. Where HS people feel like they fit in their workplaces, because those workplaces also fit them. A world where HS people belong, thrive, and flourish, and the world is better for it.