Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is a genetically-based trait found in approximately 20% of humans, and over 100 other species. Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) are more affected by their environment and others (Aron & Aron, 1997). Well, this can be a mixed blessing when it comes to close relationships.
Although it can be challenging to be a highly sensitive person (HSP) in-love or in-love with an HSP (indeed, many times throughout my life I have been called “too sensitive” by friends and romantic partners), thank goodness there are some benefits!
- HSPs can literally feel what others are feeling—we see this in brain scans. When they are shown happy or sad face images of their partner they show more activation in areas such as the insula that are associated with internal visceral sensations. They also show more activation in areas of the mirror neuron system which respond in the same way when an action is performed or when it is perceived (Acevedo et al., 2014).
- HSPs may also be more empathic to others’ needs. One study that I conducted in collaboration with my colleagues showed greater response in brain regions involved in empathy, awareness, and sensory integration in response to a partner’s sad facial displays (Acevedo et al., 2014). In the brain, this is shown by greater activation of brain circuits involved in attention, memory and sensory integration. So HSPs process information more deeply and show more activation in memory areas of the brain for emotionally arousing stimuli.
- So, when a loved one or even a stranger displays some sort of emotion, HSPs are much more likely to pick up on it. This can mean that if you are an HSP, you feel more anxiety or sadness or anger when those around you are feeling this way. Why in the world would we have evolved and continue to pass on this trait seen in about 20% of our species? Well, we need people that care about others and the world to build communities and a world that will thrive. Also, having greater empathy supports cooperation, which without a doubt has supported the evolution of our species.
- But, this can also be a great blessing because HSPs also show a lot of reward activity when the see other’s happy faces or even happy pictures (like birthday cakes).
- At least 2 neuroimaging studies (and several behavioral studies) to date have shown that High SPS individuals experience stronger positive emotion/arousal or reward response in the brain when viewing positive images. In the 2 brain imaging studies subjects were shown either happy faces or happy neutral images (like birthday cakes). With both paradigms greater SPS was associated with stronger neural responsivity in key reward areas such as the VTA– that is high in dopamine receptors, associated with wanting, motivation and working for rewards.
- These qualities certainly support positive support in relationships, because if we intuit that our love ones are sad and in need of TLC we may pay extra special care to attend to their needs, or support them in their life’s strivings.
- If you’re in a relationship with an HSP, they are much more likely to “get you”, be sensitive to your needs, and think deeply and complexly about you as a person. Indeed, HSPs consistently show greater activation in brain areas associated with elaborative and meaning-making processes, as well as inferring others’ goals and intentions.
- HSPs also show greater activation in areas related to memory so they are much more likely to remember a story you have shared with them, what your favorite color is, or whether you like ice cream or not. This can be a mixed blessing because if you have had some sort of transgression in your relationship they are more likely to remember that as well.
- The other good news is that HSPs also show greater responsivity to positive interventions. In a study with young girls given a behavioral intervention for depression, HSPs (compared to low HSPs) showed greater positive responsiveness (decreased depression) to the intervention (Pluess & Belsky, 2013). Therefore, if you are (or your partner is) an HSP and you have experienced a slight relationship transgression, doing something positive for your relationship can go a long way.