What are the Benefits of High Sensitivity for Love?

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!

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.


Is it Love or Desire?

I was recently reading a paper by a group of researchers showing that approximately six months after an initial brain scan, a group of Chinese students showed less activation in areas of the brain associated with anxiety and obsessive compulsive behavior (Song et al., 2015). I was trying to make sense of data examining a group of 19 newlyweds’ brain scans approximately one-year after their wedding. Indeed, it does seem that infatuation tends to decrease over time in relationships (Acevedo & Aron, 2009). I wonder if this Mother Nature’s saving grace, that may help is to see clearly beyond the fog of passion.

Romantic love or even infatuation is not the issue. The problem for many is the confusion of love and obsession. Many believe that if they are not experiencing the dopamine and adrenaline induced highs of new love, that then surely they must not be in love. It can be addictive to feel the throes of uncontrollable and insatiable passion. However, with this comes a price, as these situations are also full of uncertainty, anxiety, emotional highs and lows; and intrusive thoughts, feelings, and urges.

Researchers, such as Helen Fisher and myself, believe that infatuation is not supposed to last. Mainly, its purpose is thought to bring couples together to focus intensely on each other to solidify their relationships (or pair-bonds). Of course, for some this goes hand-in-hand with mating, and having and raising children (a noble deed that perhaps would not prevail without passion). It’s also possible that a highly infatuated long-term marriage could undermine familial or social responsibilities.

Indeed, long-term, obsession does not promote our best interests. For example, a meta-analysis of  25 studies showed that that infatuation (characterized by pining, emotional rollercoasters, uncertainty, and insecurity) was negatively associated with relationship satisfaction in lasting marriages (Acevedo & Aron, 2009). However, romantic love (with engagement, intensity, and sexual interest, but without obsession) was positively associated with satisfaction.

Other work suggests that romantic love (with low obsession) is also associated with higher self-esteem, while obsession is not (e.g.,Campbell, Foster, & Finkel, 2002). The direction of causality could be from self-esteem to love. For example, adults classified as “secure” (according to attachment theory), tend to report higher self-esteem (e.g., Treboux et al., 2004). Having the felt security that a partner is “there for you,” not only makes for a smooth functioning relationship but also makes it easier to trust and relax into romantic love. In contrast, individuals classified as “insecure” are less effective at using and providing a consistent secure base for their partners, have lower satisfaction and greater conflict in relationships, and also report lower self-esteem. Such events may heighten feelings of insecurity about the relationship, and could manifest as obsessive love.

So if romantic love is clearly good for us and obsession, while tempting us with its rush, over time reveals its true colors, why do many still get hooked? Some scientists have started to think about the links between romantic love and addiction. In fact, many of the neural circuits shown in studies of romantic love also appear in studies with addictive substances—from monetary rewards, to cocaine, and even food. In a sense the human drive to form pair-bonds and raise successful offspring is essential for the survival and thriving of the species. Some scientists have extrapolated to altruism (defined as behaviors which benefit another with either no gain or some immediate cost to the self suggesting that it emerged to protect social groups—both kin and nonkin (Silk, 2006). For example, in animals “reproductive altruism” where non-parents (such as helper offspring that could leave the nest) help raise offspring is often cited (Silk et al., 2005; Griesser & Suzuki, 2016).

Thus, beyond romance and mating, love may serve to keep couples together over time, providing them with friendship, care and companionship. According to attachment theory, the “caregiving system”—an innate behavioral system that responds to the needs of dependent others (Bowlby, 1969; Ainsworth, Waters, & Wall, 1978; Mikulincer et al, 2005), evolved to complement the attachment system. The attachment system is a species-specific system that is thought to have evolved to increase chances of species survival by providing a physiological alarm system that responds to safety and harm by either seeking proximity to the attachment figure or exploration of the environment.

What can we take away from all this? Love and relationships (when in balance and harmonious) can be a “healthy” addiction, like going to the gym or taking naps. These relationship- and health-promoting behaviors help to keep us happy and healthy. For example, marital satisfaction predicts global happiness, above and beyond other types of satisfaction (e.g., Glenn & Weaver, 1981). It is also associated with psychological well-being and physical health (e.g., Drigotas, Rusbult, Wieselquist, & Whitton, 1999). On the other hand, low relationship quality is a major predictor of depression and divorce (e.g., Beach & O’Leary, 1993). Indeed, love is complex. It involves intensity, passion, friendship, caring, commitment, but also infatuation. The LoveSmart App can help you assess these different components. There are many benefits to being in a healthy partnership, so take the first step and discern what is going really well in your relationship, and what can use a little fine-tuning.

What Can Relationship Science Tell Us About Love, Commitment, and Thriving Relationships?

Making a commitment to a partner (and more seriously marriage) requires taking a huge leap of faith, or accepting perhaps as my grandmother likes to say that, “finding a mate for life is like winning the lottery”. Indeed, we would all feel better about taking a leap into the unknown world of “I do”, “Forever”, and “Until death do us part” if we had an idea of whether the odds were in our favor. It is not without due concern that beyond putting our hearts on the line, we place great significance on love and marriage with its social and cultural implications. Indeed, around the globe marriage signals the spiritual union of two individuals with concrete implications such as the establishment of a family unit; a merger of families, resources, and important life matters. For many, it is also the precursor to having and raising offspring.

Over recent decades relationship scientists have tackled some of these tough and somewhat mystical issues. For example, studies followed newlyweds over the first few years of marriage and found some patterns that could predict if couples would stay happily married over time (e.g., Huston et al., 2001). For example, researchers found that decreases in love, overt affection, and perceptions that a spouse was not supportive forecasted the couples that were headed for divorce (e.g., Huston & Houts, 1998; Miller et al., 2006). In my love brain research and other explorations of happy, in-love lasting marriages my collaborators and I uncovered other important factors such as sexual satisfaction and self-expansion with one’s partner. These are just some of the different things that LoveSmart measures to give you a pretty thorough reading of your relationship. My partner Dan Nichita and I are still pilot testing LoveSmart (although the content is solid, and scientifically backed), so you will be a love pioneer for trying it. We would love to hear from you, so please let us know what you think and what we can do to make this a tool that can help as many people understand love to create the type of relationships they desire.

Highly Sensitive and In Love?

Do other people’s moods affect you strongly? Do you get nervous when you feel that you have too much to do at once, or if you feel that you are being observed? Do you tend to “feel” things deeply, being moved by art, nature, and those around you? If you answered yes to all of these questions then you may be a “highly sensitive person,” or HSP. High sensitivity (or sensory processing sensitivity) is a trait that is associated with greater sensitivity and responsiveness to the environment. It is estimated that roughly 20% of humans and over 100 other species are high on the sensitivity trait. There are online tests to help you determine if you are a HSP, or you can also find out by using the LoveSmart App.

When it comes to relationships there are many blessings that come with being an HSP. For example, HSPs’ senses and awareness are heightened, so they are especially affected by love’s many pleasures. HSPs also tend to be more attuned to their partner’s feelings— experiencing intense joy for their partner’s happiness, but also more anxiety when their partner is distressed. A brain study that I conducted along with my collaborators (published in the journal Brain and Behavior), showed that when highly sensitive newlyweds viewed face images of their spouse smiling they showed strong activation in a major dopamine reward center (the ventral tegmental area, VTA). In general, HSPs are more aware and conscientious, so when it comes to relationships they tend to act mindfully, realizing that their words and actions can have a profound impact on others. It’s interesting that in ancient times, HSPs were deemed to be the “seers”, “priests”, and “wise” people of society. Although they are not given such a status in modern times, they continue to offer the world a unique perspective and sensitivity that is much-needed in this fast-paced information age.

Being more attuned to people, HSPs are also more empathic, which has certainly helped our highly social species survive and thrive. Although this can be enriching and beneficial, the above average heightened sensitivity of HSPs also makes them more susceptible to emotional fatigue and burnout.

Therefore, if you or someone you love is an HSP, remember that it’s essential to take breaks, time alone, and engage in self-care activities on a regular basis. This includes being mindful about one’s surroundings, (which HSPs naturally do) and choosing places, events, people, music, and even foods that are “uplifting”. For example, nature, relaxing music, journaling, and spending time with a pet can be uplifting for many of us. Another useful strategy is to take up a meditative practice. Research studies show that meditation provides many health benefits including stress-reduction, enhanced mood, better sleep, and increased cognitive control. There are several meditative practices that have been widely researched and many resources available.

To start, you can check out:  Free guided mediations from the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA and  Mindful magazine