Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

What are HSP?

Highly sensitive persons (HSP) perceive stimuli more intensively due to their neurological disposition and may also process them differently. It does not matter whether the stimuli are exogenous or endogenous. This readiness to react to stimuli is more pronounced in them than in the average population. Approximately 15-20% of the population is affected.

This has the disadvantage that these people are more easily inundated with stimuli and more often need phases in which they can withdraw in order to process these impressions. A typical example of this would be shopping in the supermarket. These people not only perceive people present and the multitude of products available, but also the background music, the advertising interruption for the hypnotherapy at the dentist. In addition, there are what feels like millions of colors and lights, the screaming of children, the murmuring of other people, and aisles that are far too narrow and where you have to squeeze through with your shopping cart. Shopping can quickly become an ordeal. They are often said to be thin-skinned and have a sensitive nervous system.

On the other hand, the more intense experience and more thorough reflection often leads to greater caution or even circumspection, and even small things, such as a walk in nature, can be decidedly satisfying for those affected.

The construct can be traced back to a 1997 paper by Elaine N. Aron. Aron and Aron (1997) cite sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) as the underlying temperamental trait, which characterizes the tendency to process different sensory stimuli more strongly and deeply, hence higher sensory-processing sensitivity. It is therefore not a mental disorder or even a disease, but this does not exclude that both cannot occur together.

Why is high sensitivity called a temperament?

According to doctrine, personality is shaped by temperament as well as by environment and experiences. Temperament means the constitutional characteristics, i.e. genetic and prenatal factors. Aspects such as affectivity, drive, and control are among these. Environmental factors include life events, social support, parental parenting behaviors, and chronic environmental conditions. Temperament has considerable cross-situational consistency and thus shows relative stability over time. Temperament describes how someone behaves, but says nothing about what someone does or why they behave that way.

Thomas and Chess, the pioneers of temperament research differentiated nine temperament dimensions. These include response threshold, response intensity, distractibility, and attention span/endurance. At this point, the circle closes and it becomes understandable why high sensitivity tends to be assigned to temperament.

What causes are discussed for this higher sensitivity to stimuli of the highly sensitive?

Unfortunately, there is still no recognized neurophysiological theory that describes the cause of high sensitivity. However, a genetically determined special constitution of the stimulus-processing neuronal systems is assumed. This is indicated in particular by results from twin studies, in which a significant familial clustering was found.

Furthermore, it is assumed that brain structures and neuronal networks, which are responsible for the attenuation of action potentials, are less pronounced and thus the cerebral cortex is significantly more excited in HSP learners. Thalamic structures may also play a role in HSP to the extent that more stimuli are classified as “significant” and thus enter consciousness. Increased thalamic activity could also be considered, since the phenomena described by Aron, such as increased cortisol levels , greater sensitivity to lack of sleep, caffeine, feelings of hunger and thirst, are brain-organically related to the hypothalamus.

In this context, I think prenatal factors also come into question. The hypothalamus is more or less the “emotion regulator” in our body. If it is set too high or too low, it or the associated processes cannot function smoothly. There is direct and indirect evidence of hypothalamus vulnerability. In a study of the effects of starvation on unborn children, it was shown that during critical periods of pregnancy, external influences affect the development of the hypothalamus. Thus, the sons of Dutch women conceived and born during the 1944 famine tended more often to be severely overweight. To what extent, however, depended on the developmental stage at which the unborn were affected by the famine. In this regard, the first 4-5 months of pregnancy appear to be the most severe. In a Finnish study of the effects of stress on hypothalamic development, all subjects had lost their father, either in utero or shortly after birth. Since the death of the husband represents a strong stress for the woman, it is also only understandable that this is transmitted to the child. Thereby, the rate of mental disorders was higher in those who had lost their father in utero. The result is interpreted to mean that the integration of the hypothalamus, had been unfavorably influenced by the strong stress on the woman. These are certainly very drastic examples and not common experiences of pregnant women. Nevertheless, even weaker stressors can cause the child to behave abnormally or eat poorly, for example. A child’s emotional susceptibility to anxiety and nervousness can also be traced back to prenatal causes. And these in turn have an influence on our temperament.

It must also be mentioned here that people become more sensitive with age and under certain conditions. These are natural processes.

What studies are we currently conducting?

I am currently conducting around 20 studies on the topic of “high sensitivity”. Among other things, I am investigating social and emotional aspects of HSP, but also the extent to which personality and characteristic adaptations play a role. Furthermore, we are conducting an experimental eye-tracking study in which pictures have to be viewed and evaluated. This study also serves to validate the questionnaire. Overall, the results will later be integrated into a model and contribute to a better understanding of highly sensitive people.

What is the best way to find out if you are highly sensitive?

Interested people can complete the questionnaire on the Internet and participate in our studies (link). If desired, an individual evaluation can be created for the completed questionnaires. However, this will take some time as there are a lot of data sets to be processed.

The interested reader can also inform himself about this topic on the Internet, for example on the page http://www.hochsensibel.org/. Here one can find information about the topic of HSP, as well as a well-sorted literature list, which also includes scientific publications on the topic.


Letzte Änderung: 9. October 2021