Sensory processing sensitivity
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Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is a temperamental or personality trait involving "an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli". The trait is characterized by "a tendency to 'pause to check' in novel situations, greater sensitivity to subtle stimuli, and the engagement of deeper cognitive processing strategies for employing coping actions, all of which is driven by heightened emotional reactivity, both positive and negative".
A human with a particularly high measure of SPS is considered to have "hypersensitivity", or be a highly sensitive person (HSP). The terms SPS and HSP were coined in the mid-1990s by psychologists Elaine Aron and her husband Arthur Aron, who developed the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS) questionnaire by which SPS is measured. Other researchers have applied various other terms to denote this responsiveness to stimuli that is seen in humans and other species.
According to the Arons and colleagues, people with high SPS make up about 15–20% of the population. Although some researchers consistently related high SPS to negative outcomes, other researchers have associated it with increased responsiveness to both positive and negative influences. Aron and colleagues state that the high-SPS personality trait is not a disorder.
Origin and development of the terms
Elaine Aron's book The Highly Sensitive Person was published in 1996. In 1997 Elaine and Arthur Aron formally identified sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) as the defining trait of highly sensitive persons (HSPs). The popular terms hypersensitivity (not to be confused with the medical term hypersensitivity) or highly sensitive are popular synonyms for the scientific concept of SPS. By way of definition, Aron and Aron (1997) wrote that sensory processing here refers not to the sense organs themselves, but to what occurs as sensory information is transmitted to or processed in the brain. They assert that the trait is not a disorder but an innate survival strategy that has both advantages and disadvantages.
Elaine Aron's academic journal articles as well as self-help publications for the lay reader have focused on distinguishing high SPS from socially reticent behavior and disorders with which high SPS can be confused; overcoming the social unacceptability that can cause low self-esteem; and emphasizing the advantages of high SPS to balance the disadvantages emphasized by others.
In 2015, journalist Elizabeth Bernstein wrote in The Wall Street Journal that HSPs were "having a moment," noting that several hundred research studies had been conducted on topics related to HSPs' high sensitivity. The First International Scientific Conference on High Sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity was held at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. By 2015, more than a million copies of The Highly Sensitive Person had been sold.
Research pre-dating the Arons' coining of the term "high sensitivity" includes that of German medicine professor Wolfgang Klages, who argued in the 1970s that the phenomenon of sensitive and highly sensitive humans is "biologically anchored" and that the "stimulus threshold of the thalamus" is much lower in these persons. As a result, said Klages, there is a higher permeability for incoming signals from afferent nerve fibers so that they pass "unfiltered" to the cerebral cortex.
The Arons (1997) recognized psychologist Albert Mehrabian's (1976, 1980, 1991) concept of filtering the "irrelevant", but wrote that the concept implied that the inability of HSPs' (Mehrabian's "low screeners") to filter out what is irrelevant would imply that what is relevant is determined from the perspective of non-HSPs ("high screeners").
Attributes, characteristics and prevalence
Boterberg et al. (2016) describe high SPS as a "temperamental or personality trait which is present in some individuals and reflects an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli".
People with high SPS report having a heightened response to stimuli such as pain, caffeine, hunger, and loud noises. According to Boterberg et al., these individuals are "believed to be easily overstimulated by external stimuli because they have a lower perceptual threshold and process stimuli cognitively deeper than most other people." This deeper processing may result in increased reaction time as more time is spent responding to cues in the environment, and might also contribute to cautious behavior and low risk-taking.
The HSP Scale, initially (1997) a questionnaire designed to measure SPS on a unidimensional scale, was subsequently decomposed into two, three, or four factors or sub-scales. Most components have been associated with traditionally accepted negative psychological outcomes including high stress levels, being easily overwhelmed, increased rates of depression, anxiety, and sleep problems, as well as symptoms of autism; the diathesis-stress model focused on increased vulnerability to negative influences. However, the differential susceptibility theory (DST) and biological sensitivity to context theory (BSCT) and sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) suggest increased plasticity in terms of responsiveness to both positive and negative influences; and the vantage sensitivity (VS) concept emphasizes increased responsiveness to positive experiences. Researchers such as Smolewska et al. (2006) said positive outcomes were more common in individuals with high aesthetic sensitivity, who tend to experience heightened positive emotions in response to rewarding stimuli and more likely to score high on "openness" on the Big Five factors model.
Research in evolutionary biology provides evidence that the trait of SPS can be observed, under various terms, in over 100 nonhuman species, Aron writing that the SPS trait is meant to encompass what personality psychologists have described under various other names. Conversely, Aron has distinguished SPS from what she considers it is not, explicitly distinguishing high SPS from possibly similar-appearing traits or disorders (such as shyness, sensation-seeking, sensory processing disorder, and autism), and further, that SPS may be a basic variable that may underlie multiple other trait differences (such as introversion versus extraversion). Contrary to common misconception, according to Aron HSPs include both introverts and extroverts, and may be simultaneously high-sensation seeking and cautious.
In humans and other species, responsive and unresponsive individuals coexist and consistently display different levels of responsiveness to environmental stimuli, the different levels of responsiveness having corresponding evolutionary costs and benefits. This observation parallels Aron's assertion that high SPS is not a disorder, but rather a personality trait with attendant advantages and disadvantages. Accordingly, Aron cautions medical professionals against prescribing psychoactive medications to "cure" the trait, which may or may not coexist with an actual disorder.
By 2015 the trait had been documented at various levels of study, including temperament and behavior psychology, brain function and neuronal sensitization, and genetics. For example, genetic studies provide evidence that higher levels of SPS are linked to the serotonin transporter 5-HTTLPR short/short genotype, polymorphisms in dopamine neurotransmitter genes, and the ADRA2b norepinephrine-related gene variant.
HSP Scale score patterns in adults were thought to be distributed as a dichotomous categorical variable with a break point between 10% and 35%, with Aron choosing a cut-off of the highest-scoring 20% of individuals to define the HSP category. A 2019 review article stated that findings suggest people fall into three sensitivity groups along a normal distribution sensitivity continuum.
- Differential susceptibility hypothesis
- Environmental sensitivity
- Evolutionary psychology
- Personality psychology
- Sensory processing
- Social psychology
- Trait theory
- Executive functions
- Development of the nervous system
- Cultural neuroscience
Sources and notes
- Greven, Corina U.; Lionetti, Francesca; Booth, Charlotte; Aron, Elaine N.; Fox, Elaine; Schendan, Haline E.; Pluess, Michael; Bruining, Hilgo; Acevedo, Bianca; Bijttebier, Patricia; Homberg, Judith (March 2019). "Sensory Processing Sensitivity in the context of Environmental Sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda (Review article)". Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. Elsevier. 98: 287–305. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.009. PMID 30639671.
- Boterberg, Sofie; Warreyn, Petra (2016), "Making sense of it all: The impact of sensory processing sensitivity on daily functioning of children", Personality and Individual Differences, 92: 80–86, doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.12.022, hdl:1854/LU-7172755, archived from the original on May 23, 2016
- Booth, Charlotte; Standage, Helen; Fox, Elaine (1 Dec 2015), "Sensory-processing sensitivity moderates the association between childhood experiences and adult life satisfaction", Personality and Individual Differences, 87: 24–29, doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.07.020, PMC 4681093, PMID 26688599
- Wolf, Max; Van Doorn, G. Sander; Weissing, Franz J. (2008). "Evolutionary emergence of responsive and unresponsive personalities". PNAS. 105 (41): 15825–15830. doi:10.1073/pnas.0805473105. PMC 2572984. PMID 18838685. "Such differences in responsiveness (also termed coping style, reactivity, flexibility, plasticity) have been documented in many organisms including ... humans" (n. 15 citing Aron & Aron (1997, SPS) and n. 16 citing Belsky et al. (2007, differential susceptibility)). Boterberg et al. (2016) cites Wolf et al. (2008) for the statement: "research in evolutionary biology provides evidence that the trait of SPS can be observed in over 100 nonhuman species."
- Liss, Miriam; Mailloux, Jennifer; Erchull, Mindy J. (2008), "The relationships between sensory processing sensitivity, alexithymia, autism, depression, and anxiety" (PDF), Personality and Individual Differences, 45 (3): 255–259, doi:10.1016/j.paid.2008.04.009, archived (PDF) from the original on May 23, 2016
- Belsky, Jay; Pluess, Michael (2009). "Beyond Diathesis Stress: Differential Susceptibility to Environmental Influences" (PDF). Psychological Bulletin. 135 (6): 885–908. doi:10.1037/a0017376. PMID 19883141. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 7, 2010. Retrieved January 28, 2016.
- Boyce, W. Thomas (2016). "Differential Susceptibility of the Developing Brain to Contextual Adversity and Stress". Neuropsychopharmacology. 41 (1): 141–162. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.294. PMC 4677150. PMID 26391599. "(T)here is an emerging scientific consensus on how 'sensitivity to context' may be instantiated with an intricate and compelling neuroscience" (p. 149). "... a now substantial corpus of evidence ... documenting differences in susceptibility at the levels of temperament and behavior ("The Highly Sensitive Person at p. 146), neuroendocrine physiology, brain structure and function ("Cortical sensory processing sensitivity" at p. 149), neuronal sensitization and responsivity, and allelic and epigenetic variation within genomic structure" (p. 157).
- Boyce, W. Thomas; Ellis, Bruce J. (2005). "Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary–developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity". Development and Psychopathology. 17 (2): 271–301. doi:10.1017/S0954579405050145. PMID 16761546. S2CID 15413527. Archived (PDF) from the original on October 20, 2017. "Aron and Aron (1997, p. 362) provide an important further elucidation of the reactivity construct in their discussion of sensory-processing sensitivity" (p. 286).
- Pluess, Michael; Belsky, Jay (2013). "Vantage Sensitivity: Individual Differences in Response to Positive Experiences" (PDF). Psychological Bulletin. 139 (4): 901–916. doi:10.1037/a0030196. PMID 23025924. Archived (PDF) from the original on January 26, 2016.
- Aron, E.N. (2006). "The Clinical Implications of Jung's Concept of Sensitiveness". Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice. 8: 11–43. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.490.9371. Discussion re nervous system is, inter alia, in "Prelude to Research" at p. 14.
- Acevedo, B; Aron, E; Pospos, S; Jessen, D (April 2018). "The functional highly sensitive brain: a review of the brain circuits underlying sensory processing sensitivity and seemingly related disorders". Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 373 (1744): 20170161. doi:10.1098/rstb.2017.0161. PMC 5832686. PMID 29483346.
(I)n this review, we compare the neural regions implicated in SPS with those found in fMRI studies of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Schizophrenia (SZ) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to elucidate the neural markers and cardinal features of SPS versus these seemingly related clinical disorders. We propose that SPS is a stable trait that is characterized by greater empathy, awareness, responsivity and depth of processing to salient stimuli. We conclude that SPS is distinct from ASD, SZ and PTSD in that in response to social and emotional stimuli, SPS differentially engages brain regions involved in reward processing, memory, physiological homeostasis, self-other processing, empathy and awareness. We suggest that this serves species survival via deep integration and memory for environmental and social information that may subserve well-being and cooperation.
- Kaufman, Scott Barry (May 4, 2015). "Shades of Sensitivity". Scientific American. Archived from the original on December 8, 2015. Kaufman explains Smolewska et al. (2006).
- Aron, Elaine; Aron, Arthur (1997). "Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and its Relation to Introversion and Emotionality" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 73 (2): 345–368. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1685. PMID 9248053. Archived (PDF) from the original on May 13, 2015.
- Chen, Xinyin; Rubin, Kenneth H.; Sun, Yuerong (1992). "Social Reputation and Peer Relationships in Chinese and Canadian Children: A Cross-cultural Study". Child Development. 63 (6): 1336–1343. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1992.tb01698.x. Archived (PDF) from the original on February 4, 2016.
- Aron, E.; Aron, A.; Jagiellowicz, J. (2012). "Sensory processing sensitivity: A review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity" (PDF). Personality and Social Psychology Review. 16 (3): 262–282. doi:10.1177/1088868311434213. PMID 22291044. S2CID 2542035. Archived (PDF) from the original on May 13, 2015.
- Aron, E. N.; Aron, A.; Davies, K. (2005). "Adult shyness: The interaction of temperamental sensitivity and an adverse childhood environment" (PDF). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 31 (2): 181–197. doi:10.1177/0146167204271419. PMID 15619591. S2CID 1679620. Note 3 (p. 195) cites Chen et al. (1992) re social and cultural unacceptability adding to environmental stressors.
- Rioux, Charlie; Castellanos-Ryan, Natalie; Parent, Sophie; Bitaro, Frank; Tremblay, Richard E.; Seguin, Jean R. (2016). "Differential susceptibility to environmental influences: Interactions between child temperament and parenting in adolescent alcohol use". Dev. Psychopathol. 28 (1): 265–275. doi:10.1017/S0954579415000437. PMC 4676730. PMID 26030853. "From a clinical perspective, Aron (2010) adds that while sensitive people may be more vulnerable, sensitivity is not only a liability but also may confer advantages."
- Belsky, J.; Jonassaint, C; Pluess, M; Stanton, M; Brummett, B; Williams, R (2009). "Vulnerability genes or plasticity genes?" (PDF). Molecular Psychiatry. 14 (8): 746–754. doi:10.1038/mp.2009.44. PMC 2834322. PMID 19455150. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 6, 2012. Retrieved January 28, 2016.
- Bernstein, Elizabeth (May 18, 2015). "Do You Cry Easily? You May Be a 'Highly Sensitive Person'". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on June 1, 2015.
- Lally, Maria (October 12, 2015). "Highly sensitive people: a condition rarely understood". The Telegraph. U.K. Archived from the original on October 18, 2015.
- Klages, Wolfgang (1978). Der sensible Mensch : Psychologie, Psychopathologie, Therapie (The Sensitive Human: Psychology, Psychopathology, Therapy) (in German) (1 ed.). Stuttgart, Germany: Enke. p. 133. ISBN 978-3432898711. OCLC 6710563. Klages distinguishes between sensitive and highly sensitive people, classifying artists and "high intellectuals" as an example of the latter.
- Pluess, Michael (September 2015). "Individual Differences in Environmental Sensitivity". Child Development Perspectives. 9 (3): 138–143. doi:10.1111/cdep.12120. "...per- haps the most significant contribution shared across all three frameworks [SPS and DST, BSC] is the notion that sensitive individuals differ not only in their response to environmental adversity but also in response to positive, supportive aspects of the environment".
- Evans, David E.; Rothbart, Mary K. (January 2008). "Temperamental sensitivity: Two constructs or one?" (PDF). Personality and Individual Differences. 44 (1): 108–118. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.07.016. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 7, 2016. Retrieved February 7, 2016. Negative affectand orienting sensitivity.
- Boterberg et al. (2016): overreaction to stimuli (OS) and depth of processing (DP).
- Smolewska et al. (2006): Aesthetic Sensitivity (AES, having greater awareness of beauty), Low Sensory Threshold (LST, easily unpleasantly aroused by external stimuli), and Ease of Excitation (EOE, easily overwhelmed by stimuli); results showing the (unidimensional) HSP Scale was "a valid and reliable measure of the construct of SPS"). Liss et al. (2008).
- Per Boterberg et al. (2016), a "theoretical redefinition" by E. Aron, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person (2010): "DOES" acronym: Depth of processing, Overstimulation, Emotional intensity, Sensory sensitivity.
- Ellis, Bruce J.; Boyce, W. Thomas; Belsky, Jay; Bakermans-Kranenburt, Marian J.; van Ijzendoorn, Marinus H. (2011). "Differential susceptibility to the environment: An evolutionary–neurodevelopmental theory". Development and Psychopathology. 23 (1): 7–28. doi:10.1017/S0954579410000611. PMID 21262036. S2CID 9802873. Archived from the original on July 4, 2016. "DST and BSCT began with a focus on child-developmental processes, whereas SPS started with a focus on cognitive processes in adults" (p. 10).
- Thibodeau, Eric L.; August, Gerald J.; Cicchetti, Dante; Symons, Frank J. (2016). "Application of environmental sensitivity theories in personalized prevention for youth substance abuse: a transdisciplinary translational perspective". Transl Behav Med. 6 (1): 81–89. doi:10.1007/s13142-015-0374-4. PMC 4807189. PMID 27012256. "Five distinct but related frameworks comprise ES (environmental sensitivity), including diathesis stress, differential susceptibility theory (DST), sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) [n. 22: A&A 1997], biological sensitivity to context (BSC) [n. 23: Boyce 2005], and vantage sensitivity (VS) [n. 24: Pluess 2013]".
- Smolewska, Kathy A.; McCabe, Scott B.; Woody, Erik Z. (2006). "A psychometric evaluation of the Highly Sensitive Person Scale: The components of sensory-processing sensitivity and their relation to the BIS/BAS and "Big Five"". Personality and Individual Differences. 40 (6): 1269–1279. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2005.09.022. See also Kaufman, Scientific American (2015).
- Paraphrasing Aron and citing Wolf re different names for same or equivalent concepts:
- From "Adult shyness: ..." (2005): weak nervous system (Pavlov), low screening (Mehrabian), augmenting (of stimulation; Petrie), reducing (of evoked potential; Buchsbaum, Haier, & Johnson), reactivity (Strelau), avoidance temperament (Elliot & Thrash), and nondisinhibition or reflectivity (Patterson & Newman), and what child temperament researchers have described as inhibitedness (Kagan), infant (or innate) shyness (Cheek & Buss; Daniels & Plomin), reactivity (Rothbart; Strelau), and threshold of responsiveness (Thomas & Chess).
- From "The Clinical Implications of Jung's Concept of Sensitiveness" (2006): innate sensitiveness (Jung),
- From "Adult shyness: ..." (2005): arousal focus (Feldman), and the physiological differences underlying introversion and extroversion (Eysenck; Stelmack; Stelmack & Geen).
- From Wolf et al. (2008): coping style, reactivity, flexibility, plasticity, and differential susceptibility.
- Paraphrasing Aron re what SPS is not:
- From "'The Power of (Shyness)' and High Sensitivity..." (2012): (re introversion) 30% of HSPs are social extroverts.
- From "Adult shyness: ..." (2005): SPS doesn't inherently possess shyness' fear of negative social evaluations.
- From p. 2 of "The HSP in love" (<=2007): an HSP who is also a High Sensation Seeker will find ways to have novel experiences without taking ill-considered risks.
- From "... A Review... " (2012): SPS is "unrelated to Sensory Processing Disorder"
- From "The Clinical Implications of Jung's Concept of Sensitiveness" (2006): (re autism) HSPs are very aware of social and emotional cues and relate well socially once familiarity is achieved.
- Aron, Elaine N. (February 2, 2012). "Time Magazine: 'The Power of (Shyness)' and High Sensitivity". Psychology Today. Archived from the original on February 12, 2012.
- "The Highly Sensitive Person In Love with Elaine Aron". WebMD Live Events Transcript. Archived from the original on March 17, 2018. Transcript published October 2007 or before.
- Aron, Elaine N., Ph.D, "Understanding the Highly Sensitivity Person: Sensitive, Introverted, or Both? | Extraverted HSPs face unique challenges" (Archived April 19, 2013, at archive.today) Psychology Today, July 21, 2011.
- Aron, Elaine N. (1996). "9. Medics, Medications and HSPs". The Highly Sensitive Person. Broadway Books. pp. 194–197. ISBN 9780806536705. Especially subsections "A Caution About Medical Labels for Your Trait" through "Instant Arousal-Stopping Medications".
- Licht, Cecile L.; Mortensen, Erik L.; Knudsen, Gitte M. (2011). "Association between Sensory Processing Sensitivity and the 5-HTTLPR Short/Short Genotype" (PDF). Center for integrated molecular brain imaging. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 6, 2012. ● Licht, C., Mortensen, E. L., & Knudsen, G. M. (2011). "Association between sensory processing sensitivity and the serotonin transporter polymorphism 5-HTTLPR short/short genotype." Biological Psychiatry, 69, supplement for Society of Biological Psychiatry Convention and Annual Meeting, abstract 510.
- Chen, Chunhui; Chen, Chuansheng; Moyzis, Robert; Stern, Hal; He, Qinghua; Li, He; Li, Jin; Zhu, Bi; Dong, Qi (2011). "Contributions of dopamine-related genes and environmental factors to Highly Sensitive Personality: A multi-step neuronal system-level approach". PLOS ONE. 6 (7): e21636. Bibcode:2011PLoSO...621636C. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021636. PMC 3135587. PMID 21765900.
- Todd, R. M.; Ehlers, M. R.; Muller, D. J.; Robertson, A.; Palombo, D. J.; Freeman, N.; Levine, B.; Anderson, A. K. (2015). "Neurogenetic Variations in Norepinephrine Availability Enhance Perceptual Vividness". The Journal of Neuroscience. 35 (16): 6506–6516. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4489-14.2015. PMC 6605217. PMID 25904801. ● Castillo, Stephanie (May 8, 2015). "The Highly Sensitive Person: Emotional Sensitivity May Stem From A Person's Genes, Enhancing The Way They See The World". Medical Daily (IBT Media). Archived from the original on May 11, 2015.
- Bartz, Andrea (July 5, 2011). "Sense and Sensitivity". Psychology Today. Archived from the original on April 19, 2013.
- Madrigal, Alix (July 28, 1999). "She Writes About a Touchy Subject / Book aims to help sensitive people". San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on August 22, 2016.