In my book The Shyness Guide I discuss psychologist Elaine Aron’s concept of the “highly sensitive person”. She came to the conclusion that that her HSP diagnosis was necessary because of the profound difference in the sensitivity of people.
There is a sensitive/insensitive divide in us. Dr Aaron would caution me to say – ‘more sensitive/less sensitive’, since all people, she says, are sensitive to some degree. Well, I’m sceptical of that. I’ve met too many very insensitive people.
When I first entered school as a boy in the 1950s, I was appalled at the rampant insensitivity around me. In my novel The Birdcatcher, Christopher Stone describes that like this:
I remembered my own first day at school, that morning in September, 1953 when I crouched in a corner of the old brick walls, instinctively protecting my back, waiting for the school to open. I remembered the yard full of pushing, teasing, shouting children. Though I couldn’t have put it into words then, I felt like an alien child, an orphan from some far away star, left behind on a strange and unfriendly planet.
Throughout my life, in school and in the working world, decade after decade, I found insensitive people to be shockingly common.
There is no problem understanding where sensitivity came from. You can find it throughout nature. It’s tied to acute senses, something that’s necessary for wild animals. Dr Aron believes that too.
But where did insensitivity come from?
That question troubled me for a long time. But during my work on my novel Skol, I realized that insensitivity probably arrived during our transition from the hunter-gatherer family to the tribe.
Beginning with the documented shrinking of our brains for the last 20,000 years (something we’ve known from the study of fossil skulls since the 1970s, but we preferred not to think about), AI scientists in the 22nd century explain it this way:
Social Devolution & the Desensitization of Man
Why did the human brain shrink?
The accepted theory now is that larger societies did not require larger brains. To control and discipline large groups of people one needed something simpler than the acute sensitivity, strong memory and creativity of hunter-gatherers.
What the tribe needed was individuals who could dominate, and others who could submit.
A more social world required more restricted minds and more restricted emotions. Dominant members had to be more unfeeling to inflict the injuries on their companions required to discipline and control them, while those people who submitted had to feel their injuries less if they were not to run away.
So it was that in these new tribal societies different men and women emerged, emotionally tougher and less sensitive than the people of the past.
There it is, simple as that. I’ve seen this idea nowhere else, in science journals or in fiction, so I lay claim to be its discoverer.
Unfortunately, even if we have discovered the origin of insensitivity here, that doesn’t solve the problem that insensitivity presents to the world. It is profoundly destructive, and has to be confronted.