Given how insensitivity is running rampant around the world now, I think its time to take another look at the Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP.
When I say running rampant, just look around you. People get promoted in corporations by being insensitive to those who get in their way. Others gain fame by trampling the reputations of others. Insensitivity seems almost to be an essential ingredient in becoming rich. You can even win elections with it.
The concept of HSP was introduced by psychologist Elaine Aron in her 1996 book, The Highly Sensitive Person. Typically, an HSP is a person who dislikes bright light, loud noise, loud people, violent movies, etc, because they are more sensitive to those things than most people. They react more to physical and psychological stimuli. They usually have strong imaginations and vivid dreams. She emphasizes that high sensitivity is not a disease, but a normal way of being human. About 20% of the population is highly sensitive.
On her website, Dr. Aron says that, for research purposes, she is now also using the term ‘Sensory Processing Sensitivity’, or SPS.
She doesn’t confine this to introverts. She insists that there are sensitive extroverts. If you have trouble imagining a sensitive extrovert, read the little 2014 book, Ray Bradbury – The Last Interview and other Conversations. Bradbury, one of the most imaginative authors of the 20th century, was a effusive and delightful conversationalist who fit an extroverted HSP personality perfectly.
Dr Aron thinks HSPs are individuals who have evolved to be more sensitive because sensitivity has survival value. She refers to the famous sunfish studies that found shy sunfish more difficult to trap than bold sunfish, suggesting that shy sunfish are more likely to survive in the real world than bold insensitive sunfish.
Though I accept that this shy/bold dichotomy exists in humans, I’m not sure that it serves any useful purpose in modern human society, except for increasing some aspects of intelligence. I think it does help individuals by increasing some aspects of intelligence. Dr Aron thinks it helps society itself.
For example, in a herd of wild buffalo, or zebras say, she suggests that the sensitive individuals serve to alert the herd to dangers, while the tough/less sensitive members take over when confrontation/combat is required. But it’s hard to imagine in a herd of buffalo the same degree of distrust, misunderstanding, selfishness and deceit that you find in human groups.
Even if they had bigger brains, it’s hard to imagine tens of thousands of zebras fighting each other to the death, or torturing each other, or talking about each other behind each other’s backs, or undermining each other’s careers, etc. We think we are a herd animal, but we haven’t proved it yet.
But when it comes to the description of sensitivity in human individuals, I find Dr Aron’s concept insightful and useful. Although she doesn’t want high sensitivity to be equated with shyness, I think sensitivity is fundamental to most shyness, the reason I devoted a section of The Shyness Guide to Dr Aron. Here is her own interesting website, where you can take a test to see if you might be an HSP:
If sensitivity continues to survive in a world that scorns it, no one will have contributed more to its defense than Elaine Aron.