When I first did a post on this topic in 2018, it got more attention than most of my posts, so let’s look at it again.
In my book The Shyness Guide I discuss psychologist Elaine Aron’s concept of the “highly sensitive person”. She came to the conclusion that her HSP diagnosis was necessary because of the profound difference in the sensitivity of people.
Yes, there seems to be 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 5 year-old 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 have 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, and says it in her book.
But where did insensitivity come from?
That question troubled me for a long time. But during the writing of 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 still prefer not to think about), sentient AI scientists in the twenty-second century (yes I believe AI will be leading the way in most research a century from now) 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 still seen this idea nowhere else, in science journals or even in fiction, so I still 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. The indiscriminate bombing of cities in World War II was a profoundly insensitive act. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs took it to a new level. With tens of thousands of nuclear warheads now present in the world, we have prepared ourselves for something even more extreme.
But stricter immigration laws to block refugees, voter-suppression laws, clear-cutting of forests, climate warming denial, the human extinction of other species – these are all acts of insensitivity.
Insensitivity may ultimately destroy this planet, so it has to be confronted more.
PS – if you want an in depth examination of the problems of sensitive people in an insensitive world, there is no better place than in Dr Elaine Aron’s books – here is her website, where you can do a self-test:
If you would like to read a fictional account of a hunter-gatherer family meeting up with a newly-evolved social tribe, you must read William Golding’s novel The Inheritors. I first read it shortly after leaving high school and I know these ideas of mine were at least partly inspired by that book. Based on my examination of its Amazon page today it has begun to sell well again.
If you would like to read more about how the human brain has shrunk 10 % during the last 10,000 years, try this: discover.com/shrinking brain