HSPs’ Brain Activation, Compared to Non-HSPs, Indicates More Empathy and Awareness
Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: June 2014
Big news! A very important scientific article about the brain activity of HSPs has just been published. After four years of work by six authors (Bianca P. Acevedo; me; my husband, Arthur Aron; Matthew-Donald Sangster; Nancy Collins; and Lucy L. Brown, from various universities), it is finally out: “The Highly Sensitive Brain: An fMRI Study of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Response to Others’ Emotions.” It was officially published Monday (two days ago, and first as an on-line publication) in the scientific journal, Brain and Behavior. For those of you not wanting to wade through a complicated research article, here’s a summary.
The research used “functional magnetic resonance imaging,” which is able to detect activation of brain areas while someone performs a task. In this case the task was looking at photos of strangers and spouses showing happy, sad, or neutral expressions. Compared to the non-HSPs in the study, the HSPs’ brains were more responsive to expressions of emotions on the faces of others. This was true in all cases, stranger or partner, happy or sad (compared to neutral). However, HSPs’ brains were especially responsive to the emotions of their husband or wife (someone very close to them), and even more responsive to positive emotions than negative ones.
The Big Findings
There were two particularly exciting finds about the brain areas that were more active for HSPs than non-HSPs during these tasks. First, this responsiveness occurred in the “mirror neuron” areas, apparently only found in primates and humans and known to facilitate empathy. The second especially interesting area was the insula, sometimes called the “seat of consciousness” because it brings together all aspects – thoughts, feelings, perceptions, bodily states, etc. – all of our moment-to-moment experience. These are fairly amazing results!
Findings from previous studies of HSPs’ brain were found again, also important news. One of these previous studies was that when HSPs are viewing a photo, they tend to show more activation than non-HSPs in areas involved in “higher” levels of perceptual processing, in keeping with the idea that HSPs process things more deeply (more elaborately, at higher levels of organization, etc.).
This study involved only 18 participants – typical for fMRI studies because brain scans are expensive. But with only a small group of participants, it is even harder to get such clear results – these definite differences between those who scored high and those who scored low on the HSP Self-Test. Further, 13 of the participants were tested a second time a year later and the results were the same, a “replication,” which is very important for scientific confidence in results.
These results speak for themselves, and corroborate our experience. For example, think of these two items from the HSP self-test: “Do other people’s moods affect you?” and “When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment do you tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating)?”
Does the world need more empathy for others and general awareness of what’s happening? Yes. Do we have that to offer? Not that we want to act superior, but apparently so.