Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: February 2007.
In case you ever wonder if this sensitivity thing is real, here’s a very interesting finding recently presented at the national conference for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, the result of work by Sarah Ketay, Trey Hedden, Hazel Markus, and John D. E. Gabrieli, along with my husband and myself.
In this study, 10 Americans of European descent and 10 East-Asians recently in the U.S. underwent “functional magnetic resonance imaging” (fMRI). This means that while they were functioning mentally in a particular way–in this case, engaged in two simple visual-spatial tasks–their brains were being watched for signs of high levels of activation in particular areas. This allows researchers to know how much effort in what areas are involved in these functions.
From past research without fMRI it was known that one task was easier for Americans. It involves judging the length of a line while ignoring changes in the box around it. The task is “context independent” and it has been found that Americans are so individualistic that we pay less attention to context, such as family or community, even in a simple task like this, where the context is only a box.
The other, complementary task is judging the size of a box while ignoring the length of a line inside of it. It was already known that this task is easier for those from Asian cultures, where people do consider context more. I know, it’s surprising that culture would affect something so basic, but the evidence is quite solid. So in the fMRI study, as predicted, each group exhibited greater brain activation (had to work harder) for their culturally non-preferred task. This difference in activation was specifically in areas associated with greater effort in attention and working memory.
However, in further analyses, this effect was dramatically and significantly different for HSPs. Whatever their culture, HSPs showed little difference in their activation during the two tasks. Meanwhile, those who were not highly sensitive showed the predictable strong culture related differences in brain activation. This difference for HSPs was statistically significant and remained even if one took into account their gender, strength of cultural identify, degree of introversion, and score on a measure of neuroticism.
In other words, we HSPs seem to be less affected by biases caused by the culture we grew up in, even very subtle biases. If we can generalize this much from this study, it seems to mean that, being less distracted by what is irrelevant to a task, we are generally more accurate in our perceptions. And, I guess it also means that we are a bit more alike, whatever country we are from, since we see things more similarly than non-HSPs. That may have been intuitively obvious, but it is gratifying to have it verified so nicely in a rigorous brain study–the sort of thing that non-HSP scientists need to see if they are to believe we are real.