Senses: Sensitive Soul

How your nerves shape your character

By Rebecca Searles, Michele Lent Hirsch, published on September 6, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

We all experience the world differently. But could the variability in our sensory perception contribute to the broad spectrum of human personalities? It seems that our senses, which dictate how we perceive and interact with our environment, subtly shape who we are, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Dresden tested people's sensory thresholds and mapped their findings onto subjects' Big Five personality traits. They uncovered links between what we detect and personality characteristics. Explains researcher Ilona Croy, "It makes sense that people who are able to detect others' emotions become more social and those who are sensitive to signs of danger see the world as a threatening place." Here are three ways our senses help mold our selves. —Rebecca Searles

You Smell Nice

Agreeable people tend to have a strong sense of smell, according to Croy's research. "Olfaction plays a role in basic social functions, like detecting others' emotions and picking a mate," she explains. Since scent is key for navigating our social environment, a perceptive nose may confer greater empathy and social awareness.

Whiff of Danger

Ever sniffed ammonia and felt a prickle in your nose? The trigeminal sense serves as an alarm system for hazardous substances; it causes a stinging or burning sensation in the nose and throat and sends danger signals to the brain. People with increased trigeminal sensitivity scored higher on neuroticism, perhaps because they're bombarded with danger signals, Croy says.

Aching to Please

Individuals with high pain tolerance—those who endured the strongest shocks before asking experimenters to stop—were also more conscientious. Croy believes a motivational component underlies the association: "They may have a greater desire to please or perform a task well," she says. A conscientious mind-set might encourage an individual to hold out before crying uncle.

Invasion of the Body Swappers

Morph into a Barbie or a giant in three easy steps.

Wish you were a little bit taller? Henrik Ehrsson, a Swedish neuro-scientist known for his trippy experiments, has shown that we can trick ourselves into thinking we're inhabiting the body of a tiny doll or a 13-foot dummy. The brain integrates sensory data, including signals from the eyes and skin, to orient itself within the body—and by modifying those signals, we can easily fool the brain, Ehrsson explains. In a study published in PLoS One, he led subjects to believe they'd swapped bodies with a doll or a giant, in order to learn more about how humans gauge distances and measurements in their environment. Here's how you, too, can get insta-huge or -tiny.* —Michele Lent Hirsch

  1. Grab Your Goggles. Don a head-mounted screen that sits right in front of your face and hook it up to two TV cameras. Have a friend place the two cameras near Barbie's head while she's lying supine, and beam them down on her torso and legs. Lie down. Now when you think you're peeping at your feet, you'll actually be glimpsing hers.

  2. Get Friendly. Have your helper brush a small stick against the doll's foot while brushing another against yours in sync. As you watch and feel, you'll start to integrate the sensations.

  3. Shrink Away. After a few rounds, voilà—you're Barbie! Rather than think you've sprouted just her foot, you'll feel you've inhabited her entire plastic body. But you won't feel tiny, Ehrsson's team determined. Because your brain accepts the new body unquestioningly, you'll think, "This is my body, and the world is suddenly huge."

*To get gigantic, trade Barbie for a big dummy.