Michael Jawer

Michael Jawer

Feeling Too Much

Sensory Sensitivity: An Overlooked Thread

Being highly sensitive is a clue to other personality traits and conditions

Posted Jul 22, 2014

Having a heightened reaction to sensory stimuli is a feature of several conditions that don’t seem to have much in common, but which have become the focus of a great deal of scientific curiosity. These conditions – one might even call them personality traits – include:

  • synesthesia (overlapping senses, such as tasting a sound or hearing a color)
  • autism (a seeming lack of ability to empathize, which occurs on a spectrum from less pronounced to severe)
  • savantism (having an extraordinary mental ability that coexists with significant mental and social deficits)
  • prodigiousness (displaying a talent in an otherwise unfettered personality that is so advanced it’s almost uncanny).

High sensitivity is not just an intriguing characteristic in its own right but a vital clue to what may be happening in different conditions that continue to perplex the more they are studied. I first noticed the overlap of environmental sensitivity with various health conditions (e.g., allergies, migraine, chronic pain) about 15 years ago, when I was conducting a study into people’s reports of anomalous perceptions, such as seeing apparitions, sensing energy around people, etc. I was not familiar, at that time, with synesthesia, nor had I thought that autism might be connected with sensitivity at all. But the results of my inquiry – gathered from the reports of the original 62 survey participants – indicated that environmental and emotional sensitivity might be a salient feature of a number of intriguing health conditions and personality traits.

The more evidence arrives from independent scientific research, the stronger my suspicion that these disparate conditions have a common heritage in the brain and in the body. It is entirely possible that what happens to a developing fetus – based on what the influence is and when it happens – plants the seeds for these different personality predilections. The fact that environmental sensitivity is a noteworthy feature of all these conditions, however, leads me to believe that the genesis is the same. Being highly sensitive could be an illuminator, in other words, of the path we all take to becoming individuals.

Consider that our genes and our environment intertwine, beginning in the womb, to shape who we’ll become. If the convergence is smooth, a person will not ultimately demonstrate high sensitivity. But, if there are major bumps in the road – if the mother is affected by illness, by accident, by deprivation, by trauma – then a penchant for overreacting to sensory stimuli (or the related tendency to ‘lose oneself’ in sensory induced reverie) will ultimately result. Being highly sensitive in an echo, so to speak, of that process.

The more we look into pronounced sensitivity, the more we can learn about the forces that sculpt us into unique human beings. That uniqueness is especially evident in synesthesia, autism, savantism, and prodigiousness, all of which (and more) I’ll explore in successive blog posts. Interestingly enough, the trail leads into spiritual terrain and the ultimate questions of how we got here and why. The road is long and a bit winding; we begin with a foray into synesthesia.