Why You're More Sensitive Than Most People

Your heightened sensitivity is in your genes, but not how you think it is.

Posted Dec 30, 2020

Do you feel you are more sensitive to pain than most people? That you respond to painful stimuli more deeply and intensely than most others? Unsurprisingly, the basis of this sensory phenomenon is rooted in your DNA. But not in the way you think it is. Believe it or not, the reason for this heightened pain sensitivity is actually due to the fact that a small percentage of modern-day humans possess a specific gene variant that originated in Neanderthals.

That’s right, Neanderthals. Indeed, it has been known for some time that humans mated with Neanderthals before we likely drove our kinder, gentler evolutionary cousins to extinction because of Homo sapiens’ greater aggressiveness and competitiveness. Nevertheless, Homo neanderthalensis still exists in our “human“ genome. According to a recent report published in the journal Science, as much as 2.6% of the DNA in living humans was inherited from Neanderthals (Science, November, 2017).

Moreover, a very recent study in Current Biology (September, 2020) suggests that 0.4% of the population has a Neanderthal gene variant that amplifies nerve impulse conduction and generation in peripheral pain pathways, thus leading to heightened pain sensitivity and greater subjective pain in this small group of the general population. In plain terms, this means that 31.2 million of the current 7.8 billion humans — one in 250 — experience much greater pain than the overwhelming majority of people. Indeed, some people can sense and experience dimensions and nuances of pain like a sommelier can discern complexity, layers, and individual elements in a fine wine.

To gain a greater understanding of this research, it is helpful to know a little about pain perception, and how sensory nerves work and respond to noxious stimuli. To begin with, the technical term for pain perception is nociception. This is the conscious experience of painful or injurious stimulation. What’s more, there are several types of pain-inducing stimuli: thermal (heat and cold), mechanical (pressure and pinching), and chemical (toxins and venoms).

Moreover, there are specially adapted nerve endings collectively called nociceptors that detect and respond to these potentially harmful stimuli by sending electrochemical signals along nerve fibers to the brain by way of the spinal cord. These nerve fibers are made up of specialized cells that have evolved the ability to receive, detect, synthesize, integrate, and respond to various stimuli by sending their own signals to specific targets throughout the body. This is referred to as the nerve firing or propagating its signal to other nerve cells or tissues such as muscles, glands, the vascular system, and organs.

At a molecular level, this is possible because, when activated, nerve cells (or neurons when referring to the brain and spinal cord) are able to swap electrically charged ions across their membranes through molecular channels called ionophores (literally “ion carrier”). When the nerve cell membrane rapidly swaps extracellular sodium ions (i.e., the sodium bathing the cell) with its intracellular potassium (i.e., the potassium held within the cell) it results in an electrochemical wave that propagates along the nerve’s projections (usually called axons) like electricity traveling along a wire. When this nerve impulse arrives at its targets, it triggers a cascade of events that ultimately leads to a reaction and/or a conscious perception.

In terms of the research noted above, it appears that people with the Neanderthal gene have nociceptors with their ionophores in the ready to open state. Hence, much smaller stimuli will trigger nerve signals in individuals who have inherited the gene relative to people without it. Essentially, this means people with the Neanderthal gene are primed to feel pain. Interestingly, it has also been shown that emotional or psychic pain is mediated by the same brain regions that govern physical nociception. While there are no data (yet) linking the Neanderthal nociceptive gene to heightened emotional distress, it is likely that future research will reveal the connection.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Copyright 2020 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified health professional. The advertisements in this post do not necessarily reflect my opinions nor are they endorsed by me.