Do you notice every little emotion of the people around you—and feel them deeply yourself? Do you get highly stressed when your to-do list is long, or when you spend a lot of time in a loud, busy place? If so, you might be a highly sensitive person (HSP). Highly sensitive people are the 20 percent of the population who process things more deeply than others, so it's no surprise that the brain of an HSP works differently than the brains of others, too.
Partly, this is genetic. There are a number of genes that determine whether someone is highly sensitive, and all of them have to do with neurotransmitters and the brain, emotions, and mood.
But the highly sensitive brain is also a product of nurture. In fact, the main gene that makes you highly sensitive also makes you far more receptive to environmental influences—especially as a child. In other words, nurture plays an even bigger role in shaping highly sensitive people than it does for most others.
So what exactly makes the brain and nervous system of an HSP different? Recent research has answers—lots of them. Let's take a look at the biggest differences.
1. Your brain responds to dopamine differently.
Dopamine is the brain's reward chemical. It's what makes you "want" to do certain things, and then feel a sense of victory or happiness when you do them. But many of the genes involved in high sensitivity affect how your body uses dopamine, in ways we don't fully understand. It's likely that HSPs are less driven by external rewards, which is part of what allows them to hold back and be thoughtful and observant while they process information. That would also help prevent HSPs from being drawn to the same highly stimulating situations that end up overwhelming them.
If you're an HSP, and you just don't find yourself all that interested in a super loud party, you have your dopamine system to thank—it's helping you avoid overstimulation and burnout.
2. Your mirror neurons are more active than those of others.
Mirror neurons help you understand what another person is doing, or what they're experiencing, based on their actions. They do that by comparing the other person's behavior with times when you yourself have behaved that way—effectively "mirroring" the other person to figure out what's going on for them.
That's an important job for a lot of reasons, but one of the things it does in humans is allow us to feel empathy and compassion for others. When we recognize the pain (or joy) that someone is going through and relate to it, it's because of this system. More mirror neuron activity means a more empathetic person—like an HSP.
HSPs don't necessarily have "more" mirror neurons than others. It’s that their mirror neuron systems are more active. In 2014, functional brain imaging research found that HSPs had consistently higher levels of activity in key parts of the brain related to social and emotional processing. This higher level of activity kicked in even in tests involving strangers, showcasing HSPs' ability to extend compassion to people they don't personally know. (The effect was still highest with loved ones, however).
As a highly sensitive person, these mirror neurons are both your superpower and, at times, more than a little inconvenient—like when you can't watch the same TV show as everyone else, because it's too violent. But it's also what makes you warm, caring, and incredibly insightful about what other people are going through.
3. You really do experience emotions more vividly than others.
Hidden away in the front of the brain is a fascinating area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). This area is hooked into several systems involving your emotions, your values, and processing sensory data. When we say that highly sensitive people "process things more deeply than others," there's a good chance it happens right here.
While not all of the jobs the vmPFC does are well understood, it's definitely associated with emotional regulation—and it enhances the things we experience with a certain emotional "vividness." Everyone experiences life more vividly during emotional moments, not just HSPs. But high sensitivity is linked to a gene that increases this vividness, essentially "turning up the dial." That gene allows emotional enhancement to have a much greater effect on the vmPFC as it processes experiences.
What does this mean for HSPs? Unlike mirror neurons, this emotional vividness isn't necessarily social in nature. It's all about how vividly you feel emotions inside yourself in response to what's happening around you. So, if you seem to feel things more strongly than other people do, it's probably not just in your head. HSPs are finely tuned to pick up even subtle emotional cues and react to them.
4. Other people are the brightest thing on your radar.
For some less sensitive people, it's easy to tune out other people. But for an HSP, almost everything about the brain is wired around noticing and interpreting others.
This is clear from the many, many other parts of the brain that get extra-active for HSPs in a social context. For example, the brain imaging study mentioned above didn't just show greater activity in areas associated with empathy. It also showed increased activity in the cingulate area and the insula—two areas that, together, form the "seat of consciousness" and moment-to-moment awareness. For HSPs, these areas become far more active in response to images of other people, especially those exhibiting a relevant social or emotional cue.
In other words, highly sensitive people actually become more alert, almost "more conscious," in a social context. If you're an HSP, other people are the brightest thing on your radar.
The Gift of the Highly Sensitive Brain
There's a lot that can be said about the gifts of the highly sensitive brain. It processes information on a deeper level, sees more connections, and cares and relates to others in a profound way. If you're a highly sensitive person, it's not an exaggeration to say that your brain is among the most powerful social machines in the known universe.
But perhaps your most important gift as an HSP is the one designed to protect you: Your brain is fine-tuned to notice and interpret the behavior of everyone around you. If someone is bad news, you know it. If someone is not going to treat you right, you see it coming. And if a situation isn't right for you, you know that, too.
That's vital, because a highly sensitive person needs a healthy environment and supportive loved ones in order to thrive—perhaps even more so than others.
If you're a highly sensitive person, trust your intuition about people. Your brain is on your side, and it's rooting for you.
LinkedIn Image Credit: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock