The Art of Being Too Sensitive
How attention to little things helps the introverted artist
Posted May 17, 2017
Like many introverts, my mind is constantly alerted to "soft stimuli"—the typo in a manuscript, the puzzled look on a student's face in the back row, the color palette of a scene in a movie. There's a downside to this. It's hard for me to enjoy the content of a manuscript without correcting errors. I can over-interpret a subtle look on someone's face. And sometimes it's just a matter of quantity—too much information, too little time. Put me in a shop full of beautiful trinkets and I'm both delighted and stressed.
A recent study shows that introverts tend to be grammar police because they so easily tune in to typos and errors in written manuscripts. The explanation for this attention to little things goes back to 1967, when psychologist Hans Eysenck presented his "arousal theory" of introversion and extraversion—a model that continues to find support in contemporary research. Simply put, he demonstrated that the brain's wake-up switch (the reticular activating system, to be specific) is more easily triggered in introverts than in extraverts. Introverts are more mentally sensitive. And introverts are more attuned to subtle stimuli—the details in the background—while extraverts are more responsive to obvious stimuli. His research was far-reaching and consistent. He even looked into artistic preferences and found "a marked tendency for the extravert to prefer the simple, vivid, strong type of art, while the introvert prefers rather the complex, refined, subtle type of art" (Eysenck, 1998).
This all may help explain how, three years ago, I saw myself doing something I had only dreamed of doing. I picked up a paintbrush and a palette with mounds of oil paint, and with a little instruction, I began. I soon tapped into something instinctual, like a memory.
I already knew how to paint.
I come from a family of painters, but had shied away from the practice. I pursued academics, channeled my creativity into writing, while secretly envying those who had the talent to paint. What surprised me most was the discovery that the sometimes burdensome quality of being "too sensitive" was precisely what I needed to transfer life images onto canvas. All that non-obvious stimuli that introverts tune into helped me now: shadow here, glint of white there—I recognized that faces are not just peach, but also purple and grey and pink and yellow. I was loosed from mental projections and allowed to simply see what was there. And I could indulge all those details I had been filtering out in order to avoid overload.
I was particularly delighted to discover my love of portraiture. Two years after I picked up that first paintbrush, I delivered to my brother, retired Major General Anders Aadland, a portrait I had painted of him. This was a risky venture, as my brother was a painter also, with a fine arts degree, and a perfectionist. But I trusted my eye, an eye that had gazed at the faces of psychotherapy clients for years. My brother was floored, but no more than I was. Had I not followed a whim to attend a painting class, I would never have known what my sensitivity could produce. To get a peek, please visit my gallery.
While artistic ability is not confined to a specific personality type, I have realized that introvert sensitivity is a window to a world more intricate and nuanced than the one we brush by in our busy day. What we see through that window can be a burden, but translated into art, it's a superpower.
Boland J.E., & Queen R. (2016). If you’re house is still available, send me an email: Personality influences reactions to written errors in email messages. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0149885. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0149885
Eysenck, H. J. (1967). The biological basis of personality. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Eysenck, H. J. (1998). Dimensions of Personality. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.