A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
For the next eight to ten weeks, I am going to be providing excerpts from my upcoming book, Confessions of a Sensitive Man, An Unconditional Defense of Sensitive Men. I am anticipating a release date on Amazon, et.al., sometime in late September. Please enjoy this free preview of the book.
From Chapter 5 – What is Sensory Processing Sensitivity?
The trait that defines the Highly Sensitive Person personality is called Sensory Processing Sensitivity—SPS. This trait, part of a larger category of traits and theories about environmental sensitivity, pertains to how organisms, in this case, human organisms, adapt to the environment by way of sensory inputs and adaptations to move toward or away from change or stimuli in order to survive.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity involves increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and deeper cognitive processing of emotional, physical, and social stimuli.[i] It is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the human population has this characteristic and supports the idea of its evolutionary value because in order for the characteristic to retain value it must be utilized by a small portion of the population. Its utility diminishes the larger the numbers of individuals within a population have this trait. This is known as negative dependency frequency.[ii]
First popularized in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aron was instrumental in classifying this characteristic as a trait and not a disorder, and that this trait can be positive and evolutionarily significant. She and her husband developed a standardized measurement scale, known as the Highly Sensitive Person Scale, and for children, the Highly Sensitive Child Scale, which has become the benchmark for measuring an individual’s tendencies toward high sensitivity. In addition, this trait has been observed in over one hundred non-human species of animals.[iii]
The work has been built on earlier work by Eysenck and his views on introversion, Pavlov’s work on overstimulation, Gray’s work on Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory, and Jung’s work on Introversion and Extroversion.[iv] All of these personality antecedents relate in some way to how the individual reacts to stimuli in the environment.
Early studies looked at this sensitivity, which focused on childhood temperaments, Thomas and Chess (1977) and Mehrabian developed a self-reporting tool that measured something akin to sensitivity.
Aron believes that the innate characteristic within SPS is the reaction to environmental cues and a pause-and-check processing, especially in novel situations.[v] This has important implications for the survival skills of the species where certain individuals are more cautious and contemplative when presented with new environmental cues. This is a hallmark for the cautious nature of HSPs.
Introversion studies led to the Sensory Processing Sensitivity theory, where the marker for sensory stimuli was seen to be lower in introverts than extroverts. This, coupled with the addition of a depth of processing component and the importance of emotional reactivity in learning, and the tendency toward overstimulation rounded out the parameters of the SPS theory. The emphasis here is on learning and adaptability.
A real issue comes down to accurate decision-making. The emotional reactivity component of SPS that aids in evaluating a situation correctly, without the need for conscious thought, turns out to be the quickest and most efficient form of decision-making, according to Aron.[vi] The ability to analyze and decide based on emotional reactivity, memory, and unconscious learned processes appears to make the SPS individual ideally suited for analyzing a situation and making an efficient decision, which plays against type.
Increasingly, the Sensory Processing Sensitivity theory is gaining traction as part of a collection of adaptive personality models that focus on individual abilities to process environmental stimuli within the Environmental Sensitivity model. As its credibility rises, it is taking a larger portion of that model and may be the central theme within how individuals react in the world.
There is now some conjecture that SPS is part of a continuum that includes all members of the population, allowing it to be more broadly defined in personality theory. The idea is that there are essentially three groups of SPS types within the larger community. Those who have low SPS (also known as Daisies), comprise 20 to 25 percent of the population, those in the mid-range 45 to 50 percent of the population (the Tulips) and those most associated with this trait, the high-end SPS individuals (known as Orchids) at approximately 20 to 25 percent. The flower metaphor illustrates the environmental requirements of each of the flower species, Daisies being most environmentally adaptable with the least amount of effort/nurturing and the Orchids being the most demanding of the environment with higher requirements. This illustrates the necessity of a positive development environment on high SPS individuals, where the correlation between thriving, positive, supportive, and nurturing environments is extremely high.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity Traits
People with SPS are considered highly sensitive individuals. A myriad of traits are associated with this personality, many of which have to do with a rich and complex internal life. SPS individuals are generally very conscientious and diligent, tend to be more spiritual, and are moved more easily by the arts and being in nature. HSPs display more empathy and sympathy to those less fortunate or to helpless animals or creatures in need of aid. Sensitive individuals show more creativity and can be quite innovative thinkers, if not under pressure or are being watched.
Studies show that HSPs have increased activation in the reward centers of the brain, flourishing in positive environments, where there is support, nurturing, and ample time to perform expected tasks. They often experience feelings of awe and satisfaction because of increased deep thinking functioning and sensory awareness. In addition, a study has shown that SPS individuals are more likely to report mystical phenomena in sensory deprivation tanks than the general population.[vii]
The downside of SPS borders on neuroticism. Feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress, internalizing problems too much, lower levels of happiness in life, poor stress management strategies—and in the wrong environments, lower work satisfaction. The environment is everything to an SPS individual. Since HSPs are more sensitive to the environment, picking up subtle and not so subtle cues can create situations of overwhelm and stress. If consistent and persistent these moments can lead to self-devaluation and depression. There will be more focus on this later in the book, but suffice it to say that a bad environment for sensitives is chaotic, unpredictable, with ambiguous expectations, lack of support and empathy, loud, with high-pressure demands, and inability to process and think.
Bill Allen currently lives in Lutz, Florida. He previously lived in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.