What is HSP (Highly Sensitive Person)?


A highly sensitive person has a character trait known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). This quality makes a person more sensitive and responsive to their environment and social stimuli. This characteristic was identified in the 90s by psychologist couple Elaine Aron and Arthur Aron, who designed a questionnaire to measure the level of SPS in humans. A person with a high level of SPS is described as a highly sensitive person (HSP).

According to various studies, the SPS trait is found in over 100 other non-human species ranging from goats to fish and is found in about 20% of the human population. According to Elaine N. Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You, the highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.” 

Depending on the culture a highly sensitive person is brought up in, this trait can be a curse or a blessing. In countries like Thailand or India, this high sensitivity is often viewed as an asset. In China being a ‘sensitive’ or ‘quiet’ child corresponds to peer popularity, with such children viewed by their society as ‘guai,’ meaning well behaved. They are further praised for having ‘dong shi’ or understanding, which is high praise for kids.

Younger nations constituted of recent immigrants, for example, Australia, Canada or the U.S have less leg room for highly sensitive people. Highly sensitive children are wildly unpopular amongst their peers, and as they grow up, they are perceived as persons needing a cure for a personality disorder. They are often viewed as fragile, overly fussy, shy, and while HSP can cause this kind of emotional sensitivity, it does not define the trait itself.

It’s important to note that a highly sensitive person is not;

  • An introvert: a massive 30% of highly sensitive persons are extroverts.
  • A shy person: research shows that there is no sense of self before ages 12-18 months, and because shyness is focused on self-perception, this implies that no baby is born shy. Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), is a neutral trait that has evolved with animals because it has a survival advantage in some situations.
  • Socially anxious: Social anxiety disorder (SAD) involves trauma and revolves around a person’s fears, while a Highly Sensitive Person is at the mercy of his or her nervous system.
  • Neurotic: A neurosis is distress and anxiety at varied levels triggered by non-psychotic mental illness. Its responses are pathological while high sensitivity has maybe extreme but healthy responses.
  • Asperger’s Disorder: High sensitivity is not mentioned in the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Furthermore, Dr. Aron states that even people with some mild form of Asperger’s have at their core some form of pervasive developmental disorder, which isn’t the case with high sensitivity in humans.

To better understand what HSP is about, Dr. Aron has coined the acronym DOES, to describe its qualities.

  • D: depth of processing
    According to neuroimaging studies, HSPs uses the parts of the brain associated with the deep processing of information more than their counterparts. High sensitivity in people is linked to a tendency to process information in a more profound, more detailed way. This causes most HSP to be slower in making decisions because they rethink all options in minute detail. This depth of detail causes HSP to reflect first before acting.
  • O: Overstimulation
    This is often caused by the depth of processing HSPs go through in their daily activities. The eventual result is stress brought on by social or environmental overstimulation and a resulting avoidance for HSP to place themselves in these situations.
  • E: Emotion reactivity
    HSPs do react more to both negative and positive experiences than their counterparts. A series of studies prove that HSPs respond to images with a “positive valence” more, especially if they had a favorable upbringing. This, in essence, means that HSPs feel emotions in a more profound way than usual.
  • E: Empathy
    Studies done on HSP show that when exposed to photos that show emotion, there was more activity in the insula and the neuron system in their brain. This event helps HSPs cue in on the intentions and feelings of others, which implies that they have a more significant capacity for empathy.
  • S: sensing the subtle
    As shown by many studies, HSPs are more detail oriented. They process what sensory information they receive more carefully than their counterparts. This helps them notice what many may miss.

So there, HSPs do not need to “stop being so sensitive” or “grow a pair”, that’s how they come into this world. If well understood, this trait can be harnessed to enhance the cause of humanity further.


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