Dr. Elayne Daniels

They’re enigmas to most of the world. They “over-think,” “over-feel,” and have an almost eerie ability to read a roomful of strangers at a heart-level. They can go from “life of the party” to needing a three-day nap with no social interaction. And, when they come out of hiding, they go about saving the world with their empathetic do-gooding and creativity. Who are these alien earthlings? And what are the ways a Highly Sensitive Person’s brain is different from the brains of…well…the not-so-sensitive?

Put another way, why is an HSP’s brain considered the “most powerful social machine in the known universe”?

(If you aren’t sure if you are an HSP, take this quiz to find out.)

What is High Sensitivity?

High Sensitivity (HS) is a trait, present at birth, in about 15-20% of the population. It has no gender-bias, and it’s not a disorder or diagnosis.

People with the HS trait are ultra-responsive to what’s going on in their environment. Highly Sensitive People (HSPs)  notice darn near everything, and they process it all deeply. They’re extremely perceptive.

In general, American culture views sensitivity as a weakness. HSPs are used to hearing, “You’re too sensitive” and “You need to lighten up.” In other cultures (e.g. Japan), however, sensitivity is considered a strength.

The scientific name for High Sensitivity is Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).

Scientists have discovered SPS in over 100 species, including fish, birds, dogs, monkeys, and horses.

The fact that the trait exists in so many species suggests it has some kind of evolutionary advantage as a survival strategy.

Why else would 10-15% of dachshunds or guppies be Highly Sensitive?

Because they’re more responsive to their environment, animals (and people) with SPS are more aware of opportunities, such as food and mating options. 

They’re also more aware of threats, such as predators, and are more prepared to respond.

In other words, HS provides a survival strategy of being observant before acting. The wait-before-acting approach guarantees that a species continues to evolve. (This sensitive survival strategy is only beneficial if found in a minority.)

Let’s briefly review what a Highly Sensitive Person is before discussing the Highly Sensitive Person’s brain.

“DOES” is a helpful way to remember the 4 pillars of High Sensitivity.

  1. Depth of processing: HSPs are deep thinkers.
  2. Over-arousal : HSPs are prone to anxiety and overwhelm due to deep processing.
  3. Empathy: HSPs have a huge capacity for empathy; they feel emotion deeply.
  4. Sensory specific sensitivity: HSPs tend to be sensitive to smells, bright lights, loud sounds, tastes, and tactility.

All features in the “DOES” framework are due to differences in the Highly Sensitive Person’s brain.

How does the Highly Sensitive Person’s brain work differently than the brain of someone who is not HS?

Understanding a Highly Sensitive Person’s brain brings clarity to the why and how of an HSP’s experience.

1. While at rest, a Highly Sensitive Person’s brain works harder than the brain of someone who is not an HSP.

Why? Because of stronger activation in parts of the brain (the cingulate and premotor area/PMA) responsible for visual and attention processing.

HSPs process everything deeply, even when not reacting to something specific in the here-and-now. An HSP could be processing something from three hours ago or something  suddenly remembered from last month.

So, in plain terms, the brain of a Highly Sensitive Person never really shuts off – even at rest.

 2. At least three sets of genes and their variants distinguish a Highly Sensitive Person’s brain from the brain of a non-HSP.

The three genes are responsible for serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

  • Serotonin Transporter:

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and hormone that helps neurons communicate with one another. It’s central to mood and emotion because it’s primary function is to stabilize mood.

Serotonin transporter is a chemical that transports serotonin out of the brain.

HSPs have a variant of the serotonin transporter encoding gene, known as 5-HTTLPR. The 5-HTTLPR gene variant decreases serotonin in the brain and increases sensitivity to surroundings.

The HS brain may have less mood-stabilizing serotonin than the non-HS brain, but it has an enhanced ability to learn from experience.

The presence of this gene variant enhances the effects of both good and adverse childhood experiences.

This may explain why childhood experiences – both positive and adverse – so dramatically impact wellbeing for  HSPs.

For better or worse, HSPs’ childhood experiences affect them more than do the childhood experiences of non-HSP.


This neurotransmitter is known as the reward chemical.

If you have a sensitive nervous system, you don’t need much to feel “rewarded” by external stimuli. Chaotic, noisy, loud environments exhaust rather than excite you.

Carry that reality over to an environment like a loud football stadium, and you and your non-HS friends are likely to have very different experiences. Their “dopamine hit” will probably register as unsettling for you.

The explanation for this difference lies in the fact that the relevant dopamine gene variants all have to do with dopamine receptors. As an HSP, you simply don’t need the same amount of “reward” from external stimuli.

The same dopamine variant also explains why HSPs feel more rewarded by positive social or emotional cues.


Norepinephrine helps the body with the stress response. It’s also central to “emotional vividness,” or a person’s perception of emotional aspects in the world.

A variant of the norepinephrine gene, common in HSPs, boosts emotional vividness. If you have it, you experience emotional aspects of the world intensely.

You may also have more going on in parts of the brain that create internal emotional responses to experiences.

HSPs naturally respond more strongly to emotions than do non-HSPs. In addition, they notice emotional nuances when others don’t necessarily pick up on anything.

This ability to perceive emotional nuances – to “feeel” what others are feeling but not necessarily overtly expressing – is the foundation of empathy.

If you’re Highly Sensitive, this norepinephrine gene variant may be at least partly responsible.

3. HSPs have more active mirror neurons, which explains their gigantic capacity for empathy.

Mirror neurons are brain cells that help us understand what someone else is feeling. They’re involved in recognizing sadness and relating to it.

Because of such active mirror neurons, HSPs absorb emotions from people around them. Often they’re not even aware they’re doing so.

4. HSPs’ emotions are extra vivid due to a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).

The vmPFC is involved in emotion regulation, especially the vividness of emotions.

The emotional vividness is not of a social nature (unlike mirror neurons). The vmPFC is more about how vividly HSPs feel emotions inside in response to what’s happening outside, in the environment. 

So HSPs often do have stronger feelings than other people because of the workings of their vmPFC. HSPs’ brains are so finely tuned that they can pick up on subtle emotional cues and react to them.

5. fMRI studies of the brain suggest the cortex and insula are more strongly activated among HSPs than non HSPs.

The insula is located deep in the brain. It has a lot of jobs, including interoceptive awareness.

Interoceptive awareness is about knowing what’s happening in your own body, such as hunger, thirst, and needing to pee. Emotions and moment-to-moment awareness are also part of the insula’s job.

By combining the most nuanced internal awareness with emotional context, the insula gives emotional meaning (e.g. pain, pleasure) to physiological states.

6. Another area of greater activation for HSPs is in the middle temporal gyrus (MTG).

This part of the brain has to do with emotional meaning-making. It’s involved in awareness of and response to stimuli. Examples of stimuli include things like loud sounds, strong smells, bright lights, and other people’s moods.

The Highly Sensitive Person’s brain is a gift.

It deeply processes information, makes interesting connections, and cares about people.

Science shows us that HS is associated with certain genes and patterns of brain activation. It’s not just hypothetical or theoretical.

The High Sensitivity trait is real.

An extra-special HSP gift is the one your brain gives to YOU. It is the gift of protection.

Your brain is able to recognize and understand what is going on around you. You see things coming before they happen.

So, the next time someone comments on your sensitivity, let the smile of knowing (and gratitude) spread across your face.

Offer to go into detail about the science and inborn nature of High Sensitivity. You know, the cingulate, premotor area, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, mirror neurons, ventromedial PFC, insula.

The superpower stuff you came into the world with.

See how your critic processes that!

Dr Elayne Daniels is a psychologist, international coach, and consultant in MA whose absolute passion is helping other Highly Sensitive People thrive. Contact her here.

25 Responses

  1. I loved reading this. You put into words the way I’ve been living since I was a young child. Thank you.

  2. Finally at 43yrs old I feel validated. People don’t understand that I did not choose to be this way, I can’t just stop being this way, and there’s nothing “wrong” with me because I’m this way. My whole life I thought that I was lacking something because I could not “control” how sensitive I was. I was so envious of everyone else who could go through life not caring so deeply about everything.

    1. Dear Vanessa,

      Validation feels soooo good! Especially when it is long overdue. Indeed there is nothing wrong with you, regardless of others’ reactions to your sensitivity.
      Thank you for your comment. Your voice speaks for so many of us!

    2. I so agree, Vanessa! I feel the same. It made such a difference to my life when find out I was an HSP – I felt so validated, and I realized I had a low sense of worth growing up thinking something was wrong with me by not fitting into the box.

  3. Oh my. This is me for 71 years. I finally feel real Thank you. I will try to read all I can find on this subject. I have struggled all my life with why people don’t pick up/perceive things that I see so straightforward Thank you

    1. Dear Sarita,

      Your description of what it’s like to have high sensitivity is spot on!
      Your brain has finely tuned features.
      There is nothing wrong with you. You are exquisite, just the way you are.
      Starting now, live each day “feel(ing) real”.
      Carpe diem!

  4. Dear Elayne,

    I just Googled shy sensitive person and came to this article, and it now many things in my life make sense. I was teased throughout school by other kids saying I’m too sensitive.. I reasoned that it was because I have the ability to quickly understand content and remember, so I was an A student and academically excelled. However, I fit awkward, never fit in with any group. I couldn’t relate to their interests and conversation. I was shy nd introverted, but during university, I came out of my shell and can speak confidently engage. I’ve always been a friendly person. But now, I just don’t get the social media buzz. I actually dont want to be on it at all. It’s info overload, overstimulating and I feel like the less friends and followers I have, the better for myself. I’m not driven by how many likes and followers I acquire. I’ve just been wondering why I feel so strongly to shy away from social media. On the other hand, my husband and kids watch tv for hours, is on social media on his phone. I prefer to read where I can focus my mind, and the less friends I have the better it has been for me, since I realised there aren’t many like me. And, yes, HSP is a superpower. I’m really good at interviews! PS I am on social media, but prefer small group or one-on-one interactions.

  5. Thanks for the great relief I experienced on reading about what I can easily call is my real self reflecting through each word of your precious article. Being in minority (15 to 20 percent of the population is HSP it’s said), we HSPs have always an intangible, self-imposed pressure to feel and act in line with mainstream, majority population. But your words gave a respite from that intangible pressure. Thanks again

  6. As an HSP, I strongly feel thst as a way to cope up with overwhelm, I should pursue a hobby and part-time work which matches my HSP traits. Could you please indicate which kind of jobs are best suited for HSPs? Thanks and regards

  7. Thank you for giving me more clarity! Interesting to find out more about the brain. I am a high school teacher and are often exhausted which makes me consider my career choice sometimes. On the other hand…I am good with people, a strenght and a hsp-treat, which is a very good thing in my job.
    Thank you again!

    1. Dear Charlotta,

      Woo hoo! How great that you have more clarity! Awesome!

      I work with many men and women who are school teachers, and they report a similar benefit and challenge with their profession and high sensitivity.

      Thank you for letting me know you enjoyed the article!

      Take care.

  8. I’ve struggled with this for 53 years now. I didn’t ask to be the sensitive one who gets overstimulated by other peolpes emotions or chaos, my definition of chaos is nowhere near most people’s. My sister’s messy half of our childhood bedroom is my earliest memory that made me feel uneasy. I didn’t understand why I felt overwhelmed by it, my “OCD” as they called it was and still is a funny childhood story(for them). I’ve been called a control freak or a crazy women who just needs to chill out. Finding the right people to be around is difficult, even when they say they understand, they eventually get tired of trying to understand how I could get overwhelmed by smells, sounds, lights, noises, and mess!
    Overstimulation affects my sleep and I’m tired of being tired…that pretty much sums up the negative aspect of it but there is some good in this over sensitive body and brain.
    I’m a thinker, I think way outside the box, I’m vibrant, creative, funny, optimistic and empathic. People are drawn to me like a magnet, they see I’m an open book, honest and trustworthy.
    That is the magic, spread a little of that magic and it far outweighs the heaviness of this gift ♥️

  9. I have struggled with being a HSP my whole life. I see it in my siblings on my dad’s side and with my own children. I have one sibling that is special needs. I actually relate more to autistic kids even though their responses can scare me. When I ask an autistic child to explain why they are so upset I always agree completely to how they feel. This is so fascinating and I want to know more! In hopes of helping myself and others navigate through a world that is so magical and alarming at the same time.

  10. I cannot stop laughing… Finally, at age 60 I’ve got a diagnosis for much of how I live, and experience events and people in my life. “You’re too sensitive, why do you take things so personally? You’re being ridiculous,” and my favourite, “get a grip,’ I now get it and do not sweat it so much. They might as well tell me to change your eye colour. What’s even more funny is when I tell people that I am an HSP and explain what that entails, they smile smugly and respond classically; “I told you so”—God luv em!’ In a very short time, in the past year since uncovering the amazingness of being an HSP, I have come to acknowledge what I am and work on some of the things that may hinder me from time to time (journaling, reading the ancient stoics etc) but more importantly, I now can accept how wonderful it is to feel so many things with such meaning. My empathy has always been through the roof and what a gift to the world that is—if only everyone had more of it. It now explains why I can sit on a cliff in Newfoundland and watch the waves and feel the wind for hours with nary a book or a beverage… I really want to thank you for putting what I always thought was intangible into the scientifically tangible. I love that what we experience isn’t just some oddity of personality but is truly rooted in science. Please keep up the amazing work. You do not know how much your writing has helped me process being a Highly Sensitive Person.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I love your note!
      There is no diagnosis though; nothing is wrong with you! Your reference to the ‘amazingness’ of the HS trait is exactly what I mean.
      You have a special place in the world, and the Newfoundland cliff is lucky to spend time with you
      Take good care.
      Dr Daniels

  11. Thank you for the time you’ve put into explaining to us how we’re wired differently. It certainly helps. At the same time, this “gift” is too often a curse I wish I could just turn off. I don’t want to feel, perceive and notice the thousand little things around me all the time with the intensity I do. Although I seem to connect extraordinarily well with the students I teach, it just exhausts and depletes me — my brain machine keeps on running with or without the energy it needs. In addition, I feel like an island. Sometimes it took years for my impressions to be confirmed by others, my family members don’t seem to get it fully either. Yes, it is a booster to my creativity and emotional insight to the people around me… yet for a while now Ive been finding this gift burdensome and lonesome. In order to recharge, I isolate myself without any contact to other people. I came to this website today just to assure myself that I’m not going nuts. After reading your article, I feel somewhat relieved. I will be coming back to this website and hopefully learn to better with this gift/curse. Thank you for your work.

    1. Dear Martina,

      The HS trait can indeed be both a burden and a blessing. The “Five to Thrive” ideas of Elaine Aron can be helpful to keep in mind.
      They include:

      1 Believe the trait is real. It is innate. The research is there.
      2 Design a life compatible with having the trait. (Self care!)
      3 Reframe the past in light of it
      4 Heal from past trauma (with a skilled therapist, ideally)
      5 Find and hang with other HSPs. This helps with resilience. There are other people like us!

  12. All my life I’ve been “too sensitive” and get crazy hurt by real or perceived criticism. Try as I might I cannot help how sensitive I am. Time alone helps refresh me. After a day of too many people I go home, hide in my room and decompress for a day or two. Peopling wears me out. Yet they fascinate me. Trying to figure out what makes them tick and the vast majority of time, I’m right. I’ve told people things about them that blew their mind. Someone can walk in a room and I know they’re a bad person. Nothing to base it on but a feeling I don’t like them. Years ago I babysat for a girl whose husband I didn’t like or know and a couple months later, he threw her around.

    1. Hi Mimi,

      You sure do sound like someone who has High Sensitivity! Using it to stay safe (like with the husband you mentioned) is important. All HSPs I know, myself included, need downtime to decompress. Sometimes even in advance so that there is ‘extra’ when peopling!

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