Catfish, platypus, elephant, Planet of the Apes. Oh, and Homo sapiens. No, this isn’t Final Jeopardy. The question regards high sensitivity. If humans can be highly sensitive, can animals be highly sensitive, too?
Since the mid-1990’s, high sensitivity in humans has been widely researched (thank you, Dr. Elaine Aron) and brought to the forefront of our curious consciousness.
But what about that platypus? And bees? And the jewel beetle? Is high sensitivity strictly a “people thing,” or can other species get in on the vibe, too?
If you’re not a devotee of high sensitivity, let alone a self-professed Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), you may be scratching your head and wondering…
What exactly is high sensitivity?
High sensitivity, scientifically known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), is a temperamental/personality trait, found in 15- 20% of the human population and over 100 other species.
As the name implies, organisms with SPS have lower thresholds of sensitivity to and deeper processing of physical, environmental, and emotional stimuli.
The trait is pre-wired into the central nervous system of the highly sensitive being. Think of it as a package deal, not arbitrarily chosen.
Although high sensitivity doesn’t have a definitive diagnostic tool (yet), it does have predictable attributes. And, in clinical studies, fMRI results show specific brain markers for SPS.
(Not sure if you are an HSP? Take this empirically-derived quiz to find out and to learn more about this fascinating trait.)
The highly sensitive think more deeply, feel more deeply, sense stimuli more quickly and strongly, and are prone to overstimulation and overwhelm.
On the surface, not something you’d probably pay a Taylor Swift ticket price for.
But once you understand the trait – and possibly better understand yourself – you’ll see that it is actually teeming with benefits.
Are there highly sensitive animals, too?
We know that a select percentage of the human population comes into this world with this pre-wired neurological trait. So doesn’t it stand to reason that other species might, as well?
The answer to that rhetorical question is, of course, yes.
But what’s important is that the SPS trait has been scientifically discovered and researched in over 100 species.
And, as the scientific world delves further into its exploration of high sensitivity, humans will undoubtedly learn more about themselves. Past, present, future.
Topics like evolution, natural selection, survival of the fittest, and genetic mutation will become even more relevant than they already are.
By understanding high sensitivity in animals (and plants?), “Save the Planet” may take on new meaning…and potential.
It’s no surprise that we Homo sapientes, despite our self-proclaimed superiority in the animal kingdom, don’t take the trophy on any of the senses. (We may not even take the trophy on reasoning, creativity, or emotional intelligence.)
There are species that can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel things we don’t even know exist. (For the top 5, read here.)
How can we help but marvel at the perfect adaptation of life forms to their environments?
(Marveling…a frequent state for the HSP…
…but I digress…)
Can animals be highly sensitive within their own species?
It’s a distinction worth making, especially as we talk about the likes of ultrasound hearing (greater wax moth) and stereo-olfaction (moles).
Different species have their own sensitivity accolades: an eagle’s eyes, an elephant’s nose, a dolphin’s echolocation. The functional morphology is nothing short of perfection in terms of survival.
But what about the attributes of SPS above and beyond the sensitivities innate to a given species?
Can a mama lioness be more sensitive than the mama from the den next door?
Is it possible that she can sense dinner a minute earlier and a mile further away than her competition? Or that she flat-out needs a babysitter and a Serengheti nap when her cubs push her to her homeschooling limits?
Perhaps a question for a roundtable discussion with Marlin Perkins, Jim Fowler, and Dr. Aron….
Highly sensitive animals at home.
Perhaps you have a pet that just doesn’t fit the mold of “normalcy” for its species. It reacts to every micro-sound, mysteriously retreats for time alone, and can’t stand it when you leave.
Its feelings get hurt if you raise your voice or look at it the “wrong” way.
Perhaps your dog can sense a thunderstorm from a day and an ocean away. And, while you know animals have a sixth sense about weather, your pup goes into meltdowns of uncontrollable anxiety.
You may even swear that your pet — whatever it is — can read your mind, your emotions, and your health status.
And you wouldn’t be the first person to entrust your romantic relationship decisions to the innate wisdom and personal preferences of your pet.
Our long-domesticated companionship with canines in particular makes them perfect subjects for understanding high sensitivity in animals.
A trait similar to SPS found in humans has recently been discovered in dogs. (Conveniently called canine sensory processing sensitivity, or cSPS.)
Higher sensitivity in dogs is associated with higher incidence of behavioral problems. Another revelation was the significant relationship between the personality/sensitivity of the dog and that of the human owner.
It parallels the relationship between a child’s personality/sensitivity and the parenting practices of the adult in predicting behavioral problems.
Interestingly, there were fewer problems when the dog and owner were more similarly matched in terms of sensitivity. The highly sensitive just somehow “get” each other.
Communication and punishment styles also had significant effects on the predictability of behavioral problems.
(Curious if your pet may be highly sensitive? Here’s a quiz written with your favorite animal in mind.)
A whale of a topic.
One of the most fascinating areas of study regarding animal nervous systems, intelligence, and sensitivity is with cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises).
Because of their enormous cerebral cortexes, they’re capable of powerful cognition that enables both decision-making and emotional responses like empathy.
They form complex friendships, have unique languages, and even experience deep grief.
Humpback whales have been the special fascination of marine biologists wanting to understand the whales’ practice of saving other animals – even of other species.
One purely scientific hypothesis is based on the predatory habits of orca whales and the humpback’s protective instincts of its own kind.
However, as you read this fascinating article about humpbacks saving other animals, you’ll come to the topic of the humpback’s highly evolved and complex brain. And within that discussion is the contemplation of what may be rephrased as, Can animals be highly sensitive?
One scientist who would answer with a resounding YES! is whale researcher Nan Hauser, who was saved from a giant tiger shark by a humpback whale. A persistent, wouldn’t-take-no-for-an-answer…humpback whale.
And that same whale showed up a year later. He came to the boat, looked Nan in the eyes (to the exclusion of everyone else), and floated with her in the water.
Each knew that the other knew…And Nan tells her story with an emphasis on the “altruism” of these creatures.
So, in the world of humpbacks, who form protective coalitions against killer whales and even save other species, was this whale highly sensitive?
Would this savior-whale fall into a minority pod of already intelligent, altruistic cetaceans as a “highly sensitive humpback”? Or was he just doing what any cetacean would do in the same circumstance?
Perhaps we’ll never know. At least not yet.
Maybe the portal to discovering at least the more complete answer lies in how the scientific world phrases its questions.
Are we really just dealing with evolution and species-specific traits? Or is there something else at play here?
Maybe there is something powerful, extraordinary, purposeful in ways never before studied or understood (at least by us potentially inferior humans)?
After all, high sensitivity – in animals as in humans – isn’t a “majority rules” trait.
It’s reserved for the relatively few, who may actually be responsible for the preservation and evolution of our planet and all who dwell here.
Dr. Elayne Daniels is an international coach and private-practice psychologist located in Boston. Areas of specialization include eating disorder recovery, body image, and helping Highly Sensitive People thrive.
To read more about High Sensitivity, check out some blogs here.