Empathetic. Deep thinking. Emotional. Perceptive. These are traits that can make a person more creative — as well as traits of the highly sensitive person (HSP). So does this mean HSPs are natural born creatives? Yes… and no. Let me explain.
The Sensitive Artist
Artists have had a reputation for being sensitive and emotional since at least as far back as the Renaissance. Take Vincent van Gogh who, aside from his strong emotional reactions, was also sensitive to stimuli — a key HSP trait. In fact, his 1890 return to Paris, which he had been looking forward to for months, ended after just a few days; the noise and activity level of the city was simply too much for him.
Likewise, Bruce Springsteen says his gentle, sensitive nature was enough to make his father hate him as a boy, but it was also a big part of what made him into an accomplished musician. It’s not hard to find echoes of a similar temperament in creatives as wide-ranging as Yeats, Dickinson, Poe, Kahlo, Dali, or Alanis Morissette, who is openly and proudly an HSP.
But there’s much more to it than just a handful of isolated examples. Researcher Jennifer Grimes went backstage at a major music festival to study the personalities of 21 rock musicians. The festival was Ozzfest, which celebrates rock and metal — the last place you’d ever expect to find sensitive people. Surrounded by crowds of thousands upon thousands of people, these musicians were all comfortable going on stage with booming amps, screaming fans, and blinding lights.
Nonetheless, Grimes described them as being almost universally sensitive. They reported being overthinkers, careful planners, averse to crowds (other than events with fans), and hypercritical of themselves. Tellingly, “a lot of the musicians reported a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings and their experience of sound, lighting, scents, etc. Some… even reported finding the scent of food ‘disturbing’ when they weren’t hungry.”
That is almost exactly the definition of a highly sensitive person.
Besides famous examples, I’d also say that anyone who spends time among working artists or musicians will see firsthand how sensitive they are. (I live in an artist loft community, and I can vouch.) Artists are exceedingly unique individuals, but many of them share an awareness of nuance, a lean toward strong emotions, and a tendency to get overwhelmed and then withdraw to recuperate. For many of them — just as Grimes reported with the rock musicians — solitude is a way to avoid overstimulation and feeling like the world is “too much.”
Can We Know for Sure?
Does Grimes’ research prove that HSPs are natural born creatives? No, not on its own. Dr. Elaine Aron, the psychologist who pioneered the study of high sensitivity, explains that creativity is not easy to define or measure. And researchers have no definitive way of testing whether some types of people are “more” creative or have an easier time being creative than others. The tests that have been devised often reflect only a specific type of creativity or, as Aron says, they “have little relation to ‘real life creativity.'”
Ultimately, she concludes, “Certainly it makes sense that [HSPs] would be more creative, given their depth of processing, but we simply do not know.”
In other words, it’s likely there’s a link between high sensitivity and creativity, but it’s impossible to say for sure.
Nevertheless, if you look at the personalities of HSPs, you can see why they’d be primed to excel as creatives.
3 HSP Traits That Predict Creativity
1. Noticing subtle differences
Almost no trait is more iconic of highly sensitive people than their ability to notice the smallest sensations of color, texture, brightness, fragrance, warmth, cold, etc. This ability is unconscious — and if you’re an HSP yourself, you know that it sometimes becomes a burden. But in creative work, it’s also an advantage.
Aron herself gives an example why. She describes a failed experiment that attempted to measure creativity by grading participants on the number of colors they used to make a mosaic. “The person who was really the most creative noticed that all the white [mosaic] tiles had slightly different shades to them,” she says. Using only the white tiles, he made the most stunning design, “…but his score on the test had to be counted as zero” because he only used one color.
We have no way of knowing whether this individual was a highly sensitive person. What’s clear, however, is that noticing the tiny differences between color shades would be a powerful asset for a visual artist. The same goes for shades of nuance in sound, tempo, even meaning, in other fields of art.
I don’t doubt for a second that less sensitive artists train themselves to notice nuance, too. But doing so as an innate, automatic ability is almost certainly an advantage.
2. A vivid emotional life
Strong emotional reactions are also a core trait of HSPs. But it’s not just the strength of their emotions that matters. They also experience them, well, differently.
That’s because of an obscure area of the brain known as the vmPFC. The vmPFC is the part of the brain that, among other roles, adds emotional resonance to the pure sensory data coming in. It’s why you “feel” something emotional when you see a flower, instead of just seeing a flower.
This part of the brain is more active in highly sensitive people, which suggests they experience the world with a greater “saturation” of emotional meaning. Almost everything carries emotion for HSPs.
That’s probably why HSPs tend to find creative work to be such a meaningful outlet; it gives them a way to express emotions that others often simply don’t understand.
But I’d argue it also makes them uniquely well-suited to the arts, which are so intimately bound up in stirring and provoking emotion. And there’s at least some evidence to corroborate that: A 2017 study from researchers at the State University of New York found that higher emotional intelligence correlates with high scores on a creativity test.
3. Seeing connections that others miss
This last one is, to me, the single strongest case that HSPs have a natural inclination toward creativity. When researchers do try to define or measure creativity, they almost always focus on the pure number of ideas a person can generate — how many solutions, how many variations, how many items in a brainstorm. More ideas is more creative.
Obviously, a person who processes information deeply and makes connections that others miss will fit this description.
But true creativity — the kind we tend to praise — isn’t just about the volume of ideas. It’s also about the quality of them. Creative ideas are new, surprising, unexpected; and yet they’re somehow resonant, as if they “fit” just right.
That’s what we mean when we talk about someone who can think “outside the box.” They come up with new ideas, but the ideas instantly make us go “aha!” (Or, if it’s art, they instantly make us feel something.)
In other words, an act of creativity is almost an act of discovery, of sleuthing out connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. Noticing the hidden connections is what creativity is.
You can see that clearly in these lyrics from renowned singer/songwriter/pianist Tori Amos:
Never was a cornflake girl—Cornflake Girl, Tori Amos
Thought that was a good solution
Hanging with the raisin girls
On their face, the lyrics are nonsense, yet they crackle with meaning. We can clearly sense the difference between two types of girl, calling to mind cliques in high school and not fitting in. Then comes a rush of other connotations for cornflake (flaky? popular but boring? they all look the same?) and raisin (the only thing in the cereal that adds any flavor?) until we’ve built whole archetypes and a story to go with them.
The sense that you can see what she means — even though the connections are hidden — is undeniable.
There are other types of creativity, it’s true. A good craftsman can create beautiful objects purely through technical skill. A businessperson may be lauded as “creative” simply for developing a product that is a minor improvement on its predecessor.
But the kind of art that gives us chills, in any medium, explores those hidden connections that everyone else missed.
And that is the province of highly sensitive people.