Science links being sensitive with a distinct set of gifts. Which one(s) do you have?
Everyone has a sensitive side, and some people are more sensitive than others. In fact, 30 percent of people — both men and women — score as “highly” sensitive, a trait that most of us are told to hide. Yet being sensitive comes with distinct gifts, some of which are surprising — or even life-changing. In our book Sensitive, we name give specific gifts of highly sensitive people: empathy, creativity, sensory intelligence, depth of processing, and depth of emotion.
Below is what each of these gifts does — and why it’s such a powerful, even world-changing strength.
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The 5 Most Powerful Gifts of Highly Sensitive People
Sensitive people have empathy in spades, so much so that the difference can be seen in brain scans. In one study, for example, participants looked at photos of people either smiling or looking sad. Some of the pictures were of strangers, but some were of the participant’s own romantic partner. On a brain level, everyone showed some level of empathic response, especially for sad loved ones, but the most sensitive participants had more brain activity across the board in regions associated with awareness, empathy, and relating to others—even for the pictures of strangers. Sensitive people’s brains also lit up in areas related to action planning. This indicates that—just as sensitive people frequently self-report—they could not watch a stranger in pain without feeling a strong desire to help. Sensitive people, it seems, are the varsity athletes of empathy.
This quality is also the key trait that humanity may need to survive. As Stanford professors Paul R. Ehrlich and Robert E. Ornstein warn in their book Humanity on a Tightrope, civilization is unlikely to continue unless more people learn to put themselves in other people’s shoes. They point to many of today’s direst problems—such as racism, global warming, and war—that are fueled by a dangerous us-versus-them mentality that separates people rather than unites them. Similarly, Claire Cain Miller, writing for the New York Times, describes us as living through an “empathy deficit.” “More and more,” she says, “we live in bubbles. Most of us are surrounded by people who look like us, vote like us, earn like us, spend money like us, have educations like us and worship like us.” This empathy deficit, she suggests, is “at the root of many of our biggest problems.” That’s where sensitive people come in with their gift of empathy—thanks to a remarkably active part of their brain.
In many ways, empathy is also key to human achievement. That’s because innovation is mostly a group activity—it requires the exchange of ideas, and empathy is the lubricant for that exchange. To see this effect in action, you need look no further than the ancient Library of Alexandria. Most of us know of it for its wealth of books that were famously burned. What’s rarely mentioned, however, is that it wasn’t just a library, it was a think tank that gathered together brilliant minds representing countless cultures. The results were spectacular. By the second century BCE, researchers at the Library of Alexandria had invented pneumatics, built an automated waiter to pour wine, correctly calculated the circumference of the earth (which was round, they said, not flat), created the world’s then-most accurate clock, constructed a device to calculate cube roots, and invented an algorithm to find prime numbers—basically mining for Bitcoin before it was cool. It was the act of bringing together multiple viewpoints that drove these great steps forward, and this act required empathy.
Eventually the Romans took over Alexandria—and relocated its thinkers. Every wealthy patrician wanted an Alexandrian genius to tutor his kids, so the scholars were spread out among them. The intellectuals continued their research, but, deprived of close contact with other perspectives, the wondrous inventions mostly ceased.
Empathy, it seems, helps drive success. This link between empathy, progress, and success is part of why Cambridge researcher Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin to the famous actor) believes that empathy is the “universal solvent.” It improves outcomes in any situation, he says, because “any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.” Thus, sensitive people are poised to make a massive impact on the world—if they learn how to tap their empathy effectively.
The image of the sensitive artist is a cliché for a reason: It’s grounded in truth. A mind that notices more detail, makes more connections, and feels emotion vividly is almost perfectly wired for creativity. That doesn’t mean all sensitive people are creatives, but many creatives are indeed sensitive people, as anyone who works with them can attest.
Nina Volf, a researcher from the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, decided to put that observation to the test. Volf assembled several types of tests to gauge both verbal and visual creativity, with an emphasis on seeing how original a person’s ideas were, not just how many they could come up with. Participants were given, for example, sets of incomplete drawings and asked to make unique pictures out of them. Importantly, she used both “hard,” quantitative criteria (how often had other people in the database come up with similar answers?) and “soft,” subjective impressions (how did a panel of three judges rate the originality of the work?). She then gave this rigorous test to sixty people, running a DNA sample afterward. The outcome: People with the short SERT gene linked to sensitivity were more creative on all measures.
The more interesting question is why, and the answer has a lot to do with how creativity happens at a cognitive level. To be sure, creativity is hard to define and there are several theories of how it works. All of them acknowledge that intelligence plays a role, and they all prize originality as much as talent or skill—that is, a perfectly executed copy of someone else’s painting would not be considered creative.
One prominent theory among scientists, however, began with the author and journalist Arthur Koestler in the 1960s. Koestler believed that true creativity arises when you blend two or more different frames of reference. You can see this principle at work in any metaphor or in stirring revelations like “We are made of star-stuff ”—simultaneously a scientific truth and a call to a higher destiny. Koestler knew the power of such perspective-bending firsthand because it was how he lived his life. Born in Budapest, he was educated in Austria and naturalized as a citizen of Great Britain; meanwhile, he spent his early years as a passionate communist and his later life writing anti-Soviet propaganda. He couldn’t help but notice the effect of all this border crossing—literal and otherwise—on his ability to generate original ideas. Koestler’s experience might explain why so many other lauded creatives have a similarly multicultural life story, while countless more devote time to traveling and living abroad. The more perspectives you inhabit over your life, the more of them you can draw on and combine, creating something new.
Koestler’s theory also explains the connection between sensitive people and creativity. Wired to make connections between vastly different concepts, the sensitive mind can blend frames of reference without ever leaving home. Sensitive people are perhaps the ultimate polymaths, thinking not in terms of science or poetry or lived experience or hopes and dreams, but in terms of the themes that run across them all. Many sensitive people speak this way, too, readily offering metaphors and linking different topics to make a point. Such talk can make purists uncomfortable, but it’s a habit not only of great artists but also of brilliant scientists like Carl Sagan, originator of the “star-stuff ” line above.
If you are a sensitive person, you may or may not work as a creative yourself and you may or may not have “creative” pastimes. But you have the raw components to do so. (One sensitive person, Elizabeth, told us, “I never thought I was more creative than other people until too many friends told me they had no idea how I imagined so much stuff. It never occurred to me that they couldn’t do what I could do.”) This creativity doesn’t operate alone. It is built on the next three gifts of sensitivity— sensory intelligence, depth of processing, and depth of emotion—which together add up to a creative mind.
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3. Sensory Intelligence
Sensory intelligence means being more aware of your environment and doing more with that knowledge. You may pay more attention to sensory details themselves (like the texture of a painting or a missing bracket in a line of code) or their implications (it rained yesterday, so it’s going to be muddy when I go on my walk). Anyone can notice such things, but sensitive people tend to do so more readily, in a wide variety of situations—you could call it being tuned in. (As one sensitive person told us, he views himself as a “live wire” that picks up every signal.)
In some cases, this ability can seem almost mystical. Think, for example, of the swordsman Zatoichi, of Japanese B-movie fame. Zatoichi is blind, but he can always tell when he’s being cheated at gambling because he can hear the difference in how the dice fall (and with his superior senses, he always wins the sword fight that breaks out next). That’s fiction, of course; in reality, blind people don’t have super hearing. They just use their brains differently, paying attention to the same tiny sounds that sighted people can hear but filter out. To a degree, sensitive people may do something similar with all five senses.
Sometimes, this level of sensitivity is a burden—no one wants to notice every whiff of cologne in the office—but it can also give astonishing results, as an Irish woman named Sanita Lazdauska found out firsthand. One morning, she woke up because she sensed a change in her husband’s breathing; he always snored, but that day the noises sounded off. So she checked on him and saw that he had turned blue—he was in cardiac arrest. Lazdauska performed thirty minutes of CPR until the paramedics arrived. Few people are sensitive enough to wake up from a change in breathing. If she hadn’t been attuned to his sleeping noises—or hadn’t thought much of the odd one that morning—he would have died in his sleep. Her heightened sensory intelligence saved her husband’s life.
This unique form of intelligence is the flip side of overstimulation. Sensitive people can certainly become overloaded in busy environments, because they’re taking in so much more of their surroundings. But much of the time, rather than causing overload, their heightened awareness is an advantage, particularly if they take steps to avoid overstimulation in the first place.
Sensory intelligence is an asset in a surprising number of fields. In the military, for example, it falls under the term situational awareness—the ability to know and understand what’s happening around you—and it’s the key to keeping yourself and your unit alive in combat. In fact, situational awareness is prized in any profession that involves safety: It’s a major part of why airplanes don’t crash, why nuclear plants don’t melt down, and why crimes get solved. Sadly, the opposite is also true. A lack of situational awareness has been proven to be a primary cause of accidents involving human error, such as a hospital injecting anticoagulant into the wrong patient. (That really happened, and the case is now used in medical literature to train hospital workers to improve situational awareness. Thankfully, the patient was okay.)
4. Depth of Processing
Sensitive people don’t just take in more information; they do more with it.Imagine two tax accountants: The first one drops in your numbers, makes sure they add up, and sends them off to the government. Done. The second one goes further. They check supporting documents to make sure nothing is missed. They walk you through extra ways to save money. And they screen everything for red flags that might trigger an audit. Who would you rather have do your taxes?
If you prefer the second accountant, you understand the value of deeper cognitive processing. Of course, anyone can be thorough if they focus on it, but—like sensory intelligence—deep processing is the default setting of the sensitive brain. This capability tends to come out in several ways:
- More careful, often-better decision-making
- Thorough and broad-reaching thinking
- Creative connecting of the dots between different topics and ideas
- A preference for deep, meaningful ideas and activities
- Deeper dives into an idea instead of surface-level analysis
- Surprising, original ideas and perspectives
- Frequently, the ability to correctly predict how something will unfold or what effect a decision will have
Depth of processing doesn’t just apply to long, complex tasks like taxes (thankfully!). In both humans and monkeys, individuals with the genes for sensitivity outperform others on a variety of mental tasks. In one study, for example, monkeys were specially trained to work on touchscreen devices, sipping water as they tapped away and receiving fruit snacks as rewards when they did well, not unlike a toddler with a learning app. The monkeys quickly gamed out how to get the most snacks possible—by succeeding on a series of tasks like assessing probability, noticing when patterns changed, and being observant enough to scoop up even very small wins. It quickly became clear that sensitivity was an asset on these mental tasks. The monkeys who were more sensitive not only performed better and reaped more rewards but also showed brain differences similar to those of sensitive humans.
Thus, deep processing can lead to better decision-making, especially when it comes to risk and probability. This gift is invaluable at work, in relationships, and in major life choices. Less-sensitive people may be impatient when you need to reflect before making a decision, but they should probably learn to wait; that short pause is your mind going deep. In many ways, sensitive people think like military strategists, considering all the angles to maximize the chance of a win. That propensity can lead to stunning results and is part of why sensitive people make great leaders.
Of course, such instincts aren’t sorcery, and a sensitive person can get something wrong just like anyone else. Sensitive people simply put far more mental resources into getting it right.
5. Depth of Emotion
Sensitive people really do have, on average, stronger emotional reactions than others do. And you may not think of them as a gift at all: If you are someone with stronger emotions, then anger, hurt, and sadness can be intense experiences for you. At times they can even overwhelm you. But your deep and powerful emotions also mean you are fluent in a language that some other people struggle to speak. That is a master key to the human spirit.
The source of this gift may lie in a tiny hub of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Located several inches behind your forehead and roughly the size and shape of your tongue, the vmPFC is a crossroads that brings together information about emotions, values, and sensory data. The reason we think of flowers as romantic, and not just as colorful vegetables, is because of the vmPFC.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a hardworking area in any brain, but for sensitive people, it’s busier than a Jackson Pollock canvas. This heightened activity has the effect of coloring the world with added depth, causing sensitive people to see life in a more vivid emotional palette. That vividness can be hard sometimes. (Raise your hand if you want a more intense experience of sadness—anyone?) However, it also offers a number of benefits, especially in terms of intelligence and mental well-being.
As far back as the 1960s, psychiatrist Kazimierz Dąbrowski theorized a connection between emotional intensity and the potential for high achievement. In his work, he showed that gifted people tend to be “overexcitable” or sensitive in various ways, including physically and emotionally. Gifted children, he suggested, are often accused of overreacting but are just more acutely aware of their own feelings. Many gifted children, he found, carry on whole inner dialogues about their feelings—something not everyone does—and are so driven by compassion and human connection that emotions are simply a bigger concern for them. Dąbrowski even believed that emotional intensity was key to achieving higher stages of personal growth, or what we would today call self-actualization.
Educators who work with gifted students get to observe this emotional intensity firsthand, and many of these educators agree that people with a deep intellectual life tend to have a deep emotional life, too. One possible explanation for the link has to do with memory: An event experienced with greater emotional intensity is more likely to be recalled later, so the people with the most emotional vividness—sensitive people—may be the most likely to absorb and integrate new information.
Today, though, we tend to focus on a different kind of smarts: emotional intelligence. To be clear, emotional intelligence is a skill, not something people are born with. Just as being tall does not automatically make a person good at basketball, being sensitive doesn’t automatically give you high emotional intelligence. But like height in the playoffs, it sure does help. That’s because emotional intelligence includes several components that really are strengths of sensitive people. For example, sensitive people tend to have a high degree of self awareness; they notice and pay attention to their emotions, taking time to think about what they’re feeling both in the moment and afterward. And they easily read and understand the emotions of others, making high emotional intelligence achievable with a little effort. That effort can pay off: emotional intelligence has been proven to contribute to improved mental health, better job performance, and leadership ability. Your emotionality can launch you to new heights if you harness it.
You Might Like:
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