Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive man tries to make a decision

A Highly Sensitive Person’s Brain Really Does Make Decisions Differently. Here’s How.

Highly sensitive people like to think things through instead of making rash decisions — but it’s more complex than it sounds. Here’s why.

“You know it’s not real, right? It’s just a movie!”

I often hear some variation of this when someone is trying to convince me to watch a horror movie. Yes, on a rational level, I do know that it’s “just a movie” and not real. However, there is part of my brain that, well, doesn’t. 

That’s not to say that I have a poor grasp on reality, or can’t tell fiction from real life. On the contrary, I do recognize that the monsters, gore, violence, and scary stories present in horror movies are only real in the cinematic world. 

Yet for me, the horror doesn’t stay contained within the screen — my mind makes it feel real due to factors like having a heightened threat response and depth of processing

You see, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), my brain works differently than that of a non-HSP. I also see this phenomenon happening with my HSP clients in psychotherapy. Indeed, these neurological differences impact our decision-making process, in everything from what movies we decide to watch (or stay far away from!), to how we interact with others, to how we live our lives. 

What Makes HSPs Different? 

Highly sensitive people, who make up nearly 30 percent of the overall population, experience what researchers refer to as sensory processing sensitivity. Due to the heightened sensitivity of our nervous systems, this amplifies seemingly every aspect of our lived experiences, from how loud noises sound to how strong our emotions feel. 

One common way to define the experience of HSPs is through the DOES acronym, coined by sensitivity expert Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person. DOES stands for: Depth of Processing, Overstimulation, Emotional Reactivity/Empathy, and Sensing the Subtle. Indeed, these factors also offer an explanation as to how HSP brains make decisions differently from our less sensitive counterparts. 

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How HSP Brains Make Decisions

Now, let’s break down the DOES acronym and explore what it means, as well as its impact on decision-making when it comes to HSPs.   

Depth of Processing

The HSP Brain: The HSP brain is wired to process everything on a deep level. Indeed, research indicates that HSPs experience more activity in brain regions associated with depth of processing, reflective thinking (including self-reflective thinking and reflective thinking in response to emotional stimuli), cognitive control, and awareness

Further, HSP brains also show greater reward response, resulting in increased motivation. Researchers hypothesized that this mechanism was a survival strategy in that deep processing of environmental stimuli helped HSPs prepare, and implement, an appropriate decision when the time came.

Impact on Decision-Making: The way our HSP brain processes information deeply means, first and foremost, that we sensitive folks take our time to make decisions. Far from impulsive decision-makers, HSPs need adequate time to truly think through whatever it is we’re pondering, carefully weighing each pro and con. This may also look like integrating various aspects of knowledge when making a decision. 

For instance, we may draw on our past experience and first-hand experience, research professional opinions, and reach out to friends about their insight, all while comparing and contrasting each option. This may also mean that it takes us longer to integrate new information, as well as come to an actual decision. 

While non-HSPs may find such tendencies to be overly cautious, HSPs’ depth of processing contributes to a conscientiousness in decision-making that ultimately helps us feel more secure and grounded in our decision. 

To this end, researchers found that HSPs tend to do best at making decisions through a deliberation method (i.e., thinking through the problem thoroughly) as opposed to an implementation method (i.e., focusing on finding a concrete, practical solution), suggesting that the former is how most HSPs excel when addressing issues. That previously-mentioned reward response likely plays a role here, in that our brains are naturally motivated to think deeply when making a decision. 

Overstimulation

The HSP Brain: The HSP brain tends to have greater activation in the amygdala, which is the area of the brain responsible, in part, for feeling overstimulated. More specifically, the amygdala is associated with the emotions of anxiety, fear, and stress, or those typically involved with the fight-flight-or-freeze response. 

Impact on Decision-Making: Research shows that when the amygdala is activated, we tend to make decisions that are more impulsive. This is due to what’s known as the amygdala hijack: the rational, thinking part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) goes off-line to make way for our amygdala to kick into high-gear. Although this process can be rather frustrating, it originally developed as a survival mechanism in order for us to bypass our thinking process when a quick decision needed to be made. 

HSPs’ tendency to not only become overstimulated easier, but also reach that overstimulation threshold faster, means that we are especially susceptible to our fight-flight-or-freeze response taking over. That’s the reason why we tend to react differently when feeling frazzled than we otherwise would when we’re able to engage in our natural deep processing. 

This is also why we are more likely to make immediate (and sometimes regrettable) decisions when feeling overwhelmed — our brains are trying to get us to escape to safety as soon as possible! Returning to the horror movie example: If I were (accidentally) exposed to a horror movie, I wouldn’t take my time to process the decision. My overstimulation would immediately become too much and I would get out of there!

Obviously, making impulsive decisions due to overstimulation is far from ideal, especially since HSPs value making a well-informed decision. This is why it is vital for HSPs to engage in good self-care, have strong boundaries, and develop a coping skills toolkit to turn to in cases of emergency. These strategies help to combat potential overwhelm, keeping us at our best when making decisions.

Emotional Reactivity

The HSP Brain: The HSP brain is one that is wired to emphasize our emotional experience. More specifically, studies, like the ones I mentioned above, have found that HSPs have greater neural activity in areas involving emotional memory, stress control, emotional processing, and preparing for action in response to emotionally-evocative stimuli. 

Further, HSP brain activity has also been shown to be associated with intricate memory processing. This, along with our depth of processing, can help us remain calm while engaging in emotional systems, researchers suggest. After all, just because we feel emotions strongly doesn’t mean that we can’t successfully navigate such experiences!

Impact on Decision-Making: Having a strong emotional experience means that HSPs are more likely to factor in our feelings when making a decision, as opposed to attempting to ignore, or suppress, our emotions. This may look like making a decision that comforts our emotional experience (like deciding to engage in some extra self-care when feeling sad), addressing the emotion itself within our decision (like addressing our loneliness by reaching out to a friend), using information from the emotion to act accordingly (like setting a boundary upon feeling angry), or even simply feeling our feelings in order to process them before we move forward with our decision. 

Emotional memory also plays a significant role in HSPs’ decision-making process. Essentially, sensitive people are more likely to use our memories of emotionally-significant events, including what happened and what we learned from it, when making decisions. For instance, we may remember how we felt guilty when we did not act in alignment with our values. This helps us to learn that it does not feel good to ignore our values, and to consider our values when making decisions in the future. 

Or, we may remember how confident we felt after receiving praise from our boss on the project we were working on. This helps us to remember how good it feels to succeed, and to decide to put in similar effort in the future. 

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Empathy

The HSP Brain: Our HSP strength of empathy is reflected in our neurology. Indeed, the HSP brain has greater activity in regions involved with self-other integration, social processing, and, of course, empathy. More specifically, HSPs’ neural activity is associated with detecting, and interpreting, the emotions of others. 

Researchers believe that this is part of the mirror neuron system. As the name suggests, these neurons (or, messengers within our brain) activate when we witness the actions of others. This helps us not only to learn by observing, but also to intuit others’ internal state, a core feature of empathy.

Impact on Decision-Making: Given HSPs’ high levels of empathy, we are much more likely to be considerate of others when making a decision. This could look like involving others in the decision-making process (especially when the decision involves them), deciding to avoid consuming stories that display suffering (like turning off the news for gruesome stories or refusing to watch horror movies), making a decision to show kindness to someone (like holding the door open for a stranger or being supportive to a friend who is having a bad day), or ensuring your decision does not hurt others (like refusing to vote for politicians and policies that infringe on others’ rights).

Sensing the Subtle 

The HSP Brain: As the very name suggests, sensory processing sensitivity entails being better able to sense the subtle. More specifically, there is more neural activity in regions involved with attention, integration of sensory information, as well as with high-order visual processing and detecting minor changes in stimuli. 

Some researchers believe this means that HSPs are more likely to attend to, notice, and integrate subtle changes around them. Thus, this ability may contribute to being more ready to act when faced with a threat.

Impact on Decision-Making: The HSP ability to detect subtle information plays a role in our decision-making process by taking this information into account. For instance, we may decide how to respond to someone given the faint details in their body language. Or, we may decide what road is the safest to travel down (and which ones we should avoid) given the subtleties of our options. Or, we may decide which job feels best to us based on the distinctions between the different environments, such as people’s energies, lighting, and layout details. 

HSP, how do you notice your sensitivity playing a role in your decision-making? Comment down below! (As for me, I’ll decide to continue to stay far away from horror movies!)

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