Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive brain

The Difference Between the Highly Sensitive Brain and the ‘Typical’ Brain

The HSP brain may be the most powerful social machine in the known universe.

Do you notice little details about your surroundings that others miss — especially details about the people around you? Do you quickly get overwhelmed when your to-do list is long, your weekend is busy, or when you spend time in a loud, bustling place? Do you reflect on your experiences deeply, and feel emotions in a big way?

If so, you might be a highly sensitive person (HSP). HSPs are the 20 percent of the population who process things more deeply than others. This stems from a difference in their brains and nervous systems.

What exactly makes HSPs different? Recent research has the answers. Let’s take a look at the four biggest differences.

4 Differences in a Highly Sensitive Person’s Brain

1. Your brain responds to dopamine differently.

Dopamine is the brain’s reward chemical. Simply put, it drives you to want to do certain things, then gives you a sense of victory or pleasure when you do them.

Many of the genes involved in high sensitivity affect how your body uses dopamine — in ways we don’t yet fully understand. HSPs are likely less driven by external rewards than non-HSPs. Rewards are the “gold stickers” of life, for example, a job promotion, a paycheck, or inclusion into a social group. Similar to introverts, HSPs are simply not as excited by the things that many others chase.

This is part of what allows HSPs to hold back and be thoughtful and observant while they process information. It also likely prevents them from being drawn to the same highly stimulating situations that end up overwhelming them.

If you’re an HSP, and you just don’t find yourself very interested in a loud party or taking risks, you have your dopamine system to thank.

2. Your mirror neurons are more active.

Mirror neurons play a big role in the HSP brain. They help us understand what someone is doing or experiencing, based on their actions. Essentially, these brain cells compare the other person’s behavior with times you yourself have behaved that way, effectively “mirroring” them to figure out what’s going on for them.

That’s an important job for a lot of reasons, but one of the things it does in humans is allow us to feel empathy and compassion for others. When we recognize the pain (or joy) someone is going through and relate to it, it’s because of this system. More mirror neuron activity means a more empathetic person — like an HSP.

HSPs don’t necessarily have more mirror neurons than others, rather, their mirror neuron systems are more active. In 2014, functional brain imaging research found that HSPs had consistently higher levels of activity in key parts of the brain related to social and emotional processing. This higher level of activity kicked in even in tests involving strangers, meaning HSPs can easily extend compassion to people they don’t personally know. (The effect was still highest with loved ones, however).

As an HSP, these mirror neurons are both your superpower and, at times, more than a little inconvenient — like when you can’t watch the same TV show as everyone else because it’s too violent. But it’s also what makes you warm, caring, and insightful about what other people are going through.

3. You really do experience emotions more vividly.

Hidden away in the front of the brain is a fascinating area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). This area is hooked into several systems involving your emotions, your values, and processing sensory data. When we say that highly sensitive people process things more deeply than others, there’s a good chance it happens right here.

While the role of the vmPFC is not yet completely understood, it’s definitely associated with emotional regulation, and it enhances the things we experience with a certain emotional “vividness.” Everyone experiences life more vividly during emotional moments, not just HSPs, but high sensitivity is linked to a gene that increases this vividness, essentially turning up the dial. That gene allows emotional enhancement to have a much greater effect on the vmPFC as it processes experiences.

What does this mean for HSPs? Unlike mirror neurons, this emotional vividness isn’t necessarily social in nature. It’s all about how vividly you feel emotions inside you in response to what’s happening around you. So, if you seem to feel things stronger than other people do, it’s not just in your head (okay, it’s entirely in your head, but you know what I mean!). HSPs are finely tuned to pick up even subtle emotional cues and react to them.

4. Other people are the brightest things on your radar.

For less sensitive people, it’s easy to tune out other people. But for an HSP, almost everything about the brain is wired to notice and interpret others.

This is clear from the many other parts of the brain that get extra-active for HSPs in social situations. For example, the brain imaging study mentioned above also showed increased activity in the cingulate area and the insula — two areas that, together, may form our “seat of consciousness” and moment-to-moment awareness. For HSPs, these areas become far more active in response to images of other people, especially those exhibiting a relevant social or emotional cue.

In other words: Highly sensitive people actually become more alert, almost “more conscious,” in a social context. If you’re an HSP, other people are the brightest things on your radar.

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The Gift of the Highly Sensitive Brain

There’s a lot that can be said about the gifts of the highly sensitive brain. It processes information on deep level, sees more connections, and cares and relates to others in a profound way.

But perhaps your most important gift as an HSP is the one designed to protect you. Your brain is fine-tuned to notice and interpret the behavior of everyone around you. If someone is bad news, you know it. If someone is not going to treat you right, you see it coming. If a situation isn’t right for you, you probably know that, too.

That’s vital, because HSPs need healthy environments and supportive loved ones to thrive — perhaps even more so than others.

If you’re an HSP, your brain may be the most powerful social machine in the known universe.

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