The same genes that make you a highly sensitive person may also give you a powerful evolutionary advantage.
Do you ever find yourself annoyed by tiny sounds or distractions that others don’t seem to notice?
Do you quickly pick up on what someone is feeling, or what their intentions are — even if they haven’t expressed them out loud?
Do you get totally overwhelmed by a hectic environment, or the sheer number of people whose needs you notice? And do you often need to go somewhere quiet and alone to recover?
If so, you may have been told all your life that you’re “too sensitive” and need to “toughen up.” But you may not know that this is a normal, healthy trait — and it comes with a distinct evolutionary advantage. If the experiences above describe you to a T, there’s a good chance you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP).
And, if so, recent research suggests that there’s a good reason for your sensitivity — you may have been born that way. Let’s take a look at the genes that help make you a highly sensitive person.
Is Being Sensitive Really Genetic?
No personality trait is entirely determined by your genes. However, sensitivity is heavily influenced by genes. In fact, according to Dr. Michael Pluess, a developmental psychologist at Queen Mary University of London, your genes account for 47 percent of how sensitive you are — nearly half. The other 53 percent comes from your environment and life experiences, mostly in early childhood. Pluess and others figured this out by studying twins who had the same genes but scored differently for sensitivity (you can read their study here).
When I spoke with Pluess, he explained to me that sensitivity is a continuum, running from high to average to low. Where you fall on that continuum is initially determined largely by your genes. (Even infants already fall squarely into one of the three categories.) But, from there, Pluess said that your sensitivity shifts based on your childhood environment. That shift is because being sensitive pays off more in some environments than others. “Highly sensitive people are more likely to struggle in stressful environments,” Pluess said, “but they’re especially receptive to supportive environments.” Effectively, sensitive kids get a bigger boost from support than less-sensitive kids do.
Still, that shift in sensitivity over time is often pretty small. In a way, you can view genes as determining which “zip code” of sensitivity you live on — high, average, or low — and your environment as determining your address in that zip code.
That means that if you’re highly sensitive, you likely were born that way — and there are some specific genes that might explain why.
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The 3 Sets of Genes That Help Make You Highly Sensitive
Although high sensitivity is largely genetic, it doesn’t come from a single gene. In fact, scientists have increasingly found that personality traits are based on a whole collection of genes, not just one or two. That’s true of traits as different as introversion and intelligence.
With high sensitivity, there are at least three separate sets of genes that play a role — and different highly sensitive people may have some or all of them. Interestingly, every single one of these genes affects your brain or nervous system.
Below, we’ll look at each of the three sets of genes, including the one that’s the best candidate for being the official “sensitive” gene. But remember: your genes alone are only part of who you are, and every HSP has grown up with different experiences. Your mileage may vary.
1. The ‘Sensitive’ Gene (Serotonin Transporter)
Serotonin is a chemical in the body that does, well, a lot of things. But one of the most important? It stabilizes your mood.
Serotonin transporter, on the other hand, is a chemical that helps move serotonin out of the brain. So it’s the on/off switch for all that mood-balancing serotonin.
And guess what? Highly sensitive people have a special variation of the serotonin transporter gene that behaves a little differently. If you have this gene variant, you have lower serotonin levels, and chances are good you’ll be a highly sensitive person. (The gene is officially called 5-HTTLPR, so we’re going to stick with “the sensitive gene.”)
This gene variant was originally believed to cause depression, but that’s not exactly right. In fact, it doesn’t cause any mood disorder at all on its own, but it does make you sensitive to your surroundings — and more likely to learn lessons from them. That matters a lot in childhood development. If you combine this gene with an unhealthy childhood environment, you do have a higher risk of depression and other disorders throughout life. But, combine it with a safe, supportive environment, and you get better-than-normal outcomes as an adult. Basically, it boosts the effects of both good and bad upbringings.
So what does this mean if you’re a highly sensitive person? Well, you should know that your childhood experiences will have an outsized impact on your wellbeing as an adult. That doesn’t mean you can’t address and get past the effects of a rough childhood, but it does mean it will affect you more than it might affect others.
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2. The Dopamine Genes
While the first gene matters, it’s not the only one. Researchers have also found a connection between sensitivity and a set of 10 different gene variants related to dopamine. Dopamine is the brain’s “reward” chemical.
Strictly speaking, we don’t yet know how these dopamine genes relate to sensitivity, but we have some hints. For starters, it makes sense that someone with a sensitive system would need to feel less “rewarded” by external stimuli — otherwise you’d be constantly drawn to the same loud, busy environments that exhaust you. (And the evidence bears that out: the gene variants with the biggest effect on sensitivity all have to do with dopamine receptors, which affect how sensitive you are to dopamine in the first place.)
It would also make sense for sensitive people to feel more rewarded by positive social or emotional cues, which they are more tuned into than others in the first place.
As a highly sensitive person, have you ever been baffled why your friends want to go somewhere loud and crazy — or why they’d enjoy a fast-paced, aggressive game? If so, it’s probably because you don’t get the same “dopamine hit” from these loud external stimuli. And that may be some or all of these gene variants at work.
3. The ‘Emotional Vividness’ Gene
Everyone tends to experience life more vividly during emotionally charged moments. But this emotional “vividness” is stronger for some people than it is for others. And it’s no surprise that high sensitivity has been linked to the gene variant that controls it.
This gene, which I’ll call the “emotional vividness” gene, is related to norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that also helps with the body’s stress response. And there’s one variant — which may be common in HSPs — that turns up the dial on emotional vividness. If you have it, you will perceive the emotional aspects of the world more vividly. You’ll also have much more activity in the parts of the brain that create internal emotional responses to your experiences.
Most highly sensitive people are keenly aware that they have stronger emotional reactions than the people around them, and often notice emotional undercurrents where others pick up nothing. If you’re highly sensitive, this is not your imagination — you may actually have a brighter palette of emotional “colors,” so to speak, because of this gene variant. And it directly drives the level of empathy and awareness you have for others’ feelings.
Being Sensitive May Be An Evolutionary Advantage
At most, 30 percent of the population is believed to be highly sensitive. That’s uncommon enough that HSPs feel “different” growing up (and are often still misunderstood as adults) but it’s a very large number of people. And high sensitivity isn’t limited to humans, either; the same trait has been found in at least 100 other species.
Biologists believe there’s a good reason for that: being highly sensitive can be an evolutionary advantage. In fact, sensitive people (and animals!) are able to pick up on more environmental cues, recognize things that others don’t, and make smart decisions in seemingly new or unusual situations. In many cases, that’s a much wiser approach than simply using a set of routines, or charging ahead at random — both strategies that less sensitive animals (and people) tend to use.
This has even been tested out in computer simulations. The simulations showed that individuals who took the time to notice all of the environmental cues before making a decision generally came out ahead — even with the high cost of doing so (what we call overstimulation). Their sensitivity allowed them to make better and better decisions over time.
But there was a catch: being sensitive was only a benefit if it was in the minority. If everyone is sensitive, we all notice the same details and it no longer gives anyone a special advantage. That’s probably why HSPs are about 20 percent of the population and not, say, 80 percent.
So if you’ve ever found yourself wondering why no one else in your office stops to think things through the way you do, it might actually be a good thing. You have the ability to see things others don’t, and that makes you especially valuable.
You might like:
- 21 Signs That You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
- The Difference Between the Highly Sensitive Brain and the ‘Typical’ Brain
- What Happens When a Highly Sensitive Person Grows Up with Emotional Neglect?
- Assary, E., Zavos, H.M.S., Krapohl, E. et al. “Genetic architecture of Environmental Sensitivity reflects multiple heritable components: a twin study with adolescents.” Mol Psychiatry 26, 4896–4904 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-020-0783-8
- McIntosh, James. “What is serotonin, and what does it do?” Medical News Today (Oct. 4, 2022). https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/232248
- Phelps, James. “The Serotonin Transporter Gene: What’s New?” Psychiatric Times, Vol 32 No 10, Volume 32, Issue 10 (2015). https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/serotonin-transporter-gene-whats-new
- Chen, Chunhui et al. “Contributions of dopamine-related genes and environmental factors to highly sensitive personality: a multi-step neuronal system-level approach.” PloS one vol. 6,7:e21636 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0021636
- Todd, Rebecca, et al. “Neurogenetic variations in norepinephrine availability enhance perceptual vividness.” Journal of Neuroscience 35 (16) 6506-6516 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4489-14.2015
- Wolf, Max et al. “Evolutionary emergence of responsive and unresponsive personalities.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (41) 15825-15830 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0805473105