If it feels like your highly sensitive brain never “shuts off” and stops thinking deeply, you’re right — it doesn’t!
If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), do you know what your brain is up to while you’re doing nothing? According to a recent study on HSP brains, the answer might be more than you realized.
So far, researchers have found that HSPs feel emotions more intensely, they’re more easily overwhelmed, and that there are specific genes responsible for making someone highly sensitive. We also know that HSPs process, well, just about everything, more deeply than non-HSPs.
A new study published in the journal Neuropsychobiology uncovered some fascinating (and validating) findings about the HSP brain at rest. What we didn’t have before was research on the HSP brain simply existing — not responding to anything at the moment. (And, as an HSP, you probably know that our brains never seem to rest!)
Bianca Acevedo, a researcher in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, and author of The Highly Sensitive Brain, was one of the authors of the study. “One of the novel advancements of this research was that in most of the previous brain imaging studies of sensitivity, we’ve tended to look at responses to stimuli,” she said. “This was a study where we just examined what the brain at rest does and how being sensitive affects it.”
How the Study Was Conducted
So you may be wondering how such a study was conducted. Here’s the low-down:
- First, researchers showed a group of adult volunteers descriptions of happy, sad, or neutral events.
- Then volunteers were shown pictures of the emotional faces of their partners and of complete strangers. The researchers referred to this as an “empathy task.”
- After viewing the descriptions and faces, researchers had the volunteers count backwards from a large number by seven. The point was to “reset” each person’s emotions after the empathy task.
- Participants were asked how they felt after seeing each face picture.
- Finally, researchers instructed the volunteers to relax while each person had their brain scanned.
Study Results: How the HSP Brain Functions During Rest
The study uncovered various aspects of the highly sensitive brain at rest:
1. HSPs have “depth of processing” during rest.
The participants’ brain activity suggested “depth of processing” after an emotionally exciting event (like viewing the emotional face photos). This is known as “resting-state brain connectivity” — brain activity during a state of rest.
Even though the participants were no longer looking at pictures or emotional descriptions, their brains showed enhanced connectivity in several networks. The higher activity lines up with what we know about those with high sensitivity, also known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS).
HSPs process everything deeply, and the study suggests the same goes for an HSP brain even when it’s not directly reacting to stimuli. An HSP could be processing something they saw an hour ago, heard days ago, or remembered last month. (So much for our HSP brains shutting off for a while!)
“What we found was a pattern that suggested that during this rest, after doing something that was emotionally evocative, their brain showed activity that suggested depth of processing,” Acevdeo said of the findings, “and this depth of processing is a cardinal feature of high sensitivity.”
2. HSPs have greater memory connections.
Volunteers who scored high for SPS had significant interactions between two parts of the brain: the precuneus and the hippocampus. This connection has to do with consolidating and retrieving memories.
It makes sense that HSPs would spend more time processing memories; doing so helps us manage the world around us. Reflecting on past experiences can help us prepare for future events, feeling more confident in handling them.
After an empathy-heavy event, an HSP may replay the person’s sad or happy face through their minds many times. HSPs care deeply about others and want to understand other peoples’ emotions. Because we take on others’ emotions as our own, we also spend time processing other people’s pain, excitement, or frustration (whether we want to or not).
3. Weaker connections were found for areas of the brain responsible for things such as pain and stress regulation.
While some brain areas had strong connections, the study showed weaker connections between:
- The amygdala and the periaqueductal gray, a circuit crucial for regulating anxiety and pain
- The insula and hippocampus, a connection involved in managing stress and processing emotions
According to Acevedo, these weaker links could explain why HSPs often struggle with more anxiety and overstimulation than non-HSPs. The more fragile connection also suggests memory consolidation was happening at a higher level than automatic responses, such as how the brain might react after something stressful.
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What These Findings Means for Highly Sensitive People
This new information is a further deep dive into the fascinating HSP brain. While previous research has focused on the response to stimuli, this study suggests that even the HSP brain at rest shows signs of deeper processing and greater connectivity in certain parts of the brain.
It’s exciting to see more research into how the HSP brain functions in any situation. But cool science aside, these studies are validating in meaningful ways. They remind us that:
- HSPs are more responsive in general (and that’s OK). Even though the study’s volunteers were given a counting activity to “reset” after the empathy exercise, their brains may have continued to process that information. The results validate that the HSP brain doesn’t necessarily need stimuli or a stressful event to feel overwhelmed and need more frequent breaks. “The study refreshingly supports exactly why HSPs require more mental health and ‘mental rest’ self-care than most,” Dr. Aprile Andelle, a psychotherapist and mental health advocate, told me. “They think deeply, period.”
- HSPs are more affected by emotional situations, events that involve empathy, and stress. However, we also experience the world’s beauty on a deep level. We could appreciate the beauty of a rose more so than a non-HSP yet also tear up at the slightest thing. The science supports what HSPs feel every day — that they do everything intensely: feeling, thinking, loving, and processing the life around them. And even resting.
- Since the HSP brain can be more active even at rest, HSPs can use this information to understand themselves better. For example, I feel less guilty about needing lots of quiet alone time after a social interaction, when something happens outside of my daily routine, or when I have an HSP hangover. I can rest easier (no pun intended) knowing it’s just a part of how my brain is wired.
- High sensitivity is real and valid. Research like this highlights crucial brain differences in HSPs. It’s comforting to view scientific explanations for how we think and feel. Although society may not understand sensitivity as much as we’d like, studies like this help show that it is real and valid. And, as more studies about HSPs inevitably come out, we’ll further highlight that people process the world in various ways. Hopefully, growing research will foster continued empathy for alternate ways of being and the importance of mental health care.
- Self-care is critical for HSPs, even during “rest.” Speaking of mental health, as any HSP knows, deeper processing means needing more time to recoup and rest. “It’s why HSPs flourish best with regular therapy, daily meditation or quiet time, weekly time off, or even nightly ‘brain dump’ journaling before bed,” said Dr. Andelle. “I do guided meditations and ‘psychological spring cleaning’ with my HSP clients.”
Overall, this new study reminds HSPs that their brains are processing deeply, even at rest, which just underlines the need for regular breaks and self-care. “All intentional, ongoing mental health practices protect the ever-active and processing HSP mind to calm [down],” said Dr. Andelle. “Hopefully, this helps HSPs feel less struggle or shame — the complexities lie in the workings of the extraordinary HSP brain itself.”