A new understanding is emerging about what, up until fairly recently, has been called “the highly sensitive person.” That term was coined by Dr. Elaine Aron in her 1996 book of the same name.
This new understanding focuses on the fact that “high sensitivity” is actually the presence of an evolutionary strategy, found in a significant portion of the general population. Meaning, a part of the population is born with substantial alterations in the physiology of their nervous systems. These alterations are measurable, have been genetically selected for over time, and have an evolutionary purpose.
These alterations create a different perceptual experience of life. This is by natural design.
A recent breakthrough in the HSPConnection community is helping to shed further light on what this evolutionary purpose is, with major implications for society, for human relationships, and for people who carry the physiology of high sensitivity in their bodies.
Evolution at Work
In the images below we see a comparison of how humans view this flower (on the left), contrasted with the vision of bees (on the right). To be clear, both images are of the same flower.
By switching to the ultraviolet wavelength of light, humans are able to see what bees see. In this wavelength of light, flowers look completely different! We can see that evolution has created a hidden visual language in flowers, one that only certain insects can see with the naked eye.
This integrated, visual language between bees and flowers has evolved over millions of years and isinvisible to other members of the animal kingdom.
Highly Sensitive Physiology (HSP)
What does this have to do with highly sensitive physiology in humans?
As with bees and flowers, people with HSP have the ability to see patterns and insights that are not readily apparent to the rest of the population.
In other words, people with HSP experience a kind of “language” of life that is less visible, or invisible, to others.
Think about that for a moment.
Makes sense right? People who are highly sensitive are picking up on things that less sensitive people do not pick up on.
Understanding that this is by nature’s design and that there is a purpose involved is the big breakthrough. The perceptual experience created by highly sensitive physiology is not a mistake or a problem to be fixed. Knowing this helps people with HSP grasp more clearly why and how their bodies are different. It also helps people without HSP understand that there are other human beings that are able to see and experience life in a different way – quite literally.
The real jump however, comes when we accept that highly sensitive physiology exists in over 100 species because it is valuable.
As with bees and the patterns they see on flowers, people with HSP experience patterns and insights that are not apparent to others. This is a direct result of the variations in their nervous systems. Bees have eyes that can see in ultraviolet light. People with HSP have a kind of “vision” that gives them insight into situations and people. This “vision” is made possible by taking in more sensory input, processing it deeply, generally “always paying attention”, and a heightened awareness of subtle details.
The perceptual experience created by highly sensitive physiology is not a mistake or a problem to be fixed. It is in fact, quite valuable.
Evolutionary Purpose & Design
Highly sensitive physiology is nature’s design for awareness, attention, and care. One possible explanation of the evolutionary purpose of HSP is to be aware of, and to maintain, the health of the group in complex environments. Let’s look at a few examples.
Group health and safety in complex environments where attention to detail creates an advantage.
Psychological and emotional well being of the group (i.e., family, tribe, nation, etc…), where subtle awareness of body language and emotional states helps to assess group health (without which the group cannot be effective).
Situations where information gathering, forethought, and strategy are advantageous.
Discovery: the working out of complex problems where attention to detail and the ability to form insights based on the deep processing of information creates valuable breakthroughs (in science and medicine for example).
Caring and healing roles such as doctors, nurses, healers, counselors, and vets, where empathy and care for others is a natural motivating force.
Leadership: people with HSP possess multiple qualities that make them some of, if not the, best leaders.
Of course like the flower or the bee, this specialized physiology has evolved to work in concert with the rest of nature. Having HSP or not – neither is better than the other; rather, each has a different function.
The Implications for Children with HSP
The Foundation for Highly Sensitive Physiology was founded in part to advocate for the screening of highly sensitive physiology in children and to provide resources and learning materials for the part of the population that is born with this evolutionary specialization.
Experiencing the world differently requires modifications in education and may even suggest a different individuation process into adulthood for adolescents who experience the world via highly sensitive physiology. Imagine being taught about what your HSP is and how it works from the time you were little.
As a society, both currently and historically, there has been the assumption that all individuals experience the world in basically the same way. We now know that this assumption is false. The images of the flowers above help to provide a strong metaphor for what children with HSP are experiencing.
Imagine being “diagnosed” and medicated for seeing perceptual patterns and experiencing insights that are not “visible” to others. To the majority of parents and doctors without highly sensitive physiology, these “invisible patterns” simple aren’t there or don’t make sense.
The differences in physiology can result in a lack of mirroring for children who are highly sensitive. As children get older and move into adolescence, the lack of mirroring can be exacerbated by the fact that people with HSP are a minority in the general population. There can, in fact, be a deep invalidation of the way people with HSP see and experience themselves, their loved ones, and the world around them. The results of that can be low self-esteem, difficulty finding one’s place in the world, undervaluing one’s self, and even mental and emotional issues that are completely avoidable.
Again, the way that people with HSP experience the world is designed by nature with purpose. Our culture just hasn’t caught up to this fact yet.
Understanding the presence of these perceptual differences has massive implications for all of humanity: within families, within marriages, and at the larger, social scale.
Not Just Humans
As we’ve covered above, the presence of HSP in human beings is the manifestation of an evolutionary strategy. And since this evolutionary approach to life has been observed in over 100 species in the animal kingdom, we can infer that it is:
Prevalent in the animal kingdom
Valued and selected for by evolution over great expanses of time
Find out more about what HSP is and how it shows up in humans in this video:
Improving the Terminology
Elaine Aron’s groundbreaking work in the subject of high sensitivity has made it so that most people today have at least heard of the topic. However, her choice to title her first book The Highly Sensitive Person was in some ways problematic. The term “highly sensitive” is not wrong, but does carry with it some negative connotations which can be quite confusing and unhelpful. The term “highly aware” might be more accurate.
To bridge the gap and to stay relevant for the thousands of people who are looking up “HSP” and “highly sensitive person” every month, I coined the term “highly sensitive physiology” (HSP) – to begin shifting the language and general understanding in a clarifying direction.
Take a look at these two sentences:
Bob/Sue is a highly sensitive person.
Bob/Sue is a person with highly sensitive physiology.
Do you see the clarifying effect?
In the first sentence, there is a distinct and unfortunate, cultural connotation that Bob/Sue is “touchy” or “too sensitive.” It’s not at all clear if we’re talking about Bob’s/Sue’s personality or something else. That is the difficulty with the term “highly sensitive person.”
In the second sentence, we can immediately get a sense that we are talking about something that is an aspect of Bob’s/Sue’s physical makeup (that is, their physiology). The description doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with their personality.
And by focusing on the underlying physiology, we also pave a path to addressing some of the physiological challenges that can come with this way of experiencing life.
A Note About “Neurodiversity”
In recent years psychologists have begun to recognize “neurodiversity”; however, the field in general has not really come to terms with what’s being discussed in this article. Namely, that there is a unifying, underlying, evolutionary theme involved. When we begin to understand that certain people are designed to see the world differently, a whole new approach is opened up.
Again, the images of the flower are useful. When looking at these images, the evolutionary intelligence is so obvious that it can be grasped immediately: Bees harvest nectar. Flowers have patterns visible to bees that show them where the nectar is. Simple. Brilliant.
In the same way, an understanding of the purpose of highly sensitive physiology removes a lot of unnecessary noise, conjecture, and use of medication by highlighting a deeper understanding of what is going on in this portion of the population.
Now all we have to do is change our society to recognize and value the presence of this evolutionary design. Just a little bit of work ahead 😉