Researchers Find Differences In How The Brains Of Some Individuals Process The World Around Them

Apr 02, 2010
Researchers Find Differences In How The Brains Of Some Individuals Process The World Around Them
Highly sensitive (compared to less highly sensitive) individuals show greater brain activation in visual attention areas of the brain when making judgments of subtle changes in scenes.

(PhysOrg.com) -- People who are shy or introverted may actually process their world differently than others, leading to differences in how they respond to stimuli, according to Stony Brook researchers and collaborators in China.

About twenty percent of people are born with this “highly sensitive” trait, which may also manifest itself as inhibitedness, or even neuroticism. The trait can be seen in some children who are “slow to warm up” in a situation but eventually join in, need little punishment, cry easily, ask unusual questions or have especially deep thoughts.

While such traits are relatively familiar because they are easy to observe, the researchers, have found evidence that for those with this innate trait, the actual underlying difference is in the ’s attention to details. The study was conducted by Jadzia Jagiellowicz, Xiaomeng Xu, Arthur Aron, and Elaine Aron at Stony Brook University, along with Guikang Cao and Tingyong Feng of Southwest University, China and Xuchu Weng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China. This research, designed to validate the fundamental role of deeper processing of information, was published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Sensory perception sensitivity (SPS), a personality trait characterized by sensitivity to internal and external stimuli, including social and emotional ones, is found in over one hundred other species, from and fish to canines and primates. Biologists are beginning to agree that within one species there can be two equally successful “personalities.” The sensitive type, always a minority, chooses to observe longer before acting, as if doing their exploring with their brains rather than their limbs. The other type “boldly goes where no one has gone before.” The sensitive’s strategy, sometimes called reactive or responsive, is better when danger is present, opportunities are similar and hard to choose between, or a clever approach is needed. It is not an advantage when resources are plentiful or quick, aggressive action is required.

Perhaps because those studying human personality have not focused on genetics and evolution until recently, these two fundamental innate styles in humans have been largely overlooked. Stony Brook researchers Elaine and Arthur Aron had already found that those with a highly sensitive temperament are, compared to others, more bothered by noise and crowds, more affected by caffeine, and more easily startled. That is, the trait is about sensitivity. Further, they proposed that this is all part of a “sensory processing sensitivity.” In other words, the simple sensory sensitivity to noise, pain, or caffeine is a side effect of an inborn preference to pay more attention to experiences.

Hints of this processing sensitivity were found in the observation that, compared to the majority of people, the sensitive ones among us tend to prefer to take longer to make decisions, are more conscientious, need more time to themselves in order to reflect, and are more easily bored with small talk. However, the theory that what created the difference was processing rather than mere sensitivity needed to be validated.

The research team used a questionnaire already known to separate the sensitive from the non-sensitive. Then the team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) methods to compare the activity of the brains of sensitive and non-sensitive participants while they were in the process of looking for small differences in pictures.

Neuroimaging has been increasingly used to investigate other individual differences, especially neuroticism and introversion, and how these affect emotion and cognition. The Stony Brook team proposed that differences in neuroticism and introversion are often due to something more fundamental, i.e. differences in the attention given to the processing of sensory information. For example, a number of researchers are finding that children who are highly sensitive and raised in a stressful environment are prone to anxiety and depression, which are the components of neuroticism, and to shyness, which is sometimes the cause of introversion. However, when raised in an enriched, supportive environment, those with this “differential susceptibility” are actually happier, healthier, and more socially skilled than others. In both outcomes, it seems that sensitive children are paying more attention to subtle cues indicating, for better or worse, what others are thinking and feeling.

Visual images are transformed into thoughts about those images when the brain associates the images with input from other senses, as well as with emotional reactions. This requires some attention, which is often motivated by emotions and is especially critical for noticing small changes. The investigators had 16 participants compare a photograph of a visual scene with a preceding scene, and asked them to indicate with a button press whether or not the scene had changed. Scenes differed in whether the changes were obvious or subtle, and in how quickly they were presented. Sensitive persons looked at the scenes that had the subtle differences for a longer time than did non-sensitive persons, and showed significantly greater activation in brain areas involved in associating visual input with other input to the brain and with visual attention (i.e., right claustrum; left occipito-temporal; bilateral temporal, medial, and posterior parietal regions). These areas are not simply used for vision itself, but for a deeper processing of input.

This difference that was observed between those who were highly sensitive and those who were not held up even when statistically adjusting for any differences in neuroticism and introversion, making these other traits by themselves unlikely reasons for the difference. Rather, it seems that what makes some people sensitive is a difference in what is going on at a deep level of processing, however happy or unhappy their external lives.

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User comments : 42

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Arkaleus
2 / 5 (16) Apr 02, 2010
I like the traits the Chinese investigators associated with neuroticism: ". . .need little punishment, cry easily, ask unusual questions or have especially deep thoughts."

Sounds like in a totalitarian society these traits are to be discouraged and isolated from the general population, perhaps even treated as a disease. What a fantastic way of disposing of children who might pose a threat to the state by possessing highly dangerous thought-crime qualifiers like "knowing too much" or "inquiring too often".

These anti-social introverts must by brought under control immediately, with their offending brainparts either nullified by drugs or removed by the scalpel. The better they can detect these dangerous perverts the safer the state will be.

We can't reach the dream of socialist perfection with self-thinkers running loose in society, how can we tolerate an individual who is his own person?
marjon
Apr 02, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
sanddog42
4.7 / 5 (12) Apr 02, 2010
Arkaleus, the article does not imply that the Chinese made that association. That's your own prejudice shining through.
paulthebassguy
4.7 / 5 (6) Apr 02, 2010
I found this to be an extremely interesting article.

I can't help but think how much more advanced the human race would be if the majority of people had this, so called, 'highly sensitive' trait and assessed all information thoroughly so that they could act in clever well-thought-through ways.
Cheerio
5 / 5 (5) Apr 03, 2010
I can't begin to describe how fascinating this is for me, on a personal level. They basically just outlined ME.

I've always wondered why the world seemed to hit me harder than anyone else. This is the first thing I've read that makes any sense, in relation to that subject.

My God. It's eerie.
jimru
5 / 5 (5) Apr 03, 2010
i agree completely with Cheerio! haha it is exactly what i was thinking after i finished reading this
Cheerio
5 / 5 (4) Apr 03, 2010
It's crazy. The ease of crying (at ridiculous situations, which I consciously realized didn't warrant that sort of reaction, according to society) as a child, the sensitivity to noise, the visual attention aspect...the whole thing is like reading a biography that I never could've written.
dsl5000
4 / 5 (1) Apr 03, 2010
hmm this kind of coincides with my life philosophy.

"Think before you act, but act before it's too late."
designmemetic
4 / 5 (1) Apr 03, 2010
Does the MRI results correlate with the myers briggs personality typing (MBTI) or the Kiersey temperament sorter? If so, could the author expand and explain the connection otherwise doesn't this study invalidate them.
zafouf
4 / 5 (2) Apr 03, 2010
I'm extremely the "sensitive" the article describes. I used to be this way to the point of anguish, before I found out I was gluten intolerant. Quitting gluten and some other foods made me much less reactive and more comfortable in the world.
I also have a lot of allergies, an autoimmune disease - Hashimoto's, and probably celiac disease. So I'm sensitive in that way too!
It makes me wonder what the connection is between emotional reactivity and immune hypersensitivity.
marjon
2.4 / 5 (5) Apr 03, 2010
Will this lead to a 'cure' so we all think alike?
Who is to say if this is not a trait leading toward a more evolved human?
ubavontuba
3.8 / 5 (4) Apr 03, 2010
Hmm... I wonder how this might relate to Asperger's syndrome, and other autism spectrum disorders.
fliss
5 / 5 (1) Apr 03, 2010
How fortunate it is to belong to such a group of articulate deep thinkers and to have scientific recognition of viewing the world in a slightly more magnified way. Reflecting on earlier comments is diversity not essential to evolution? Society seems to condition us to possess more masculine traits which makes this finding even more significant.
skybluskyblue
not rated yet Apr 03, 2010
Arka. ; talk about neuroticism! Ever heard of paranoia?
Aubrey
not rated yet Apr 04, 2010
I think there needs to be a clearer distinction between extreme sensitivy to external stimuli and introversion as I see them sort of lumped together here. I am a sensitive and very introverted person and I share the heightened sensitivity (to crowds, caffeine, loud noises)with one of my young nephews who is yet very outgoing and requires more discipline and supervision that others his own age. The one thing I can't figure out is why he is not as sensitive or aware of his own noise he projects :)
illuminated1
4 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
I would have replied to this sooner but I had to process it deeply first. I see myself in this, that I am hyper-sensitive, nice that they found a neurological basis for it. But so what? Shouldn't we validate sensitive people without some biological basis for explaining it? Are we going to wait on some more brain scans before we validate socially awkward people too?
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
Article:
this “highly sensitive” trait, which may also manifest itself as inhibitedness, or even neuroticism.
Whoever publicly declares to be "highly sensitive" certainly is not inhibited.
Cheerio
5 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
Article:
this �highly sensitive� trait, which may also manifest itself as inhibitedness, or even neuroticism.
Whoever publicly declares to be "highly sensitive" certainly is not inhibited.


Which just might be something they've been working on. For years.
frajo
1.7 / 5 (3) Apr 05, 2010
Article:
this "highly sensitive" trait, which may also manifest itself as inhibitedness, or even neuroticism.
Whoever publicly declares to be "highly sensitive" certainly is not inhibited.
Which just might be something they've been working on. For years.
I happen to know highly sensitive people. For some 50 years. They have learnt to cope with their peculiarities. But they never, never publicly or privately talk about themselves this way. They know that their peers will understand their trait without any need to communicate it explicitly. And they know that those who aren't their peers must not know because sensitivity makes vulnerable.
hagureinu
5 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
I happen to know highly sensitive people. For some 50 years. They have learnt to cope with their peculiarities. But they never, never publicly or privately talk about themselves this way. They know that their peers will understand their trait without any need to communicate it explicitly. And they know that those who aren't their peers must not know because sensitivity makes vulnerable.

well, as an extremely sensitive person i can assure you, that your point of view is somewhat limited. there are lots of ways sensitive people learn to cope with their sensitivity, depending on their childhood experiences and environment. overcompensation is not uncommon. sensitive people often use dissociation as a protection mechanism, and easily can talk about their feelings as if it happens to someone else, while completely unable to express any of these feelings.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
well, as an extremely sensitive person i can assure you, that your point of view is somewhat limited.
What's the point of declaring publicly that one thinks to be "highly sensitive"? Sensitivity is a positive trait which must be hidden from the people who are not sensitive.
hagureinu
not rated yet Apr 05, 2010
What's the point of declaring publicly that one thinks to be "highly sensitive"?

why not? what's the point of hiding it?

Sensitivity is a positive trait which must be hidden from the people who are not sensitive.

who says it's positive and why it must be hidden? in extreme cases it can be devastating for sensitive people themselves and to those who're around. some severe mental illnesses, like BPD, are actually formed over high sensitivity.
KBK
4 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
It must be noted that empathy is the thing that allows a human to feel and understand what it is like to be in another's shoes or in their life/mind in difficult situations.

This is a right brained activity and consideration - abstract feelings bridged to concrete. This is also the key that has allowed mankind to advance culturally, but it is also the key of blindness in those who do have it that has allowed those who do not posses it to run amok and create havoc in the world.

To reiterate: people with empathy identify with empathy and thus do not realize that there are many who do not possess it and those who do not are the ones wreaking havoc in the world today via mental process that is based in sheer animalism. Ie, sociopaths who hide among us.

Most of these uncaring scumbags are good at hiding this mental trait...and are in the military, corporate, political, financial and business worlds, as that is where their little animalistic mushrooms grow and work together the best.
marjon
1.3 / 5 (4) Apr 05, 2010
Most of these uncaring scumbags are good at hiding this mental trait...and are in the military, corporate, political, financial and business worlds, as that is where their little animalistic mushrooms grow and work together the best.

You don't have much empathy for people in the real world who keep you safe, fed and housed.
Dan_f
5 / 5 (4) Apr 05, 2010
Hmm... I wonder how this might relate to Asperger's syndrome, and other autism spectrum disorders.


given that those are characterised by a lack of empathy and sensitivity to social and emotional cues, I would guess there's no relation at all.
bemused_wonderment
5 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
Article:
this �highly sensitive� trait, which may also manifest itself as inhibitedness, or even neuroticism.
Whoever publicly declares to be "highly sensitive" certainly is not inhibited.


Not inhibited or perhaps not threatened. The "highly sensitive" are often forced to hide their gifts, knowing that there are many who will persecute them for sport. Among peers, their long-repressed trust and goodwill come quickly to the front.
illuminated1
5 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2010
We can not narrow down highly sensitive and at least initially socially inhibited human organism into one half of the brain. The deeper processing and visual aspects of this does suggest a right hemispheric dominance. My point of view is that integration and symbiosis of the two hemispheres is both mental health and our best selves.
Rdavid
not rated yet Apr 07, 2010
fMRIs performed on highly insensitive people typically reveal plates in their heads.
Simonsez
5 / 5 (2) Apr 07, 2010
well, as an extremely sensitive person i can assure you, that your point of view is somewhat limited.
What's the point of declaring publicly that one thinks to be "highly sensitive"? Sensitivity is a positive trait which must be hidden from the people who are not sensitive.

Pardon, but I disagree with the suggestion that posters in this thread are "publicly" declaring their sensitivity. The fact that none of their real names or faces are present hardly makes this a public declaration as opposed to a very anonymous statement on an internet messageboard about a scientific study, and because of this anonymity is naturally a more comfortable and safe environment for such declarations to go "unpunished" as it were.
frajo
1 / 5 (2) Apr 07, 2010
well, as an extremely sensitive person i can assure you, that your point of view is somewhat limited.
What's the point of declaring publicly that one thinks to be "highly sensitive"? Sensitivity is a positive trait which must be hidden from the people who are not sensitive.
Pardon, but I disagree with the suggestion that posters in this thread are "publicly" declaring their sensitivity. The fact that none of their real names or faces are present hardly makes this a public declaration as opposed to a very anonymous statement on an internet messageboard about a scientific study, and because of this anonymity is naturally a more comfortable and safe environment for such declarations to go "unpunished" as it were.
Then it's posing. "Highly sensitive" people are no boasters. And, "highly sensitive" people don't have any need to tell the rest of the world about their trait. Only posers do; especially male posers.
Simonsez
2 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2010
frajo, I agree to a point, but I think you go too far with that assumption (assuming myself that you do not fall under this category of highly sensitive folks by your statements). It is possible but not feasible to verify in this instance. As it stands I maintain that the article describes hypersensitives with regard specifically to immediate, situational human social interaction with little or no focus on internet [anonymous] interaction at a distance through a text-based medium. A separate study should be done to review the findings with regard to human-less/distance text-based social interaction before we can claim these kinds of conclusions. As a matter of opinion, however, I agree the likelihood is low for any self-admitted hypersensitivity coming from an allegedly reformed/conditioned hypersensitive to be anything but posing. Were this a social networking site I would even be inclined to bet against it. :)
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2010
As it stands I maintain that the article describes hypersensitives with regard specifically to immediate, situational human social interaction with little or no focus on internet [anonymous] interaction at a distance through a text-based medium. A separate study should be done to review the findings with regard to human-less/distance text-based social interaction before we can claim these kinds of conclusions.
I agree on that. My personal experience cannot equal a scientific study.
rushty
5 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2010
Then it's posing. "Highly sensitive" people are no boasters. And, "highly sensitive" people don't have any need to tell the rest of the world about their trait. Only posers do; especially male posers.


Just because you may be "highly sensitive" doesn't mean you lack the basic human need for camaraderie. I've taken great interest in reading every word of the article and comments so far because it basically describes me to a T, and it's nice to interact with and hear the opinions of other similarly minded people. I would have posted something like Cheerio has if I weren't a few days late to the party already
frajo
3 / 5 (2) Apr 08, 2010
Just because you may be "highly sensitive" doesn't mean you lack the basic human need for camaraderie.
Being "highly sensitive" you know painfuly well that you will be doing a disservice to your basic human need for "cameraderie" by exposing your trait in a basically hostile environment. Words hurt you even in anonymity.
Simonsez
5 / 5 (2) Apr 08, 2010
Being "highly sensitive" you know painfuly well that you will be doing a disservice to your basic human need for "cameraderie" by exposing your trait in a basically hostile environment. Words hurt you even in anonymity.

This is where I again take issue. For the sake of argument, assume that a majority of posters here (so far) are biologically mature and at least over half are psychologically mature, and all are critical thinkers (a lot of assumptions, I know!). It stands to reason that, especially with age and practice, your ability to think critically improves, including your ability to think critically about your own attributes of personality and psychology. Why then is it not reasonable to think that a person who has identified themselves as hyper-sensitive by observation (if not in the very precise descriptions found in the article) and has also spent a good portion of their time on messageboards, has learned to deflect some of the potential 'pain' of words?
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Apr 08, 2010
Sensitivity is a positive trait which must be hidden from the people who are not sensitive.

I disagree that sensitivity can have a positive or negative absolute value.

In most survival situations heightened emotional sensitivity is of extreme detriment, and as you said above, frajo, sensitive people typically become fodder for insensitive people due to their heightened experience of emotion. Now inside of a society, especially a collectivist society, emotional sensitivity is of extreme merit, maybe not to the sensitive person, but to the society as a whole. Again, in child rearing sensitivity and empathy are of great benefit, in scientific experiment it is not.

The only piece in this debate I disagree with is adding that qualitative statement as an absolute value.
frajo
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 08, 2010
Why then is it not reasonable to think that a person who has identified themselves as hyper-sensitive by observation (if not in the very precise descriptions found in the article) and has also spent a good portion of their time on messageboards, has learned to deflect some of the potential 'pain' of words?
This is perfectly reasonable. And the most elegant method to deflect this "pain" is by not mentioning one's personal trait.
Anyhow, what sense does it make to proclaim some personal trait in a medium that does not allow any confirmation of this trait? What can I buy by outing myself as, say, female, or, say, priest, or, say, Chinese? I don't see any advantage. The same holds true for "highly sensitive". If I'm interested in the peculiarities of "highly sensitive" people I can very well discuss this subject without referring to my own perceived status which would be nothing more than an unsubstantiated claim in this medium.
Simonsez
4 / 5 (1) Apr 08, 2010
We are very much in agreement there. I am not arguing there is any merit to stating it over a messageboard or even in a public social situation--especially in public, where it would be very likely detrimental for reasons you already stated. I have only argued that internet messageboards are hardly to be considered a public social interaction, extrapolated that any alleged hyper-sensitives would have far less risk mentioning it to (relative) peers and strangers at a distance and through a text-based medium, and observing that the article does not seem to consider the reactions of hyper-sensitives to interaction through such a medium. I don't really see a point to posting here just to label oneself, or that it adds much to the discussion; however, I understood the intent of those comments to be just that - innocent comments on the level of "Oh, it all makes sense now." I could be wrong, this is the internet after all and this site has gained its fair share of trolls lately. :)
hush1
5 / 5 (1) Apr 08, 2010
http://www.physor...860.html

Are these same-sourced articles?

http://www.physor...801.html - (is the one you are looking at right now.)

Gaz444
not rated yet Apr 09, 2010
Just a thought, do you think this could be related to "Low Latent Inhibition" ???
otto1923
1 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2010
Frajo is a highly sensitive feminist who views sensitivity as a weakness and so protests so much about it here. Be a man, frajo says. Quit whining. Sounds like my daddy.
Benjo
4 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2010
Can anyone Say Indigo.
satyricon
not rated yet Apr 10, 2010
I agree with Cheerio..

This is an extremely insightful article for me.