Environmental Sensitivity is essential for survival
All organisms are sensitive to aspects of the environment, to a greater or lesser extent. Differences in perceiving, processing, and reacting to the environment have been documented in over 100 animal species, including humans. Approximately 1 in 5 people is highly sensitive, which means they are more impacted by aspects of physical and social environments. There is an evolutionary advantage to having a highly sensitive minority group in the population – for example, they can warn of impending danger, locate new food sources, or notice when others need help. However, a highly vigilant nervous system comes at a cost and can lead to overstimulation, fatigue, or feeling overwhelmed. New research shows that being highly sensitive can be useful for learning due to deep processing of information.
The temperamental trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity
The temperamental trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity was first documented over 25 years ago and is now widely established and researched in diverse disciplines including psychology, neurobiology, genetics, and, more recently, education. Sensory Processing Sensitivity is the scientific term referring to a character trait of people who process information deeply, feel emotions very strongly, tend to be highly empathetic, are easily overstimulated, and are aware of small environmental changes.
People with SPS are referred to as highly sensitive persons (HSP) which is determined by a questionnaire. Because they are more sensitive to their environment, they are more impacted by positive and negative environments. For example, a highly sensitive person can benefit more from psychological interventions than a less sensitive individual but may experience poorer mental health outcomes in adverse environments. Also, fMRI studies show that highly sensitive individuals have increased activation in two key brain networks – the default mode network, responsible for deep processing of information, and the salience network, which is believed to be the basis of heightened emotional reactivity.
Benefits of High Sensitivity for Learning
Research has shown that highly sensitive people often have qualities that are helpful for learning. These include deeper processing of information, working memory, attention, divergent thinking, fine visual distinctions, creativity and conscientiousness. Also, being highly sensitive helps with understanding information deeply, learning from experiences, and applying new knowledge in the future.
Recently, researchers investigating success for postsecondary learners found that highly sensitive learners value independent learning and connect deeply with learning about topics that they find meaningful. They also found that highly sensitive people are better at tackling unfamiliar problems, applying principles to new situations, and exploring academic ideas confidently with peers and others. Additionally, they observed that highly sensitive people use a broad range of study and self-care strategies, and prioritise wellbeing and work-life balance. In other words, highly sensitive people apply specific strategies that help them to be successful.
Sometimes, being highly sensitive can present challenges for learners. This might include being easily overwhelmed by too much sensory input or feeling stressed when juggling lots of different tasks. But, the good news is that highly sensitive people can be uniquely positioned to use complex strategies to manage life and study, setting them up for academic success.