Donders Wonders Blog

Portrait Adult Businessman Male Happy Man

Public Symposium on Highly Sensitive Personality

This post is also available in Dutch.

Are you a HSP, a “Highly Sensitive Person”? Is HSP a hype or scientifically valid?

This symposium in September at the Donders Institute presents our current scientific insights.

Modern life is characterized by increasing environmental stimulation. Think of mobile phones and social media, crowds, advertisements, deadlines, performance tests, violent movies, etc. While some may thrive well while being stimulated constantly, for individuals that naturally process such information more deeply, it can be too intense or too much. These more sensitive people are referred to as “Highly Sensitive Persons” or HSP, and are thought to compromise about 20% of the population. The consequence of overstimulation can be stress-related problems like burn-out, anxiety and depressive symptoms. But may such vulnerability also have an upside?

Image credit: Michal Huniewicz (CC BY 3.0) 

What is HSP precisely?

HSP is a temperament trait characterised by greater depth of information processing and greater emotional responsivity. Essentially, HSP reflects sensitivity to environmental influences, both positive and negative ones. HSP is thought to be a trait that is evolutionarily conserved (which means that it has existed for quite a long time during evolution, which generally implies that it is useful). This insight comes from the observation in more than 100 animal species that a minority of individuals (roughly 20% of the population) are very sensitive and responsive to the environment. This makes sense, because it is essential for survival to avoid threat and get food and quickly adapt to the environmental circumstances.

Image credit: Max Pixel (CC0)

Hype or scientifically valid construct?

HSP receives a lot of media attention. There are books, websites, meetings on the topic, and even a movie featuring singer Alanis Morissette. Critics say that HSP is just a hype.

Scientific research is lagging behind the media attention that HSP receives, but it is catching up, with around 70 scientific articles at present. Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), the scientific term for HSP, can be assessed with a validated scale that is used to assess a child’s or adult’s level of sensitivity. SPS is a heritable trait (around 47% due to genes and 53% due to environment). Studies have also shown that SPS is largely independent from other personality and temperament traits. There is research on the behavioural and neural correlates of SPS, also using animal models, supporting associations between SPS and cognitive, sensory and emotional information processing.

Can vulnerability be turned into a strength?

The emotions of highly sensitive people are more likely to turn negative when environmental stimuli are negative. But their emotions are also more likely to be positive when environmental stimuli are positive. Scientific research suggests that such emotional flexibility could turn this vulnerability into a strength. Highly Sensitive Persons are characterised by a high level of empathy, intuition, conscientiousness, and creativity, and these innate factors can be boosted by providing a positive environment, like warm parenting and social support. Further, there is evidence that individuals high on SPS respond better to psychological intervention.

Public symposium

Researchers from the Donders Institute are organizing a public symposium on HSP, to be held on September 18th 2018. The aim is to inform society about the current scientific knowledge of HSP. The hope is to stimulate high-quality research on HSP to further validate the trait, to test methods to prevent overstimulation and ultimately boost the strengths of sensitive individuals.

Links: Due to overwhelming interest, the symposium is already sold out (the symposium is held in Dutch). If you would like to be updated about future events, and to be added on the waiting list, you can register here:

Image credit: Christian (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Written by Judith Homberg and Corina Greven
Edited by Annelies van Nuland
Translated by Felix Klaassen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *