Is rationality a higher form of sensitivity

High sensitivity

High sensitivity (also: Hypersensitivity, High sensitivity, Over-sensitivity or colloquial Hypersensitivity, abbreviated: HS) denotes a phenomenon in which those affected (HSP; engl. highly sensitive person; highly sensitive personality) perceive and process stimuli more than other people due to their sensitive perceptual disposition. This can include, for example, sensitivity to loud noises, sunlight, smells or clothing, whereby the inner experience of an HSP is also described as more intense. A hereditary neural constitution that has not yet been described in detail is a possible cause.[1] So far, however, there is no recognized and unambiguous neuroscientific definition of the phenomenon, as HS research is still in its infancy.[2]

The American psychologist Elaine N. Aron is considered to be the founder of scientific research on the construct and phenomenon of high sensitivity.[3] According to Aron, 15-25% of all people are in the spectrum of high sensitivity.

Overlapping characteristics of people with HS and ADHD are often observed. Occasionally, it is also suspected that there could be correlations between ADHD and HS.[4] However, this is speculation. A direct connection between ADHD and high sensitivity has not yet been clarified; an etiologically significant correlation seems rather unlikely.[5] Rather, isolated, clearly impressive phenotypic overlaps due to a tendency towards increased stimulus openness, which both phenomena have in common, are more likely. However, this does not mean that HS and ADHD have to be mutually exclusive. In view of the phenotypic overlap, misdiagnosis of ADHD due to HS disposition cannot be ruled out.

The assessment of high sensitivity as a “mental disorder” or “illness” is rejected, but the disposition can possibly carry an increased risk of developing mental disorders.

Appearance of the highly sensitive personality

Situations with a high volume of intense stimuli are often difficult to endure for highly sensitive people. For people who are not highly sensitive, their great need for peace and clarity is usually incomprehensible.

Basically, the range of possible manifestations of high sensitivity is characterized by a high degree of heterogeneity. According to the definition (including Aron), high sensitivity is characterized by a generally stronger and more detailed perception of sensory impressions, more intensive internal processes and a higher intensity of feeling the moods of fellow human beings. The overall picture of an HSP includes character traits that are characterized by introversion, intense experience of social relationships, strong reactions to drugs and other substances, susceptibility to stress, (performance) pressure and lack of time as well as an unusually complex and multi-layered personality structure. Authors such as Aron and Davies, however, criticize the confusion of HS with introversion, as well as shyness or inhibition, which is often postulated in the literature, and suggest separating these conceptually, since these attributes are more likely to be assessed as negative consequences of unfavorable environmental factors, because negative influences are easier can develop their effect on the sensitive basic disposition.[6]

Ultimately, the appearance of a highly sensitive person also depends on the personality development of the individual concerned, which can be traced back to the resources available within the development phases. People with a highly sensitive constitution almost always have a significantly higher vulnerability and are more at risk of negative development or the development of diseases with biographical priorities. In addition to the increased perception of external stimuli (which can imply being overwhelmed and overwhelmed), the more intensive internal processing is also important. For example, seemingly insignificant events or statements by others are often given great importance. Depending on the attribution pattern, highly sensitive people take even the smallest social stimuli to heart, which are not even registered by others, and look for a personal reference or for (possibly nonexistent) subtle negative implications that they relate to themselves. With this behavior, those affected encounter incomprehension in society. From outsiders who cannot understand the perceptions and feelings, highly sensitive people with these rather negative attribution patterns or a rather low self-esteem are therefore perceived as conflict-averse and inaccessible, but also, depending on the character structure and tightness of the personal relationship, as quarrelsome, conflict-seeking or irascible.

Mostly unpopular with highly sensitive people is also participation in activities that are popular in society, which take place in larger groups or in situations with a high number of (unknown) people. A situation in a marquee, for example, in which people sway, sing and dance with loud music and the smell of alcohol, various foods and cigarette smoke is difficult and acute for most of those affected due to the multiple “super stimuli” Those affected will avoid comparable situations from the outset, or they will quickly feel the need to withdraw from the situation. You are always exposed to an urgent need to explain and the application of “white lies”, since avoiding comparable situations is usually rated by outsiders as a low social interest or arrogance, which is not the cause of the avoidance in each case.

People with a highly sensitive constitution also prefer a clear environment in social terms, in which assessability and predictability give them a feeling of security. Her great strength is very often in dealing with others in an empathic manner.[7]

A clear weak point of highly sensitive people in modern and performance-oriented society is the mostly low interest in competition and aggressive self-assertion. In many relevant competitive situations, for example in the context of a professional assessment, this tendency to avoidance also turns out to be a disadvantage with possibly significant negative consequences for the person concerned.[8] which are directly related to the highly sensitive constitution.

Properties according to Aron

The characteristics of highly sensitive people were first systematically described by Elaine Aron. These include, for example:

Pronounced subtle (psychosocial) perception

HSPs perceive both social and non-social stimuli more strongly and process them more intensively. They also perceive subtle social stimuli and moods (sometimes consciously) and can be easily influenced by them.

Detailed perception

The detailed perception mostly relates to all sensory stimuli. Music, art, voices, dialects, smells, tastes and so on are perceived and processed more clearly and differently.

Very good long-term memory

Those affected can sometimes remember details that are apparently not very relevant, as events are often stored in a way that is strongly linked to the intensified emotional sensitivities.

Can be influenced by other people's moods

Particularly with regard to the psychosocial influenceability and the inability to distance oneself from the emotional perceptions and expressions of others, in unfavorable cases there can be an increased vulnerability and thus a risk of developing mental illnesses (such as depression).

Thinking in bigger contexts

Those affected often have a structurally divergent thinking style in which thoughts are closely associated with emotions. Many of those affected find it difficult to form or understand rational thoughts that are separate from emotions.

Mostly complex and stable personality structure

Personality instabilities are not listed as characteristics of high sensitivity, however, depending on the biography and psychosocial conditions, unstable personality disorders (such as borderline PS) can also occur as a result of a mental illness.

Differentiation of high sensitivity and hypersensitivity

High sensitivity and oversensitivity in the profane sense are often confused due to the phenomenological overlap. However, while hypersensitivity (in the sense of irritability or nervousness) shows itself as an expression of a disproportionately strong reaction to stimuli, high sensitivity is almost always associated with an increased range of perception.[9]

The characteristics described by Aron are clearly positive and are attributed as strengths within the framework of the paradigm she has constructed. However, due to the fact that the construct has so far been little researched and little known, various behavioral components are associated with clinically relevant factors such as anxiety and depression, neuroticism or low intelligence, even in the clinical context.[10]

Social fears

The current state of research shows that the results so far point in a direction that suggests that there are interactions between high sensitivity and social fears.[11] However, science is only just beginning here.

The presumption of a connection between high sensitivity and social fears or social phobia is suggested by the increased vulnerability of highly sensitive personalities to social (threat) stimuli, such as actual or potential criticism, isolation, humiliation and rejection.[12] Social situations, such as contact with strangers, competitive and judgmental situations, are associated with a high degree of intensity, complexity and, above all, unpredictability and strong stimulation, which leads to overstimulation in highly sensitive people much faster than in non-highly sensitive people. This leads to a temporary impairment of cognitive abilities and social performance, which is why the next, similar situation can lead to even greater overexcitation and poorer performance.[13]

Another causal factor that favors avoidance behavior are the behavioral deviations that are observed in highly sensitive personalities. The effects show similarities to mental disorders, including the social abnormalities of ADHD.

The consequence is often an avoidance of social interaction, since in this way those affected can avoid or control aversive stimuli such as potential rejection and the unpleasant state of overexcitation. Those affected avoid such situations entirely or, if possible, withdraw from the situation as early as possible if overexcitation is imminent or when overexcitation occurs.

The avoidance behavior described closes the cycle of social anxiety. While it is an effective strategy as a short-term stabilizing factor, it prevents exposure and habituation to social stimuli. Those affected lose the opportunity to make corrective experiences and learn coping strategies, which will lead to a further decrease in self-efficacy expectations.

High sensitivity and ADHD

Differentiation of the constructs ADHD and high sensitivity

The constructs of high sensitivity and ADHD show certain overlaps on the descriptive level. Experts such as Trappman-Korr (Germany) or Webb (USA) assume that a large number of people diagnosed with ADHD are actually misdiagnosed people with an unrecognized highly sensitive constitution. Webb even assumes a mix-up rate of 50%.[14] According to Trappmann-Korr, the most important criterion that leads to a misdiagnosis of ADHD in the case of high sensitivity is the increased openness to stimuli, which is most evident in the mainly inattentive ADHD subtypes. However, high sensitivity and ADHD need not be mutually exclusive. However, a common occurrence will make a clear differentiation very difficult or even impossible.

In addition, people with a highly sensitive disposition can be assumed to be generally more vulnerable and more susceptible to stress and illness.[15] Various studies also show strong correlations between high sensitivity to depression as well as anxiety disorders and avoidance behavior.[16] In view of the overall clinical picture, these can easily be misinterpreted as ADHD comorbidities, while concentration disorders and impulsive behavior (such as secondary disorders or maladaptions) are seen as symptoms of primary ADHD.

Similarities and differences between ADHD and high sensitivity

Although there have been hardly any scientific studies on the phenomenon of high sensitivity and no scientific comparative work on ADHD versus high sensitivity, similarities and differences can be described from the experience of practical therapeutic work with both groups of people affected.


Both phenomena lead to an increased uptake of stimuli (possibly neurologically caused) with increased stress intolerance, overexcitability and a tendency to emotional instability. Increased distractibility can also be observed with both phenomena - in the case of high sensitivity, however, predominantly with external stimulus overload and various simultaneous external demands.


The typical ADHD problems in self-control (attention control, action control, etc.) and self-regulation are not typical for high sensitivity. Likewise, the phenomenon of the HSP does not include any increased impulsiveness in the sense of rash action. Highly sensitive personalities can be quite inattentive and distractible in stimulus-intensive settings. However, when there are no external stimuli and distractions, there are usually no attention problems. In contrast, ADHD sufferers have an equally high tendency to be distracted and inattentive when they are alone.


Another critical aspect is the fact that high sensitivity - as a phenomenon that is not defined as a pathology - does not represent a differentiable psychiatric diagnosis despite its pathogenetic potential. In most cases, therefore, in the context of ADHD differential diagnosis, no delimitation from possible high sensitivity can be considered.

As a rule, ADHD diagnostics are only initiated when the individual is exposed to considerable psychological stress and corresponding impairments due to his or her symptoms. A positive ADHD diagnosis will be realized - assuming a careful diagnostic procedure - also taking dimensional factors into account, which include the respective symptom severity and the causal psychological stress. However, viewed in isolation, high sensitivity is not associated with psychological stress; Rather, unlike the primary diagnosis of ADHD, environmental conditions alone are decisive in the development of secondary disorders or diseases. The variable causes and the indicated therapy and coping methods of the two confusing phenomena, high sensitivity and ADHD, imply the major one importancethat should be used to differentiate the phenomena: A misdiagnosis of ADHD due to a masked high sensitivity carries, in addition to the consequences and side effects of incorrect treatment of stimulants, a high risk of worsening of the condition as well as lifelong stigmatization.

Possible genetic links between ADHD and high sensitivity

Both with certain ADHD characteristics (including impulsiveness, extraversion, antisocial behavior),[17][18] as well as with regard to high sensitivity, correlations with polymorphisms on certain alleles of the DRD4 and DRD2 genes are discussed on the basis of current research data.[19] So far, however, there are no useful findings and possible connections are highly speculative.

state of research

Discussed causes

Fruit fly experiment by Osborne et al. (2007): The more cautious behavior of those labeled as sitters becomes clear Drosophila-Fruit fly larvae feeding. As with more than 100 other species, the researchers were able to identify polymorphisms in Drosophila that suggest a genetic involvement in reticent behavior.[20]

Elaine Aron suspects that high sensitivity is a special constitution of those neuronal systems in the brain that are responsible for stimulus processing, including deviations in particular in the cerebral cortex and the thalamus.Aron's further developed considerations are based on earlier theories on increased sensitivity, for example by Alice Miller, Carl Gustav Jung or Iwan Petrowitsch Pawlow, as well as on the still rudimentary, current neuroscientific findings. Pavlov already realized that high sensitivity can also be found in the animal kingdom and is therefore probably due to neural processes.

In HSP, for example, those neuronal networks and brain areas that are responsible for the inhibition of the excitation potential are less developed due to a (not yet deeply researched) genetic determination, which results in a higher level of excitation of the cerebral cortex than is the case in other individuals .[21] In addition, a deviating function of the thalamus is possible with HSP, which is associated with a less pronounced ability to filter stimuli,[22] so that the brain of the person concerned has to process more stimuli than that of a person who is not highly sensitive. In addition, there are also indications on the organic side that can be interpreted as increased thalamic activity, such as the increased cortisol level described by Aron and the more pronounced sensitivity to lack of sleep, caffeine and feelings of hunger and thirst, which are organically linked to the hypothalamus.

The basis for the above-mentioned hypotheses, which include neuroscientific factors, are primarily fMRI studies from 2011 and 2013 as well as 2014.[23] The fMRI studies were carried out to prove correlations between stimuli and reactive neuronal activity in specific brain regions.[24] With HSP, a higher activity was found in brain regions, which are responsible, among other things, for attention, empathy, higher cognitive processes and self-perception. Increased activity in HSPs was found for positive and negative social as well as positive and negative non-social stimuli.

Evolutionary Aspects

Common sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus): In the course of research, peculiarities on both the neuronal and behavioral level were found, which also suggest a genetically determined constitution for the high sensitivity.

In her work, Aron differentiates between two behavioral variations (rover and sitter, as responsive and unresponsive types), which she regards as evolutionary biologically relevant for the HSP. According to Aron, the difference between rovers and sitters on the behavioral level is a tendency to act (risk-taking) with rovers and a cautious wait for sitters, which can be traced back to a certain genetic constitution regardless of socialization and cultural background. This assumption is also supported by various neurobiological findings, which meanwhile for more than 100 species (including primates[25], Rats, [26] Goats[27] and fishing[28]) are available.

A well-known experiment in this context is a study with fish by Wilson from 1993. This showed clear differences between the populations in terms of responsiveness in that one part of the population swam to a feeding trap without hesitation, while a considerably smaller part significantly showed hesitant behavior and initially observed. At the behavioral level, the wait-and-see variation was also less aggressive and more frightened.[29] From these observations, the authors derive the theory that the two different behaviors contain the two most biologically successful survival strategies. While the behavior of the majority is more productive, the observing minority exposes itself to a significantly lower risk in the long term.

See also: Hunter / Farmer Theory.

Operationalization of high sensitivity

Together with her husband Arthur Aron, Elaine Aron conceived the 1997 Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS). This should make it possible to measure the construct of high sensitivity. The scale initially comprised 27 questions, including “Do you quickly feel overwhelmed when exposed to strong external stimuli?” Or “Are you unusually sensitive to physical pain?”.[30] A study by Smolewska et al. In 2006 it came to the conclusion that the HSPS developed by the Aron couple is a valid and reliable instrument for determining high sensitivity.[31] In addition, the researchers found that the scale can be divided into three components, which make different variants detectable: Aesthetic perception (Aesthetic Sensitivity, AES), Low stimulus tolerance (Low sensory threshold; LST) and Ease of Arousal (Ease of Excitation, EOE). According to the theory, the variants should each correlate with certain neuronal constitutions, for example the authors suspect an association between a high AES score and dopaminergically organized brain areas.[32]

Scientific publications



  • Aron, Elaine; Aron, Arthur (1997): Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and its Relation to Introversion and Emotionality (PDF)
  • Aron, E. (2006): The clinical implications of Jung's concept of sensitiveness (PDF)
  • Aron, Elaine N. (2004). Revisiting Jung's concept of innate sensitiveness (PDF)
  • Amodio, David M. et al. (2008). Neurocognitive components of the behavioral inhibition and activation systems: Implications for theories of self-regulation (PDF)
  • Acevedo, Bianca P .; Aron, Elaine N. et al. (2014): "The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others' emotions" (PDF)
  • Wolf, M. et al. (2008). Evolutionary emergence of responsive and unresponsive personalities (PDF)
  • Ahadi, B. et al. (2010): Relationship Between Sensory Processing Sensitivity, Personality Dimensions and Mental Health (PDF)
  • Benham, G. (2006): The highly sensitive person: Stress and physical symptom reports (PDF)
  • Osborne et al. (2007): Natural Behavior of Polymorphism Due to a cGMP-Dependent Protein Kinase of Drosophilia (PDF)
  • Chen et al. (2011): Contributions of Dopamine-Related Genes and Environmental Factors to Highly Sensitive Personality: A Multi-Step Neuronal System-Level Approach

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See also

Web links

More interesting articles

Individual evidence

  1. ↑ http: //
  2. ↑ http: //
  3. ↑ Aron, E.N., & Aron, A. (1997). Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 345-368.
  4. ↑ http: //
  5. ↑ http: //
  6. ↑ http: //
  7. ↑ http: //
  8. ^ Aron, Elaine (1996). The Highly Sensitive Person, p. 236.
  9. ↑ see "Thalamische Affizierbarkeit" Klages 1991
  10. ↑
  11. ↑ https: //
  12. ↑ https: //
  13. ↑ http: //
  14. ↑ Webb et al. 2005. The Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Asperger's, Depression, and Other Disorders. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press
  15. ↑ Benham G. 2006. The Highly Sensitive Person: Stress and physical symptom reports. Personality and Individual Differences 40, 1433-1440.
  16. ↑ Hofman, S. G. & Bitran S. 2007. Sensory-processing sensitivity in social anxiety disorder: Relationship to harm avoidance and diagnostic subtypes. Journal of Anxiety Disorders 21 (7), pp. 944-954.
  17. ↑ Smillie LD, Cooper AJ, Proitsi P, Powell JF, Pickering AD. Variation in DRD2 dopamine gene predicts Extraverted personality. Neurosci Lett. 2010; 468 (3): 234-237.
  18. ^ Ivorra-Martinez J, Gilabert-Juan J, Molto-Ruiz MD, Sanjuan J. The genetics of child temperament. Rev Neurol. 2007; 45: 418-423
  19. ↑ http: //
  20. ↑ https: //
  21. ↑ http: // V = W80oIQUdfqw # t = 1m31s
  22. ^ Klages 1991, Benham 2006
  23. ↑ http: //
  24. ↑ http: //
  25. ↑ Higley, J.D. & Suomi, S.J. (1989): Temperamental reactivity in non-human primates. In G. A. Kohnstamm, J. E. Bates & M. K. Rothbart (Eds.), Temperament in childhood (pp. 153-167), Chichester.
  26. ↑ Blanchard, R. J., Flannelly, K. J. & Blanchard, D. C. (1986): Defensive behaviors of laboratory and wild Rattus norvegicus. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 100, 101-107.
  27. ↑ Lyons, D. M., Price, E. O. & Moberg, G. P. (1988): Individual differences in temperament of domestic dairy goats. Constancy and change. Animal Behavior, 36, 1323-1333.
  28. ↑ Wilson, D.S., Coleman, K., Clark, A.B. & Biederman, L. (1993): Shy-bold continuum in pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus): An ecological study of a psychological trait. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 107, 250-260.
  29. ↑ Wilson, D.S., Coleman, K., Clark, A.B. & Biederman, L. (1993): Shy-bold continuum in pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus): An ecological study of a psychological trait. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 107, 250-260.
  30. ↑ http: //
  31. ↑ http: //
  32. ↑ http: //