News Flash: Scientists Discover Reason Why I Hate to Be Tickled, Part 1

This is the book I read a few years ago that started this whole business.

This is the book I read a few years ago that started this whole business.

Loyal readers of my blog know that I recently returned from a weekend retreat for HSPs (Highly Sensitive People) conducted by Elaine Aron, Ph.D. and author of many books and articles on the subject. Elaine is an HSP, too. The weekend was tough on her. It was pretty exhausting for me as well, but all I had to do was participate, not orchestrate.

I’ve gotten some feedback via comments that some of you out there are interested in what I learned over the weekend. My bet is that the interested parties are either HSPs or have to live with someone who is.

But maybe some of you don’t buy the notion that people can be “typed” as either “highly sensitive” or not. Either way, I will share with you what I learned. You can take the information and do with it what you will.

Elaine had several objectives for the the weekend:

1. define the trait that we all feel we share.

2. reassure us that our HSP-ness is real and documented in scientific fact

3. give us a number of coping strategies to deal with a variety of life situations in which we find ourselves that easily overwhelm us (relationships, work, stressful situations)

4. emphasize the positive qualities HSPs bring to the world, and not just bemoan the challenges we have in navigating the world

5. illustrate that we are as different from each other as we are similar to each other (we can’t be lumped together, as in “all HSPs are this way or are that way”)

I’ll address each of these points.

Are you an HSP?

If you visit Elaine’s web site, she has a self test. The higher you score, the more highly sensitive you are.

HSPs are self identified by taking this test. This instrument has been tested by researchers for internal and external validity and the items on the test “hang together” (not exactly a sophisticated methodological term, but you get the idea) consistently. This test is the “gold standard” for measuring sensitivity in adults.

Beyond taking the test, HSPs react to their world in ways differently than non-HSPs. Specifically, we:

1. process sensory stimuli more deeply

2. are easily over-stimulated or overwhelmed by all this stimuli that we are processing at such deep levels

3. have heightened emotional responses to both the stimuli and the over-stimulation

4. notice what many other miss or are more sensitive to subtle stimuli in our environment

All of these tendencies culminate in a person who is highly reactive to what is happening around her/him and needs a lot of quiet, alone-time to recover from what we perceive as chaos (but most people perceive as “normal life”).

A normal work day for most; a reason to start crying for me.

A normal work day for most; a reason to start crying for me.

The Science Behind the Sensitivity

The tendencies mentioned above are genetic, but can be enhanced or diminished by environmental factors–just like most genetic predispositions.

Elaine presented a long series of research studies. They are summarized in Aron, E. N. (2012). Temperament in psychotherapy: Reflections on clinical practice with the trait of sensitivity. In M. Zentner & R. Shiner (Eds.), Handbook of temperament (pp. 645-670). New York: Guilford. If you click here and scroll down the page, you will see a place to download the .pdf version of the full article. Elaine also promised to put her PowerPoint notes up on her website sometime soon. That presentation summarizes findings in this article.

Two of the most interesting findings concerned alleles (portions of genes) and something called “mirror neurons.”

Disclaimer: I’m a social scientist, not a neuroscientist. This is my best attempt at explaining some heavy-duty brain science studies. And remember, I’m dizzy, blonde, and easily overwhelmed by too much information.

As I understand it, brain genes responsible for collecting and hanging on to serotonin come in three varieties: long/long, short/long, and short/short. The best kind to have are long/long because they can collect and hold the most serotonin, which is the “feel good” chemical preventing depression, anxiety, and general snarkiness.

Scientists have found that HSPs with traumatic childhoods (many HSPs), have an unusually high rate of short/short alleles. Do all of them have short/short alleles? No one knows that. But it’s being investigated.


Another study looked at brain activity of self-defined HSPs and non-HSPs using an fMRI (functional MRI where people are asked to do mental activities while stuck inside one of those loud, obnoxious contraptions.

The experiment, which was replicated several times, asked both HSPs and non-HSPs to imagine different scenarios. Then the researchers watched how their brains lit up.

First scenario: You are having a pleasant experience. Both groups’ brains lit up in similar ways.

Second scenario: Another person is having a pleasant experience. Only HSPs’ brains lit up.

Third scenario: You are having an unpleasant experience. While both groups’ brains lit up, the HSPs’ brains looked like they were having a power surge (my words, not the neuorscientists’).

Fourth scenario: Another person is having an unpleasant experience: Only HSPs’ brains lit up like fireworks on the 4th of July.

Conclusion: HSPs are more sensitive to both their own experiences and those of others than non-HSPs, even in the imaginary world of the clackity-clack-clack of an MRI machine. That’s where the “mirror neuron” business came in. We seem to have more of those, therefore, can mirror other people’s feelings more easily than non-HSPs. In other words, we’re more attuned to the moods of other people.

This is long enough. We HSPs have to pace ourselves. I’ll have to continue in another post. I know you HSPs dislike ambiguity, so I’ll shoot for tomorrow.

I've had enough, have you?

I’ve had enough for now, have you?

~ by Lorna's Voice on May 2, 2013.

39 Responses to “News Flash: Scientists Discover Reason Why I Hate to Be Tickled, Part 1”

  1. Go to her website–she has a reading list–not just her books, but many other authors, too.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Lorna. I need to find that book by Dr. Aron and read it again or find something more current…probably more info has been discovered since that book came out. Finding out that I am an HSP really helped me understand myself better but I still have trouble with others thinking I’m just a “wuss”…(not a scientific term)… 🙂 It’s too much for me to try to educate the masses.

  3. I know what you mean about labels–but being an HSP is not an illness, no more so than having blue eyes or curly hair is an illness. It’s a dimension of our personality and has lots of positives to it. That’s what this retreat was about–helping us to understand that we aren’t abnormal, just a statistical minority. 😉

  4. There’s a lot of info to absorb in this post. I may have to wait to read the others. I’m not sure if I am HSP but do find that I am highly sensitive. I try not to label myself with illnesses too often. I know how I am and know what I can do and have adjusted accordingly. Sometimes, it works real well and sometimes it doesn’t. I believe that’s when the exhausted Lupus/Chronic Immusne takes over and I am no longer in charge. I always feel like things could be worse. I try to stay on the positive side of the street somehow it does help even if I have to talk my way across.
    Namaste …

  5. haha … it sure seems that way. 😀

  6. I do too Lorna. 🙂

  7. […] about it. I can’t begin to imagine how Elaine  Aron feels. I wrote two blog posts–this one and that one–and I’ve had […]

  8. When I read Elaine’s book, my thought was that she must be following me around. Everything she said was so “me!”

    And it is nice to know that others are in the same boat.

  9. I think in some way, a lot of these conditions are related–first or second cousins…

  10. Tiffany, I learned from experience that the traits we have in ourselves that we haven’t quite accepted are the very ones we find least tolerable in others. SO whenever I am triggered by something in someone else that really bugs me, I’ve learned to stop focusing on them and turn my attentions inside me! 😉

  11. Absolutely! The more the news spreads, the better!

    I really believe that if I had known about this trait in me as a trait (and not just being “really shy, easy to startle, hate tickling, etc.), I wouldn’t have gotten as sick as I did. Now, I may spend the rest of my life recovering from a lifetime of exposing myself to overstimulation and thinking I was the problem.

  12. LOVE LOVE LOVE This, lady! Was in process of writing something larger with photos on this very subject – a subject that is pooh poohed by far too many and can cause horrific suffering, even fatal results for those unable to withstand the stimuli or resulting insensitivities of a machine driven, dehumanizing world. Will now include your links to your always wise and witty reading for those who tire of my inability to do same, get laughs that is, lol. With your kind permission, that is. 🙂

  13. I can relate! I was a VERY sensitive child. Once, we were all supposed to get a spanking from our father, but I was so upset, and crying so bad before my turn even came that he spanked the bed and told me to NEVER EVER tell on him for that! The sisters got the spanking!! Even in my young years of marriage I was super sensitive. But somehow, through God’s grace, I over came a lot of it, because I don’t think I could manage this zoo otherwise. It’s ironic though that my child would drive me nuts with a trait he so clearly got from me. 🙂

  14. Yes, I’ve posted about this before–but it was tongue-in-cheek.

    Your comment gives me empathy for my mom. My two sisters are not HSP. They would get in fights or arguments and get punished and I would cry for them. My mom would get so mad at me (and so would they) for “crying for nothing.” Mom would say, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.” That just made me cry more, knowing Mom was mad at me. I just couldn’t help myself–I felt badly for my sisters. I didn’t want to see them punished. Oh well… 🙂

  15. This sounds like adult autistic folks … just sayin’. We must be related. hahaha

  16. I don’t like to be tickled either … now … I’m gonna read your post. 😀

  17. Interesting. I always hated parades and circuses, too! Once you understand what’s behind these behaviors, it makes it so much easier to deal with. 😉

  18. I can’t wait! I’ve been thinking about this since I read it. I took the quiz and scored really high. Some of the items were so spot-on with my personality that it freaked me out a little. I suddenly feel completely okay with my own quirks. What a great feeling that is!

  19. The test is quite simple and revealing. I had my fiance take it. He is not highly sensitive, but by taking it and talking about the items, he started to understand my “quirks” a bit better. Then, bless his heart, he read Elaine’s book. My ex-husband never would have done that. 🙂

  20. I am so glad this helped you! Stay tuned…I have more info coming up. And I really appreciate you stopping by and commenting! 🙂

  21. […] Sensitive People) conducted by Elaine Aron, Ph.D.? If you missed the first part of this series, click here. Otherwise, let’s just jump in (or, if you’re highly sensitive, let’s just […]

  22. Wow, this is so interesting. I’m pretty sure I’m an HSP. This explains so much, thanks!

  23. I am reading about this for the first time. So interesting! I think I would like to do that test and see the results.

  24. The first time I realized something was amiss was when we took our 4 yr old daughter to the circus. When the music and the parade started (the absolute best part!) all hell broke loose! She screamed so loud and threw such a fit (normally a well behaved child) we had to leave within minutes. Neither my husband,myself or our son are HSP but I do believe my daughter is.

  25. I have a highly sensitve child, and I don’t think I realized it for a long while. I just walked around thinking “I’d like to slap him, why can’t this be the old days when your parents just slapped you” because he would get so upset over the tiniest little things- like a pillow someone moved or a noise someone made! I think you posted about this one of the first times I read your blog, and I’ve been meaning to read more about it ever since, but then I forget about it. Thanks for the info, I am totally gonna try to read more about it.

  26. Absolutely! As much as our brain matter and operating systems are fixed, they are adaptable, too. Such a paradox. We have learned so much, but have so much more to learn. With each answer, 100 more questions arise.

    Sorry to hear about your family member and the brain injury. I know the trouble I had (and still have) recovering from and dealing with the brain surgery and whatever piece of grey matter they took out and I wish I had back. My heart and prayers go out to you and your family.

  27. So true. I really don’t think space travel is where we should be spending our research money. The brain, as far as I’m concerned, is the ultimate “final frontier.”

  28. Approximately 80% of the population are not HSPs, but you will still have interactions with those that are highly sensitive. Knowing a bit about why they are the way they are is helpful. You may not get as or confused when dealing with their “quirks.” 🙂 And, yes, I can’t help but slip into my role as “the professor.” It’s so much a part of me! I’m glad you found this interesting. 🙂

  29. Happy to help. It’s all so interesting…and more to come!

  30. I guess it’s all a matter of degrees. If you only checked 4 boxes, then you’re not likely a highly sensitive person, but you’re still a sensitive person–we all are to some degree. I checked all boxes but one, and I could check that box, too but I am sensitive to the notion that I could be considered an HSP fanatic (or lunatic). 😉

  31. Yes–the first ones to notice trouble and the first ones to drop! 😉

  32. Another thing I learned is that, within families with multiple children, there is often at least one HSP…

    And, yes, I’m with you on the noise. I cherish my peace and quiet.

  33. My name’s Vanessa and I’m a HSP! I knew this already because I have that book. My son is too, but not my daughter. I particularly struggle with noise. Ssshhhh!!!

  34. I imagine this was wonderful for you – the information and meeting with like people. I saw this all the time in my Physical Therapy practice. I thought of people who were sensitive as canaries in a cool mine.

  35. I’d never heard of this, but I’m not surprised to know that someone of your ability is facing it and learning about it with your normal honesty and courage Being sensitive to another’s burden is part of what makes us civilised. If that makes me HSP then so be it. I did take the test and only ticked 4 boxes so I probably wouldn’t qualify

  36. I read about her in Susan Cain’s book “Quiet” and I was intrigued. Thanks for the links!

  37. Very interesting information! Although I am not HSP, Having some knowledge about HSP should help understand those that are.

    As always, thanks for educating me. Oh wait – you are the teacher – retired NOT.

  38. This is fascinating stuff, Lorna. Patty and I have both spent a lot of time learning about the brain because our son has Tourette Syndrome. It is amazing how much power it has and yet how little we put it to use.

  39. Fascinating information, Lorna. I think the explanation of what it is like to be Highly Sensitive is valuable to NOT Highly Sensitive people too.
    At our house, we are exploring brain plasticity as a result of a family member who has had a brain injury. It is fascinating to learn how much we can alter/adjust the ways our brain work once we accept that we have the ability to do so.

Silence can be just what the doctor ordered. You know I'm a doctor, right?

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