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What makes the brain of a Highly Sensitive Person different?

You are a strange phenomenon to most of the people around you, but also to yourself. Who are you?

Let me give you a few more clues. Who is better than you at reading a room full of strangers at an emotional level? But then, after a busy social interaction, who goes hiding for days just to recharge their empty battery, leaving everybody around them perplexed. Then after days of napping, who comes out wearing their empathetic outfit and goes about saving the world? Who “over” almost everything : thinking, feeling, smelling, reacting, observing, loading on your shoulders, wearing on your sleeves. 

Didn’t you guess yet? I bet you recognise yourself. You are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

hsp brain

You’ve been told that you’re sensitive more times than you can count, as if it was a bad thing. Of course, you can’t help but not doing really great under pressure, you have an increased sensitivity to pain, and you react in a strong way when under criticism. But it is just your version of normal. If only others could see the skills and traits that lie just beyond the sensitivity, like your high intuition, your empathy, your great creativity and your perception. Those are all great qualities and it doesn’t stop here, but the question is…

… what makes HSP so different? 

(If you aren’t sure if you are an HSP, take this short quiz to find out.)

Research, even if they’re still in their infancy, has shown that the HSP brain is just wired a bit differently compared to the average person.

So let’s look at these differences.

1 - A more active ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC)

A part of the brain which is called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is responsible for managing your emotions, your values and processing sensory data. What does it mean? In a few words, the vmPFC is the part of your brain creating a sense of emotional vividness when experiencing certain things. But this part is more active in Highly Sensitive People which explains that HSP feel more emotions based on their surroundings.

2 - More Active Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are parts of our brain that allow us to understand what someone else is feeling or doing based on their actions. Essentially these neurons mirror someone’s actions by comparing them to your own, similar experiences. They play a huge role in the HSP’s brain because they are the ones which allow people to step into another person’s shoes and therefore better understand certain situations.

HSP don’t have more mirror neurons than others, but their mirror neuron system is more active which makes HSP more empathetic and compassionate. If you want to go deeper, I invite you to read the article “The science behind empathy”.

3 - A different Dopamine response

At least three sets of genes and their variants distinguish a Highly Sensitive Person’s brain from the brain of a non-HSP, and Dopamine is one of them. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that makes you want to complete certain activities, and gives you a sense of victory or pleasure when you do them. Dopamine is the brain’s reward chemical.

It has been discovered that Highly Sensitive People have a different dopamine system than most, in the sense that their brain is less likely to be affected by dopamine compared to the typical brain. 

What this means is that their brain has a different reward system than others. For example, where most people would feel rewarded by going to a party or a nightclub, HSP finds it exhausting. These kinds of activities tire them out faster than it does other people. On the other hand, they will more likely feel rewarded by any positive and deep emotional or social interaction. The lack of response to dopamine is actually what makes them be more thoughtful and perceptive while they process information.

4 - Lower Levels of Serotonin

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and hormone that helps neurons communicate with one another. One of its main jobs is to stabilise our mood. Highly Sensitive People have another gene variant of the serotonin transporter, called 5-HTTLPR, that affects their brain’s serotonin levels. This gene variant both lowers HSP brain’s levels of serotonin and increases their sensitivity to their surroundings. What does this mean, exactly?

It means that, having less mood-stabilising serotonin than the non-HS brain, they will learn from experience and from their surroundings better than most. Because of the presence of this gene variant, it also means that any strong emotional experience, good or bad, can impact their well-being.

This also could be an answer to why childhood experiences – both positive and adverse – can so dramatically affect the wellbeing of HSP.

5 - Norepinephrine

Norepinephrine is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. It plays an important role in your body's “fight-or-flight” response and helps the body with the stress response. It’s also central to “emotional vividness,” or a person’s perception of emotional aspects in the world.

Here also, it is common that HSP have a variant of the norepinephrine gene which boosts emotional vividness. It means that if you have it, you experience emotional aspects of the world intensely. It may also mean that you have more activity in parts of the brain that create internal emotional responses to experiences.

So it is another fact added to the ones we already listed, which can explain why HSP naturally respond more strongly to emotions than non-HSPs. In addition, they also notice emotional nuances that others don’t necessarily pick up on. That is the foundation of empathy, when someone perceives emotional nuances. HSP can feel what someone else is feeling even then the others do not show or overtly express anything.

6 - Stronger activation in the cingulate and premotor area/PMA

To make it simple, while at rest, the HSP’s brain works harder than the brain of someone who is not a HSP. As if we didn’t already have plenty of sur-activation in other parts of our brain, the cingulate and premotor area/PMA causes us to keep working even though we are resting, because of its stronger activation.

How does this part of the HSP’s brain affect them? 

We know that HSPs process everything deeply, we even use the term overthinking for them. When you look at a HSP thinking that they are relaxing because they are not reacting to anything specific in the here-and-now, actually they think! They think so much that they could be processing something that happened hours ago or even something that occurred months or years ago. Thanks to this area of the brain which is more activated, the Highly Sensitive Person’s brain never really shuts off – even at rest. That’s why we always hear them saying : “I wish I had a button off.”

7 - More strongly activated cortex and insula

fMRI studies of the brain suggest the cortex and insula are more strongly activated among HSPs than non HSPs.

The insula is located deep in the brain. It has a lot of jobs. It is important for gustatory and sensorimotor processing, risk-reward behavior, interoceptive awareness, pain pathways, and auditory and vestibular functioning. Interoception is the ability to be aware of internal sensations in the body, including heart rate, respiration, hunger, fullness, temperature, and pain, as well as emotion sensations.

By combining the most nuanced internal awareness with emotional context, the insula gives emotional meaning (e.g. pain, pleasure) to physiological states.

8 - Greater activation in the middle temporal gyrus (MTG). 

Another area, and I promise the last one, where HSP have a greater activation, is in the middle temporal gyrus (MTG). This part of the brain is known to be involved in our emotional meaning-making, it subserves language and semantic memory processing, visual perception, and multimodal sensory integration. Another way of putting it : it’s involved in awareness of and response to stimuli like loud sounds, strong smells, bright lights, and other people’s moods.

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To sum up, an HSP Brain is Wired for Other People

For someone with a typical brain, it can be easier to tune out other people. For someone with a highly sensitive brain, it isn’t as easy for all the reasons I just mentioned. It is an understatement to say that the brain of a highly sensitive person is actually wired for others, because, in any social situation, their brain is known to become more active and more alert to their surroundings and other people nearby.

Being an HSP also comes with its own set of challenges.

When you’re an HSP, it may feel like no one understands you or what you’re going through, and let’s be real it is not just a feeling. Non-HSP can’t understand how we feel. So it can be extremely difficult to carry the weight of your own emotions plus the emotions of people around you, and hearing constantly that you should do something about it. 

Reaching out for help and support may be exactly what you need. It doesn’t make you sick or weak. A HSP coach or therapist (and I insist on choosing someone who is also a highly sensitive person, can help you better understand yourself and your traits and give you coping techniques. The first step of coping is to understand how your brain works, because it gives you clearly the whys and hows of your experience.

When I realized I was highly sensitive, I was a bit skeptical. I needed scientific answers. Not as much for me because I knew that my experiences were real, but to silence those around me who were thinking that it was a trend to get attention. So when I discovered that science has shown that HS is associated with certain genes and patterns of brain activation, I felt validated a second time. High sensitivity was not just a hypothetical or theoretical thing. 

The High Sensitivity trait is real.

So, please, the next time someone comes up to you with sarcastic comments on your sensitivity, let them read this article and walk away with a smile.

You came into the world with amazing and unique capacities, don’t ever again let someone criticized or gaslight you.


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What is your biggest struggle?

  • Feeling emotionally drained

  • Moving on and letting go

  • Criticism and conflict

  • Being under pressure

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