You’ve probably come across the term “highly sensitive person” somewhere either on the internet or in the media. It’s a very common and popular thing to talk about nowadays, with many articles focusing on highly sensitive people, especially children, and the unique abilities and challenges they face. But what does the research say about highly sensitive people? Rd. Elaine Aron’s book “The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You” suggests that as many as 20% of the population may be “highly sensitive people”. But are all highly sensitive people the same? Here we discuss 8 possible types of highly sensitive people, and the research, or lack of, around each type. These 8 types are: Thin-Boundary People, Orchid Children, Sensory-Defensive People, Empath, Fantasy-Prone People, Gifted, Electric-Sensitive, and the Sensitives.
1) Thin-Boundary People
Hartmann was conducting research on people who experience regular nightmares. It turns out these people had a very vivid recall of their memories. These people are said to have “thin boundaries” meaning there is more of a connection between their mental functions and processes. Other characteristics observed by Hartmann and reported in his book (Boundaries in the Mind, 1991) included being overwhelmed by sensory and emotional input, pain and pleasure being more intense, a higher risk of allergies and illness, suffer more in response to trauma, and are sensitive to stimuli. They’re also often unorganised and spontaneous, and find it hard to distinguish between dreams and reality.
2) Orchid Children
The idea of the “Orchid Child” came out of Bruce Ellis’ work looking at sensitivity of environment in children. It was suggested that some children are simply “biologically sensitive to context” – meaning they are more sensitive to changes in the environment, compared to children who can adapt and thrive in any environment. Pluess et al (2018) designed a scale, specifically to measure this concept of environmental adaptability in children – they found 30% of children fell into the “Orchid Children” category.
3) Sensory-Defensive People
Dr. Sharon Heller is the person who termed to phrase “Sensory-Defensive People”. These are people who are more sensitive than the average person to sensory information. Some characteristics include: startling easily, being ticklish, disliking crowds, disliking certain food textures and becoming disorganised by excessive visual stimulation. At more extreme levels, Sensory Defensive People tend to have a diagnosis of some sort, often of learning difficulties or schizophrenic, but plenty of Sensory Defensive People do not have disorders.
An empath refers to someone who is very sensitive to the moods, emotions and mental states of others. Dr. Michael Smith looked into this phenomena and found that 5% of the general population would be classed as empaths. However, 25% of Highly Sensitive People would be. Abigail Marsh (2018) even showed that they are brain differences between those who are empaths and those who aren’t! Empaths where more sensitive to fearful faces, as their amygdala had heightened activity in response to them.
5) Fantasy-Prone People
The concept of “Fantasy-Prone People” was something Wilson & Barber discovered in 1981. They found that around 4% of the population would have this trait. They tend to fantasise a lot, and are very prone to paranormal experiences. Many are deeply religious, and have visions and hear voices. Traits include: imaginary friends, claims to be psychic, to heal people, and to experience imagined sensations as real. Merckelbach, Campo, Hardy, and Giesbrecht (2005) also found it was associated with dissociation.
Dabrowski’s research looked specifically at gifted children, and found five areas in which they were “overexcitable” or “super-sensitive”. 1) Psycho-motor – including: “nervous habits, impulsiveness, and sleeplessness”. 2) Sensual – including: “allergies, acute senses, and a need for comfort”. 3) Intellectual – including: “deep curiosity, theoretical thinking, and question asking”. 4) Imaginational – including: “vivid dreams, daydreaming and loving fantasy”. 5) Emotional – including: “anxiety, timidness, and loneliness”. These ideas are part of a theory known as positive disintegration. The idea that these overexcitabilities are linked to giftedness is also backed up by further research (Piechowski & Miller, 1995).
In 1980 Shallis conducted some research in which he surveyed people who are more sensitive to electricity. These people were mostly women. What Shallis found was striking. 70% of these people had allergies, 60% became ill before thunderstorms, and 23% had been struck by lightning before. However, more recently this condition/sensitivity has been rejected, and that the symptoms occur more when people think they’re being exposed to electricity, rather than when they actually are.
8) The “Sensitives”
Finally, we get to the most controversial type – “the Sensitives”. These are similar to other types of Highly Sensitive people, but with psychic/extra-sensory perception. For example they can sense feelings, “know the future” and see shadows that aren’t there. As with anything supernatural research doesn’t support their claims, but you never know!
Which type do you relate to most? Be sure to let us know in the comments!
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Edited by Gabriel Taylor (Gabe1113@gmail.com) and Chrissie Fitch (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Aron, E. N. (1996). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you. Secaucus.
Hartmann, E. (1991). Boundaries in the mind: A new psychology of personality. Basic Books.
Ellis, B. J., & Boyce, W. T. (2008). Biological sensitivity to context. Current directions in psychological science, 17(3), 183-187.
Pluess, M., Assary, E., Lionetti, F., Lester, K. J., Krapohl, E., Aron, E. N., & Aron, A. (2018). Environmental sensitivity in children: Development of the Highly Sensitive Child Scale and identification of sensitivity groups. Developmental psychology, 54(1), 51.
Storlie, D. M. (2005). Too fast, too tight, too loud, too bright.
Marsh, A. A. (2018). The neuroscience of empathy. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 19, 110-115.
Wilson, S. C., & Barber, T. X. (1982). The fantasy-prone personality: Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena. Psi Research.
Merckelbach, H., à Campo, J., Hardy, S., & Giesbrecht, T. (2005). Dissociation and fantasy proneness in psychiatric patients: a preliminary study. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 46(3), 181-185.
Piechowski, M. M., & Miller, N. B. (1995). Assessing developmental potential in gifted children: A comparison of methods. Roeper Review, 17(3), 176-180.
Shallis, Michael. The Electric Connection: Its Effects on Mind and Body. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1988.