Sunday, April 11, 2010

Increased brain sensitivity and visual attention in people with sensory processing sensitivities

From Stonybrook University and a collaboration with China, comes this latest study showing that people self-reported as "Highly Sensitive People" on the Aron's HSP Questionnaire (see below) do have more sensitive brains when looking at visual stimuli. The effect isn't just higher levels of brain activation, but also high performance scores on tests of visual detail.

Our understanding of sensory processing sensitivities and disorders has taken a leap forward in the past few years though the field is still messy because people come to the topic from so many different disciplines and viewpoints. Aron's work described "SPS" or Sensory Perception Sensitivity, a personality trait only partly associated with introversion or emotionality. Sensory Processing or Sensory Integration Disorders have been defined by professional occupational therapy associations to be dysfunctions in the normal modulation, discrimination, and organization of the body's sensory systems (vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste, balance / proprioception). Some of the most severe instances of sensory processing dysfunction seem to be in the setting of autism spectrum disorders and genetic disorders such as fragile X or Williams Syndrome. But among gifted parenting and educational communities, sensory sensitivities are also well known, especially with the high overlap of Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities with conventional sensory processing disorder or HSP checklists. All of these conditions also overlap with attention deficit disorders because attention functions (among other things) to coordinate responses to outside stimuli.

This study doesn't do much to clarify the mess between different professional and lay descriptions of sensitivities, but it does give credence to the subjective reports of many that they can be overwhelmed by sensory inputs that others might find inconsequential. It's interesting too, that more sensitive people did notice more when studying visual stimuli, so that although the sensitivity can be seen as a burden, it also seems to come with some gifts.

High sensitive person self-test (Aron):
I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input.
I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.
Other people's moods affect me.
I tend to be very sensitive to pain.
I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days,into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.
I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells,coarse fabrics,or sirens close by.
I have a rich,complex inner life.
I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.
I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to go off by myself.
I am conscientious.
I startle easily.
I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.
When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).
I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.
I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.
I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.
Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me,disrupting my concentration or mood.
Changes in my life shake me up.
I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art.
I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once.
I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.
I am bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes.
When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.
When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.

"If you answered more than fourteen of the questions as true of yourself, you are probably highly sensitive. But no psychological test is so accurate that an individual should base his or her life on it. We psychologists try to develop good questions, then decide on the cut off based on the average response."

Sensory processing sensitivity and response to change in visual scenes
Sensitive people use their brains differently
Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Introversion pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Diffuse attention and creativity

Sensory Processing Master Class on DVD with Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide and Lindsey Biel MA OTR GM7M3GWDSPNC

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