Science is coming closer and closer to “getting us.” Our own research, in collaboration with experts in genetics and brain imagining, has yielded exciting results. However, we are repeating those studies with larger numbers so they can’t be discussed yet. Hopefully I can at the next HSP gathering, April 6 through 10 in the U.K. (See http://www.lifeworkshelp.com for details.) Meanwhile, I know some of you are interested in all aspects of the scientific side of high sensitivity, so I want to tell you about some important new developments. They are a bit complicated, however. My problem is going to be expressing things simply enough for those with a non-science background, without insulting those with one. But let’s give it a try.
A Review of the Two Systems--BIS and BAS
The BAS does the opposite, in that it leads to the desire to move forward right now–to explore and try to gain good things. You might call it the accelerator. People strong in the BAS are high sensation seekers (HSSs). HSPs can also be HSSs, since the two systems are independent. What makes an HSP/HSS different from an HSS who is not an HSP is that the HSP/HSS enjoys new things, but only if there are not too many risks involved.
I’ve talked about having both traits elsewhere, mainly in the first chapter of The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, where there’s a test for sensation seeking. There are also two excellent articles on being an HSP/HSS in the paper Comfort Zone, Vol. 6 Issues 1 and 2, partly written by an HSP/HSS. I’m also now thinking I should write about it again in the next issue!
So if the BAS is the accelerator, I sometimes say that being an HSP and an HSS is like operating with one foot on the gas, one foot on the brakes. But that’s not quite right. The HSP part of an HSP/HSS is not the brakes. It’s more like the brains of the driver, checking to see if it’s safe to accelerate, to go ahead, get to the goal, or is it time to put on the brakes. Sometimes we brake while we decide, but the BIS is not the brakes itself.
If I call the HSP half the driver, t’s not fair to make the HSS just an accelerator, a piece of machinery. So maybe they’re both drivers, or one’s a back seat driver saying, “Let’s go, faster, faster--I want to see what’s around that turn.” The HSP responds, “Yeah, I know about your curiosity, but no way I’m risking a ticket. And I slow down for curves.”
It can be very, very difficult being high in both traits.
How the BIS, and HSPs, Came to Be Associated with Fear
Alas, psychologists who were not brain experts got busy and created a questionnaire that was supposed to identify those with a strong BIS and BAS, thinking correctly that these two types would be due to a very basic biological difference. Unfortunately they focused on the two traits as “withdraw” versus “approach” (not even inhibition versus approach), which came to be seen practically as fear versus joy, pessimism vs. optimism, negative emotions versus positive ones, so forth. You may as well make the traits “spoil-sport-scaredy-cat” versus “fun-to-be-around.” And the measure worked. It predicted behavior. People high on withdraw want to avoid risk, as all HSPs do. But the items on the questionnaire were limited to those that asked about avoiding risk and the like, so that it made the trait seem like anyone with a strong BIS wants to withdrawn from all risk at all costs.
Why did the questionnaire survive scientific scrutiny? Because there are plenty of HSPs who have had frightening, stressful, traumatic experiences and thus when they “pause to check,” they really are fearful, pessimistic, withdrawn, and all the rest. So the questionnaire identified enough fearful HSPs, people with a strong BIS plus traumas, for them to conclude that the trait was about fear. Why not? That’s what Gray’s article was about.
This measure has become a big deal in psychology–it’s used in study after study. It makes it hard for the researchers involved to listen to another idea about people with a strong BIS. After all, they’ve dedicated their careers to studying this trait. Grrr.
“I’ve Got It: Arousal Is Not Always Anxiety!”
Actually, Gray sensed he would need this revision even in 1982 because he was troubled about one point: If the BIS checks everything to see if it’s dangerous, not just threatening things, then it can’t be a system only designed to detect danger--it’s got to be sensitive to everything, and that would include good things too. After all, when you first see something, you don’t know yet if it’s good or bad. And Gray knew all along that those with a strong BIS were in fact more sensitive to all stimuli.
Why didn’t he call it high sensitivity? Well, I can imagine many reasons, but clearly it never entered his head at the time.
If you can understand it, the revision is spelled out in the title of the McNaughton and Gray paper: “Anxiolytic action on the behavioral inhibition system implies multiple types of arousal contribute to anxiety” (in the Journal of Affective Disorders, p. 161-176; the earlier paper is cited there as well.) I will try to translate. In their opening summary they say, “Our recent experiments show that there are multiple systems controlling theta activity...” Theta activity is active processing--thinking, comparing, problem solving, planning, or worrying. What HSPs do a lot of. “And that anxiolytics [anti-anxiety medications] act on several, but not all of these systems.” That is, with at least some anti-anxiety medications, especially the newer ones (Xanex and Buspar), people are less anxious, yet their thinking--in our case the depth of our thinking or our sensitivity--is not at all impaired.
They go on to say that “This pattern of results implies that there are many different types of arousal, only some of which appear to contribute to the generation of anxiety in normal subjects and to the etiology [that is, source or cause] of pathological anxiety.”
See? Gray himself says that those with a very active BIS are not necessarily anxious, in the moment or chronically. Specifically, Gray describes three types of arousal associated with the BIS, following the observation of arousal in animals.
Three Types of Arousal
Another kind of theta activity or aroused, intense processing leads to anxiety. This is a mixture of wanting to stay and see more, perhaps even move forward into the situation, and another part that says this looks a little like danger. In animals, this is the behavior when a predator just might possibly be present. The usual result is that there’s a long tense pause with some sense of fear. Inhibited behavior.
The third type of theta activity is thought related to straightforward fear. Red alert! Predator. All arousal and processing is now focused on survival strategies.
Again, the first type of arousal I have described is arousal without fear. It’s just attention--the sort of arousal that leads to thorough processing. So, again, Gray is announcing, in effect, that being an HSP or having a strong BIS does not automatically equate with having more anxiety. It may seem like a small point, but almost every description of this trait has been in terms of it being a greater fearfulness, even though it made no sense that evolution would quickly eliminate individuals who are constantly fearful. They’d miss out on too many opportunities to feed and mate, besides it being too hard on the body to be constantly on high alert. (The latest example of this error is found in an otherwise very revealing article in the New York Times Magazine, Sunday January 22, on the new field of “Animal Personality.” In study after study described in the article, from fruit flies and fish to dogs and chimps, animals that hold back are referred to as shy and fearful, not sensitive and observant.)
So we still need a better name for the trait, and the next theory comes much closer.
A Theory about Why, With a “Protective” Childhood, HSPs Function Better Than Non-HSPs
What Boyce and Ellis mean by BSC is that there is a gene that leads to what they call “biological sensitivity to context” because it has a feature found in some genes called “conditional adaptability.” Specifically, it allows during childhood, while the brain is still developing, for three different adaptations to three different environments. The gene does this by “up regulating” or “down regulating” the systems that make us reactive to stress (what Gray called the BIS, plus other parts throughout the body as well).
In a high stress environment, the BSC gene in children will be activated, causing them to be very sensitive to stress. This will help them survive in the dangerous situation in which they were born because they will be very quick to react to danger with “fight” or “flight.”
In a very low stress environment, created by being raised by very dedicated, responsive parents, the BSC gene will also be up regulated, so that these children will also be very alert to their environment. But this time it will be so that they can take maximal advantage of this “high parental investment.” Up regulation allows these children to “absorb more fully the beneficial, protective features of supportive, predictable environments” (p. 289).
What About the Children Living with Moderate Stress?
In relation to McNaughton and Gray’s work, above, you could say (although they do not quite) that Boyce and Ellis theorize and find that the up regulated BSC gene involves all three kinds of activities of the BIS--greater reactivity means greater attention, especially important in good environments, as well as more anxiety and fear in dangerous environments.
So here’s my quibble. It seems that their theory would require there being no HSPs who have had only moderately stressful environments, since in them the BSC gene would be down regulated. And I don’t think that is the case. We all know HSPs with childhoods that were “so so.” Further, the theory equates BSC with malleability, but this is a rather “empty” name for the trait, as if all it does is adapt to the outer world. Malleability does not do justice to the richness of the inner life of all HSPs--the intuition, appreciation of the arts, conscientiousness, empathy, spirituality, creativity, more vivid dreams, and all the rest. I think HSPs develop these to quite a high degree characteristics in all environments, not just protective ones.
Still, these are two interesting breakthroughs in theory. I hope to report soon on more data about HSPs, from research based on our own familiar view, from the inside, of what sensitivity is all about.
February 2006 Articles: