The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneNovember 2010: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Book Review:
Taking the Anomalous out of "Anomalous Perceptions"

The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion: The Brain, the Body, and the Sixth Sense, by Michael Jawer with Marc S. Micozzi (Park Street Press, 2009)

I do not usually review books about the "sixth sense," empaths, psychic abilities, parapsychology, etcetera, even though I know some of you would like more on these subjects. The reason is that scientists get so weird about all of this, as the author of The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion, Michael Jawer, often notes. It has been difficult enough convincing scientists about the reality of high sensitivity without linking it to things that upset them so much. So as I review the book, I will also write a little bit about the complex (i.e., bundle of intense feelings accumulated around a trauma) that scientists have about this subject.

(I realize that this gets a bit long, so feel free at any time to skip to the last two paragraphs.)

The Growth of a Theory

The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion seeks to develop a theory to explain "anomalous perceptions," everything from sensing something will happen before it does to having telepathic dreams to seeing or otherwise sensing people (or even animals) who have departed this life. Jawer begins by showing how many people do report these types of experiences, and that such people tend to be different from others in predictable ways, in particular that they are often highly sensitive and/or carry in their mind and body intense dissociated feelings due to traumatic experiences. Since highly sensitive people are more vulnerable to trauma, the two are often combined. The point is that science cannot say that since the average person does not have these experiences, they do not take place. In particular, science should not dismiss the experiences because of the type of people who have them. Indeed, the same inner conditions that might create anomalous imaginary experiences can also lead to being better able to perceive real ones.

Jawer developed his interest while working on a project for the Environmental Protection Agency, trying to create guidelines for identifying "sick buildings," ones that seemed to make some workers ill. Of course he found that certain people were far more sensitive than others to whatever it was that was happening in those buildings. These people often reported other sensitivities as well. Indeed, some of them opened up to Jawer to mention "anomalous perceptions" such as seeing ghosts, feeling presences, perceiving auras around people, and more.

Jawer wanted to conduct a scientific survey of such people--who were both environmentally sensitive and had had anomalous perceptions (he focused on apparitions)--but he knew he would have to learn more about his subject in order to ask the right questions and understand the answers. This led to ten years of study of environmental conditions, individual differences, and general human biology/physiology that were associated with anomalous perception. He also conducted a survey. While there are flaws in his methods, as he admits, it supported the hypothesized connections among environmental sensitivity, the experience of trauma, and the perception of apparitions or "energies," at least for women.

Strong Emotions, Sensitivity, and Electromagnetic Fields

Central to Jawer's theory is his discussion of emotion--that strong feelings are present when these perceptions happen; that people who tend toward anomalous perception have generally had intense emotional experiences early in their lives (traumas, abuse, accidents); and that emotions occur throughout the body, not just in the brain. Indeed, he argues that since the brain and body are fundamentally electrical, they may be sensitive to electromagnetic fields in anomalous ways, especially if feelings are stored in the body, dissociated from conscious thought, and ready to be discharged in the right context. This is a big step, but he cites a great deal of evidence to support it, not much of it very strong in my opinion. But if you do not advance a theory, no one can test it.

Individual differences in sensitivity to the environment are central to his theory. In Chapter Eight he describes many different ways that sensitivity has been categorized and explained. This is of course where HSPs come in, and why Jawer has stayed in touch with me and sent me the book when it was finished. Not only does he discuss high sensitivity as a trait, but as it occurs in animals and children, and in many ways I think you will find interesting.

Our Extraordinary Unused Powers

Towards the end of the book Jawer speaks in a more poetic and impassioned way about our unity with nature, which I especially enjoyed. For example, our soul, he opines, is that which connects us with all of nature. What also connects us with nature is our body. He quotes Malcom Jeeves as saying, "one doesn't have a soul, one is a soul." Our body is nature, far more than we realize (although I find that HSPs seem to get this easily). Our brain and body have powers to interact with nature in ways we're not consciously aware of (not extrasensory but tied to our penchant for feeling). We naturally associate such abilities with soul, something unseen. As an example, he cites the powers of the Dalai Lama, observed by many people, that he can hold your hand for a moment even on a cold day and soon you feel warm all over, and not just metaphorically. How does he do that?

It is not a miracle. It is common among those who have meditated most of their lives, lived in an environment that supports the growth of consciousness, and have been taught by others in their tradition how to use their resulting natural powers. Jawer suggests that these powers result from a greatly enhanced flow of feeling. This would fit with the common knowledge in Eastern traditions that a person who meditates a great deal can stoke his or her "inner fire" until able to do many extraordinary things with that energy. This power is known as darshan (a Sanskrit term), which refers to the fact that highly adept persons can evoke an emotion or an altered state of consciousness in others in a purely physical way, usually from a distance, not through touch, and definitely not through words or gestures. It is something about the connection between inner feeling, intention, and environmental energy.

If you are around such a person you cannot ignore the energy given off. I've watched people in these situations come away with their hair literally standing on end, as if they had been exposed to "static electricity." The only explanation is that not only the mind or "personality," but the entire body of such a person has been cultivated to a high degree. Why not? Not all paintings, trees, houses, or elephants are alike. Some are examples of extraordinary perfection or beauty. They "do their job" perfectly. A human mind/body can do the same, and can inspire us all.

On Neuroscientists and "It's Not Real--It's Just in Your Brain"

I can't entirely agree with Jawer's view of neuroscientists in a section "The Presumptuousness of Neuroscience," although I can understand why he is peeved by them. He feels they have put too much emphasis on the brain and not enough on the body as a whole. The body is not only what feels emotions, but apparently sends and receives information via electromagnetic radiation. I know it is true that a few neuroscientists are overly focused on the brain, ignoring the rest of the body. But they have a new toy to play with, fMRI, and they are bound to get a bit carried away with it.

What is more infuriating, to me and to Jawer, is when, having found for example an area of the brain that is activated when one feels love or has a religious experiences, a scientist claims that love and religion have been explained away as purely material phenomena generated by our own neurons and therefore illusory. Jawer quotes a book by Carl Zimmer and an article by Steven Johnson in Discover magazine, both equating the brain with the soul, love, etcetera. Neither is a neuroscientist, but a writer trying to grab readers' attention by saying something sensational. I agree--I hate that attitude. Jawer does know it is just the times. Some people have to rid the world of any explanations that are not purely material and love to upset others with their claims.

I say all of this defensively, of course, because my husband studies "love in the brain." Neither he nor any of his colleagues using fMRI as a tool thinks that brain scans take away the other, higher realities of love. We will certainly see this research misused, but that's the nature of science and the public. Like Jawer, my husband simply thinks that if something can be studied in a new way, it should be. For example, brain scans have confirmed that sex and love are quite separate experiences, although they can occur simultaneously of course. But fMRI allows that to be sorted out in a decisive way that leaves no doubt. The same use of fMRI is finding out how HSPs process information differently than others, although I do not think the brain is the only place where our sensitivity is found. We have more sensitive immune systems, a faster reaction time, sensitivity to caffeine, and a susceptibility to trauma and the environment in general that obviously involve the entire body.

Socrates on Love, without the Benefit of fMRI

To my husband, one of the best statements on love was made 2,500 years ago by Socrates in the Symposium (who was quoting a woman mystic, Diatoma, who was his spiritual teacher, and written down by Plato). Her definition of love is that it changes and grows until we reach the transcendent/God/nirvana (for which the Greeks did not have many words at that time except the "essence of beauty" or of nature). I'll try to capture the end of the Symposium here. From loving a few beautiful things, one graduates to "become a lover of all beautiful forms." Then you appreciate the beauty of institutions, then of the ideas behind them, so that you have "many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom; until at last the vision is revealed of a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere."

That's your Plato for today.

So I Happened to be Reviewing this Book and...

Here's a synchronicity Jawer would enjoy. When I was writing this article, my husband was at a social psychology conference and heard about a highly respected colleague, social psychologist Daryl Bem, who will soon have an article published relating to anomalous experiences. It is titled "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect." The reason Art heard about it was that it will be published in the most respected journal in the field, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This is a peer reviewed journal with the highest possible standards regarding methods and reasoning.

(Here's the link: I hope it is still up when you read this, because once it is in print, you may have to pay to access it. You can easily read the beginning and the General Discussion at the end, which summarizes the results.)

Bem deliberately used simple, easily replicated methods that appear to eliminate all chance of experimental bias, given the common belief that those who believe in "psi" (paranormal ability) are more likely to get positive results, as found in a paper he cites. Bem's nine experiments involve over 1000 subjects and are focused largely on what interests Jawer, the impact of emotional involvement on precognition. Oddly, he finds extraverted sensation seekers are more likely to have these experiences. His discussion of the various theories is quite interesting. Although he rejects the direction Jawer has taken regarding an electromagnetic connection, he has nothing to replace it.

Back to the conference. My husband was quite bemused to hear his closest friends reacting with great dismay that the journal had even published the article. The fear was that other scientists would take less seriously the field of social psychology and that its main journal would lose its high status and become the subject of ridicule. There was also genuine bewilderment about why Bem would want to risk his career doing such research. You can see that I am not imagining things when I say that I must distance myself from this subject in order to have the concept of sensitivity accepted.

On the other hand, I keep a diary of apparent synchronicities, the term put into circulation by Carl Jung, in order to gain a sense of their frequency in my life. Yet I have to really force myself to make those entries. Why?

Why the Panic?

What was so horrible about a scientist studying this particular subject? The reasons are several.

First, from science's very beginnings, it has fought superstition and unfounded belief. Scientists have lost careers and even their lives for simply reporting data that did not suit someone. (Hm, sounds like they are doing the same thing to psi researchers.) They see the public led astray constantly due to lack of the facts. For example, during this election you heard every candidate talking about creating more jobs and improving the economy. But to economists, it was all just noise. There were plenty of jobs before the recession, whoever was in office, and the jobs will come back after the recession, whoever is in office then. Meanwhile politicians can do very little to increase jobs. In fact, those in state and city governments will have to keep cutting back on spending, which decreases jobs.

The second reason for the panic about psi is that today's universities cannot help but teach about evolution because of the overwhelming evidence for it, or about the development of religious scriptures through several rewritings over centuries. Again, the evidence is overwhelming. But they are attacked for that by some religious people. In response, academics become defensively anti-religious or anti-spirituality, teaching a materialist, humanist perspective. Some also take the offense and set out to prove "religion is in the brain" or to debunk everything, including hypnotism and EMDR. This leads to a social environment in academia that teaches students and faculty alike what to say and what not to say, so each generation of scientists "grows up" in the same materialist culture.

Third but closely related, there are as yet no good theories to explain parapsychological phenomena. When something violates the laws of nature as now known, it is up to those studying it not only to show that it happens and no alternative explanation is possible, but to explain why--what could possibly be causing precognition, for example. The problem with knowing what's happening in the next room or what will happen a minute from now is that science assumes there can be no action at a distance (except for a few quantum mechanical oddities) or forward through time. It must assume as much, because otherwise scientific prediction would be impossible.

Suppose the rising temperature of a beaker of water in Boston were being influenced as much by the temperature of another beaker in China, or by me in the next room willing it to rise, or by a fire that is going to happen in that lab tomorrow, as by the flame underneath it. The effect of a flame on the temperature of water would be impossible to determine because it could not be sorted out from any other cause. What that flame might do to water in the future could not be predicted, observed, or measured. Scientists cannot just abandon these assumptions.

Still, if there are interesting data that violate our current understanding of how the laws of nature operate, science ought to be very interested. So far most scientists simply assume such data are artifacts of bad methods, especially an unconscious influence on the data collection and analysis by those who are expecting certain results. It has been amply demonstrated that if you tell a researcher that, for example, they are working with a very bright or very stupid strain of rat, or tell a teacher that they are working with a student of high or low I.Q., they will report learning curves consistent with what they were told even though in fact there was no difference. Knowing how easy it is to get results that fit expectations, they presume this is the case with research on parapsychology.

Sixty Six Percent of Academic Psychologists' Minds are Open

However, I think scientists are not so easily divided into believers and scoffers. Bem cites data that only 34% of academic psychologists think psi is impossible. This agrees with my sense of it--the majority of psychologists are open to the possibility of ESP, near death experiences, telepathic dreams, and the like. (Jawer, toward the end of his book, tips his hat to the many open-minded scientists who responded to his inquiries and even encouraged him in his pursuits.) It would be a far more interesting world if we could read each other's mind sometimes and very nice to predict the future or have our prayers answered, rather than having our commonplace experiences always written off as the result of random coincidence. Skeptical scientists just know that, given the laws of nature, there is no good theory yet to explain it, and without a theory, they cannot move over to the believers' camp.

Others are open minded but more skeptical. "I won't call it impossible. If someone can present enough evidence of the fact and a testable theory, why not? But good luck."

Finally, there are those 34% who have a complex about parapsychology. Every chance they have they must disprove its findings and belittle researchers who pursue the subject. Some are bullies, bashing the "soft" scientists. Others have been wounded in some way, I think. They once believed in Santa Claus, or that they really were the best kid in the world, or perhaps most telling, that their parents loved them, and they actually did read their parent's mind and were so distressed that they never wanted to read anyone's mind again. One psychologist who studies altered states and parapsychology, Charles Tart, proposed just this explanation after conducting a survey of his colleagues about whether they would like to be able to read minds. He found that a large percentage of psychologists would not want to, which meant they were discarding a tool that would answer many of the scientific questions they are supposedly curious about.

So Bottom Line, Do I Recommend Jawer's Book?

I think I am saying yes, but do not quote me! The good news is that his book is well written and is almost an encyclopedia of research on anomalous experiences, plus even more interesting science about trauma, emotions, electromagnetic energy, and the body/mind. You will learn a lot and enjoy it. And some of what he cites is well established or at least the results of carefully designed studies.

The drawback is that he cites a great deal of evidence that, while intriguing, is not strong, and though the anecdotes are interesting, we cannot know what caused them. Jawer frequently admits that there are alternate explanations, but that does not help when he goes on to build his theory based on possibly flawed studies. Besides wanting to distance myself from parapsychology for purely practical reasons, my concern is about you, my readers, who may not know how to evaluate what he presents, especially since many of you see things as he does and really want him to be right, to trust that the evidence is solid.

In fact, there are things he says for which there is no firm evidence. For example, in summing up his ideas, one of Jawer's key points is that electromagnetic fields and infrasound "may be influenced by strong pent up feelings; electromagnetism may also convey emotional information accessible to those who are sufficiently sensitive" (p. 441). Yes, he says "may." He is very conscientious in that way. But this is his theory, not disproven but also not yet supported by solid data. So please do not skip over his qualifiers!

Still, I recommend the book if you are interested in the subject. I warn you that it's long and there's a lot of science there, and much of it is speculation. Yet, you will learn a lot, too. Further, I have to take into account that he has devoted ten years to this, with a good heart and no ulterior motives that I know of--he is not offering counseling without a license or even selling stuff at his website (beyond his book, that is). He is not even highly sensitive himself, it seems from what he says. He is simply trying to weigh in on the supportive side of those who are sensitive, to say that we are not always imagining things. Further, if some of us have been more affected by trauma than others, he is saying that may give us added abilities, not just more reason to have our experiences discounted because they are not like the other eighty percent's.

He is also standing up to a minority who are not yet open to discussing anomalous experiences, because they are afraid of ridicule or insist on "bringing us down to earth" in a bully's way. No, I do not want to count myself among the terrorized--even though I must be cautious for the sake of what I study. I ask you to be cautious, too, for the sake of choosing carefully the substance on which you base your life. You don't need me to choose for you, however, by failing to tell you about an important work related to your sensitivity.


November 2010 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine
Coping Corner: HSPs and Divorce
Research Report: Head for your Nearest Sensory Isolation Flotation Tank
Book Review: Taking the Anomalous out of "Anomalous Perceptions"


More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters

November 2010 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine

Coping Corner: HSPs and Divorce

Research Report: Head for your Nearest Sensory Isolation Flotation Tank

Book Review: Taking the Anomalous out of "Anomalous Perceptions"



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