Empathetic? Sensitive? Emotional? It Might Be In Your Genes

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No matter how tough you are, everyone is wired to feel empathy, to be somewhat sensitive and feel emotions. But are you the kind of person who feels these emotions so much more significantly? Well, it could be in your genes.

In a study published in Brain and behavior, psychologists at Stony Brook University have found that about 20% of the population is genetically predisposed for empathy.

Previous research suggested that sensory processing sensitivity is a trait associated with sensitivity to environmental and social stimuli. But according to Dr. Aron of the University of California, the trait is more now than ever being associated with patterns of brain activation seen in highly sensitive people. About 20% of the population is included under that umbrella.

In their study, “The Highly Sensitive Brain: An fMRI study of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Response to Others’ Emotions,” Dr. Aron and his colleagues used fMRI brain scans to compare highly sensitive people with low sensory processing sensitivity. It demonstrated how HSPs’ brain activity processes the emotions of others.

The brains of 18 married individuals with both high and low SPS were observed as they looked at pictures of happy and sad people. Some were strangers, and others were their spouses.

“We found that areas of the brain involved with awareness and emotion, particularly those areas connected with empathetic feelings, in the highly sensitive people showed substantially greater blood flow to relevant brain areas than was seen in individuals with low sensitivity during the twelve second period when they viewed the photos,” said Dr. Aron. “This is physical evidence within the brain that highly sensitive individuals respond especially strongly to social situations that trigger emotions, in this case of faces being happy or sad.”

The associated brain activity was even higher in HSPs who saw these expressions in their spouses. The highest was when their partner looked happy.

Dr. Aron thinks that their results provide strong evidence that HSPs are very in tune with their environments and that high levels of emotional responsiveness is fundamental to HSPs.