Is having high intellectual abilities the same as being highly sensitive?


The stereotypes surrounding very intelligent people have evolved over the years. Two images predominate in the collective imagination. In the first, people with high abilities are excellent in all areas of their lives. The second view is related to the myth of the maladaptive and problematic genius, especially in socio-emotional areas.

About two-thirds of the population have this second image. However, scientific evidence does not suggest the presence of major socio-emotional problems .

On the other hand, the concept of highly sensitive people (HSP) emerged at the end of the 90s of the last century. One of their characteristics is the deep processing of stimuli: they are people who analyze information exhaustively and thoughtfully, paying attention to subtleties and nuances. This overlap with some traits of people with high abilities, together with several authors who have pointed out similar behaviors, have led to the assumption that high sensitivity is a characteristic that defines people with high abilities.

About emotions and feelings

The advances of recent decades in the study of emotions and feelings through neuroscience have made it possible to propose theories that unify the body-mind dichotomy. Today, we understand the human being as a subject whose neurobiological configuration gives rise to a complex framework and process that turns it into a sentient and thinking unit .

That is, an organism that can perceive the environment around it and itself, activate mechanisms to respond to endogenous and exogenous stimuli (from inside and outside the organism), and evaluate both the stimuli and the response. We not only respond to stimuli: we have the ability to configure complex mental images with self-awareness. These images are internal representations that bring together the information collected from the stimuli, the recreation of past experiences and are used to build the idea of ​​a feeling.

Emotions and feelings are produced in human beings in this matrix whose scenarios seem like two (the body and the mind), but deep down they are only one. The process begins with a stimulus that, due to its characteristics, is capable of triggering a reaction in another part of the brain. This causes an emotional response at the body level (for example, alterations in heart rate or sweating) and brain.

These responses are mapped by the brain and its mental image is the basic component of feelings. People have a record of these images (autobiographical memory) that allows us to name what we feel. This mental image (feeling) and the new physiological responses it generates (emotions) give rise to a process of mutual influences that can reverberate and be amplified or consumed.

Particularities of people with high abilities

People with high abilities have differential innate neurobiological characteristics , both in terms of brain structure and its functioning (differences in activation, activity and connection between areas). This is related to distinctive cognitive characteristics: they have a greater torrent of ideas, the ability to connect different topics and greater speed in understanding complex ideas.

They also present greater imaginative and intellectual excitability . This means that they are fervently passionate given their fascination with ideas and intellectual challenges. And that can lead them to a strong connection with fictional and creative worlds.

However, at a physiological level, higher reactivity has not been observed , because the stimuli do not generate more intense emotions in them.

Furthermore, they score lower than the normal population on the highly sensitive person scale in terms of emotional and physiological reactivity.

They do have other things in common with highly sensitive people: they score higher than the normal population on three positive subscales of the same questionnaire (socio-affective sensitivity, aesthetic sensitivity and sensory comfort). This relates to a personality trait called “openness” (willingness to experiment with new ideas, emotions, and activities). And, since openness is more closely linked to verbal intelligence , it could align with the ability of high-ability people to create rich and complex mental discourses.

Feelings produced by thought

The feedback from a powerful intellect such as that of people with high abilities is greater, without necessarily the emotional physiological responses being greater. Your torrent of ideas gives rise to an expansive loop of feelings, that is, the reading and interpretation by the brain of the process of emotions-feelings that has been launched is more prolific. It is not that the emotions are felt more strongly, but that the associative process of ideas is considerably more extensive.

Feelings do not depend solely on sensitivity in capturing stimuli, nor on physiological reactivity. Feelings are built in the sphere of thought and are nourished by the evocation of the record of our previous experiences and the projection of future possibilities. All this is provided by cognitive resources. And if there is something that distinguishes people with high abilities, it is precisely the intellectual part.

Instead of stating that people with high abilities have high sensitivity, it is more appropriate to say that they have greater sentimental intensity. Thus we point to the idea that their feelings are more complex and can feed off each other.

Author Bio: Paloma Merello Giménez is a University Professor in Finance and Accounting. Coordinator of projects on talent development at the Universitat de València