Better At Noticing Subtle Details

Tom’s Diner, watercolor by Ralph Goings

Photorealist painting is one form of creative expression that demands a high degree of technical prowess and attention to detail.

The image is Tom’s Diner, 1993, a watercolor by Ralph Goings – from the book Photorealism at the Millennium, by Louis K. Meisel, Linda Chase.

A CNN article on sensory processing sensitivity – more commonly referred to as the personality trait of high sensitivity – reports that people with this quality “tended to have more brain activity in the high-order visual processing regions.”

Here is the article:

Ultra-sensitive? It’s in your brain, by Elizabeth Landau Health Writer/Producer

If you are particularly sensitive to the world around you – whether it’s music, caffeine, other people’s emotions, you may have a personality trait called “sensory processing sensitivity.”

People who are highly sensitive in this way tend to look and observe and process things deeply, as opposed to boldly going ahead, says Elaine Aron, professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, who helped pioneer research on the subject in the 1990s. [Elaine Aron books]

Having vivid dreams and being aware of subtleties in your environment are also characteristic of this temperament, she said.

Take this quiz to see if this fits you.

Now, Aron’s group has shown evidence in the brain that these people are more detail-oriented. The study is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. [See abstract below.]

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brains of 18 participants. They found that people with sensory processing sensitivity tended to have more brain activity in the high-order visual processing regions, and in the right cerebellum, when detecting minor details of photographs presented to them.

“They are better at noticing subtle details in their environments than people without the trait,” said Jadzia Jagiellowicz, lead author and doctoral candidate in the department of psychology at Stony Brook University.

Sensory processing sensitivity has been associated with introversion, but only loosely – about 30 percent of highly sensitive people are extroverts, Aron said.

Highly sensitive people probably make good counselors and recruiters, said Jagiellowicz, because of their attention to detail. They are able to more deeply process details as well as emotions, which are good skills in these professions. Accounting, which requires taking in a lot of information at once, may also be a relevant field, she said.

But the study showed that highly sensitive people do not quickly take in these details; in fact, they spend more time looking at them, so a job that requires a quick assessment of minutiae may not be the best fit, she said.

From Paging Dr. Gupta – Blogs, April 7, 2010

Also see press release from Stony Brook: Researchers Find Differences In How The Brains Of Some Individuals Process The World Around Them.

Response to subtle changes in visual scenes

The trait of sensory processing sensitivity and neural responses to changes in visual scenes
By Jadzia Jagiellowicz, Xiaomeng Xu, Arthur Aron, Elaine Aron et al.
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Oxford Journals


This exploratory study examined the extent to which individual differences in sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), a temperament/personality trait characterized by social, emotional and physical sensitivity, are associated with neural response in visual areas in response to subtle changes in visual scenes.

Sixteen participants completed the Highly Sensitive Person questionnaire, a standard measure of SPS. Subsequently, they were tested on a change detection task while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). SPS was associated with significantly greater activation in brain areas involved in high-order visual processing (i.e. right claustrum, left occipitotemporal, bilateral temporal and medial and posterior parietal regions) as well as in the right cerebellum, when detecting minor (vs major) changes in stimuli.

These findings remained strong and significant after controlling for neuroticism and introversion, traits that are often correlated with SPS. These results provide the first evidence of neural differences associated with SPS, the first direct support for the sensory aspect of this trait that has been studied primarily for its social and affective implications, and preliminary evidence for heightened sensory processing in individuals high in SPS.


This post on the Eide Neurolearning Blog has some informative additional perspectives, such as the relationship of high sensitivity with Overexcitability:

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

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.

[For more on Overexcitabilities see the page Dabrowski / advanced development.]

Related article: Creative people more open to stimuli from environment


Cheryl RichardsonAuthor and coach Cheryl Richardson points out that we all have different levels of sensitivity.

“It’s the fundamental part of us that allows us to be touched by beauty, signs of grace, or intimate moments with others. It is also the mechanism that provides us with an internal warning signal that lets us know when we’re in situations that may be hazardous to our emotional, physical, or spiritual health.”

Read more in article: Cheryl Richardson on protecting our high sensitivity.

More articles on high sensitivity


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Originally posted 2010-04-11 21:40:36.


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