Genes and the startle response and high sensitivity

One aspect of a highly sensitive nervous system can be a strong startle response or startle reflex, which can be related to a vulnerability to anxiety.

Among the items in the Self-Test for sensitivity by Dr. Elaine Aron is “I startle easily.”

In an edition of her Comfort Zone newsletter titled The Benefits of Being Highly Sensitive, for Ourselves and Our World, Dr. Aron notes that “our reaction time is actually faster than others, and we startle more easily — those are instances of super fast processing, thanks to a nervous system designed to do things thoroughly, so that it is also efficient.”

Research on the neuroscience of anxiety explains more about the genetics of high sensitivity.

This is from a press release from the American Psychological Association (in 2008):

“Scientists in Germany and the United States have reported evidence linking genes to anxious behavior. By showing that people who carry a common variation of a gene that regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine have an exaggerated ‘startle’ reflex when viewing unpleasant pictures, the researchers offer a biochemical explanation for why some people find it harder to regulate emotional arousal.

“Their sensitivity may, in combination with other hereditary and environmental factors, make them more prone to anxiety disorders.”

Continued in article Genes affect anxiety and startle response.

Also see post Neuroscience and sensitivity – our superior colliculus and amygdala – “Georgetown University Medical Center researchers discovered that activation of a primitive brain region, the deep layers of superior colliculus (DLSC), elicits defensive behaviors such as an exaggerated startle, hypervigilance…” [ScienceDaily Oct. 23, 2009]

Ashley Judd has referred to herself as a “hypervigilant child.”

A summary definition of hypervigilance is provided by Wikipedia as “an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats.”

From post Developing creativity: hypervigilance and highly sensitive people.


The image at top is from the book: Boo! Culture, Experience, and the Startle Reflex, by Ronald Simons.

The related vintage nursery rhyme goes:

Little Miss Muffet
    Sat on a tuffet,
    Eating her curds and whey;
    Along came a spider,
    Who sat down beside her
    And frightened Miss Muffet away.


Originally posted 2012-09-18 19:30:08.


  1. This is too good. Mate, u know, what this blog reminds me? The reminds me that “Wake up kiddo u have got hell lot to learn”. Thanks for these nice articles.

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