Study Says Brain Sensitivities Make Us Cry After Hearing Sad Songs

In a new study, Stony Brook University psychologists claim MRI scans can identify the 20 per cent of the population whose genetic composition makes them highly sensitive.

The clinical term "Highly Sensitive Person" (HSP) was coined by study co-author Dr. Elaine Aron in 1996.

Not to be confused with social anxiety, introversion or shyness, HSP defines someone for whom biological differences in the nervous system cause them to process emotional information more deeply and throroughly than others.

Co-author Dr. Arthur Aron says examples of the trait's identifiable behaviors include but are not limited to crying during sad movies and even tweeting, because the sharing of information indicates a capacity to process it more thoroughly, with heightened reactivity to both positive and negative incentives.

In the study, Drs. Aron and colleagues at the University of California, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Monmouth University processed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans of 18 married individuals, searching for indications of sensory processing sensivity (SPS).

The subjects had been pre-screened in an assessment of SPS and represented diverse levels of sensitivity.

Subjects were shown pictures displaying various human emotions, some featuring their friends and family, others involving strangers.

In a first-of-its-kind analysis, researchers used fMRI to trace how an HSP's brain activity processes the emotions of others.

The scans indicated powerful responses to emotional images in HSPs -- especially upon viewing images of their spouses -- and modified responses in less sensitive participants.

According to Dr. Arthur Aron, a research professor in psychology at Stony Brook, the fMRI scans measured emotion via the degree of blood flow in relevant brain areas.

"We found that areas of the brain involved with awareness and emotion, particularly those areas connected with empathetic feelings, in the HSP 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," he says.

The greatest degree of blood flow occurred when participants viewed photos of their spouses happy.

"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," says Dr. Arthur Aron.

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