Psychologists at Stony Brook University, NY, suggest that about 20% of the population are genetically predisposed to be more aware and empathic. Now, in a new study, they explore which regions of the brain are implicated in this. They publish their findings in the journal Brain and Behavior.

Stony Brook’s Elaine Aron, PhD, claims that about 20% of the population are “highly sensitive people” (HSP), who display heightened awareness to subtle stimuli – whether positive or negative – and process information more thoroughly.

To investigate whether these traits can be associated with identifiable behaviors, genes, physiological reactions and patterns of brain activity, Dr. Aron and co-author Dr. Arthur Aron, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain scans of HSP individuals.

The team scanned the brains of 18 married individuals as these participants were shown photographs of smiling or sad faces. The faces either belonged to people who were strangers to the subjects, or they were the faces of their husbands or wives.

The two Dr. Arons describe the team’s findings:

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 12-second period when they viewed the photos.”

“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,” they add.

When the participants who were classed by the researchers as being HSP saw a photo of their spouse, they exhibited even higher brain activity – with the highest activation of all occurring when a participant viewed images of their spouse smiling.

fMRI scan of HSP brainShare on Pinterest
The areas of this fMRI scan in color represent some of the regions of the brain where greater activation occurs in HSPs compared with non-HSPs.
Image credit: Stony Brook University

The researchers found that the brain regions exhibiting the greatest activity were those associated with awareness, processing sensory information, action planning and empathetic response – many of which are implicated in the “mirror neuron system.”

A year later, most of the subjects were scanned again, and the researchers observed identical reactions to the previous test.

According to the researchers, the fMRI results confirm that not only are HSPs highly tuned to their environment, but also these heightened awareness and emotional responsiveness traits are intrinsic to this group of humans.

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, where researchers used fMRI to investigate whether witnessing a loved one in distress or experiencing social exclusion causes us to feel physical pain.

The researchers found that both experiencing “social pain” in ourselves and witnessing it in others activates the posterior insular cortex – the brain region linked to the sensory processing of physical pain.

Author Giorgia Silani explained the study’s findings:

“Our findings lend support to the theoretical model of empathy that explains involvement in other people’s emotions by the fact that our representation is based on the representation of our own emotional experience in similar conditions.”

Also, in March, a study published in PLOS One found that the phenomenon of “contagious yawning” is not actually linked to empathy, as was previously thought.