Stressed people found to process information differently

May 5, 2021
Stressed people found to process information differently

Researchers at the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), US, have discovered similarities between the resting brains of highly sensitive people and the overwhelming feelings faced by most of us currently – after months of a pandemic, compounded by economic issues and social unrest. This common characteristic, researchers found, can result in a variety of behaviours, including emotional outbursts, withdrawal and procrastination.

Individuals with sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), a biological trait possessed by roughly a third of the population, are typically “more careful and cautious when approaching new things,” said Bianca Acevedo, a UCSB researcher.In a new situation, those with the trait are more likely to hang back and see what happens.

“A person with high sensitivity will also be more responsive, both for better and for worse,” Acevedo continued. So while people with high sensitivity might get more rattled by uncomfortable situations, they might also experience higher levels of creativity, deeper bonds with others and a heightened appreciation of beauty.

In the basement of UCSB’s Psychology Building, the Acevedo and colleagues conducted an “empathy task” in which the participants were shown descriptions of happy, sad or neutral events, followed by corresponding emotional faces of their partners and of strangers (the volunteers were made to count backward by seven from a large number “to wash away the effects of experiencing any kind of emotion,” between the facial photo displays). After that, the participants were instructed to relax, while their brains were scanned with an MRI machine.

“What we found was a pattern that suggested that during this rest, after doing something that was emotionally evocative, their brain showed activity that suggested depth of processing,” she said, “and this depth of processing is a cardinal feature of high sensitivity.”

Among the most robust signals in the participants who scored with higher levels of SPS was a greater connectivity between the precuneus and the hippocampus, a circuit that is implicated in episodic memory consolidation and spontaneous memory retrieval. The consolidation of memory is important, Acevedo said, in order to prepare an individual for future similar situations and how to respond to them.

Meanwhile, weaker connections were found between the periaqueductal gray and the amygdala, a region important for the modulation of pain and anxiety, as well as between the insula and the hippocampus, a circuit that is thought to be important for emotion processing and stress regulation. These negative connections could be the reason sensitive people report overstimulation and higher anxiety, Acevedo said.

In addition to the newfound understanding of sensory processing sensitivity, Acevedo thinks the results may also have some clinical relevance for certain disorders, such as anxietyand compulsive social media scrolling.

“Take a break,” Acevedo said. “For all of us, but especially for the highly sensitive, taking a few minutes’ break and not necessarily doing anything but relaxing can be beneficial.”

Category: Education, Features

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