highly sensitive brain

Have you ever felt misunderstood? If so, it is because your highly sensitive brain works in a unique way.

Do the most brilliant ideas pop up in your mind, but the moment you mention them all you receive is a blank stare? Followed by a “don’t be so complicated”? Do your expressed emotions incite a sigh, rolling eyes or disapproval from others? Perhaps you’ve contemplated how others can react so differently to you or perhaps concluded that there must be something wrong inside your head.

Let me tell you that your highly sensitive brain indeed does work differently. This might however not be such a bad thing, because your HSP brain has many advantages.

How The Highly Sensitive Brain Helps Us Process Information

It all comes down to the way highly sensitive people process information, which is more thoroughly than others. Our highly sensitive brain handles information in three stages; perceiving, processing and responding. And through all of these three stages the highly sensitive brain operates in a different way. As you can see in the illustration above.


Highly sensitive people notice every single detail. It seems that HSP are more aware of these subtleties than the average person (see illustration Step 1). They notice sounds, smells and tastes that are usually not perceived by others, although the intensity in which they experience these may differ from person to person. However, because their nervous system is more sensitive, everything is felt more intensely.

In addition to physical stimuli, sensitive people notice emotional and social subtleties as well as all the details they pick up from their environment. This sensitivity to emotional stimuli makes highly sensitive people more responsive to the emotions and needs of others. They are empathetic by nature and at times not only notice emotions from others, but feel them physically as well.

This ‘perceiving subtle information’ explains why situations can be very overwhelming. But it also explains some qualities you might recognize and the skills you have.

Skill 1: HSPs notice and/or enjoy subtle smells, colors and sounds deeply.

Skill 2: HSPs are attuned to other people’s needs

These qualities can make you perform well in areas other people mess up in. Or perhaps you have not realized yet that your highly sensitive brain provides you with these skills. I hope this article will raise your self-awareness.


Being highly sensitive doesn’t just mean you notice more, you process all that information more thoroughly as well. This is a key element in being highly sensitive.

Every single detail a highly sensitive person notices is processed thoroughly; it’s because they use more parts of their brain at the same time. They have this so called ‘pause to check system’, which helps them see all details and connect these to the bigger picture (see Step 2 in the illustration above). At the same time sensitive people contemplate how they feel and think about every situation. The name ‘pause to check’ was first used by Elaine Aron. She noticed this tendency for HSPs to process things deeply before reacting.

Skill 3: You don’t get caught up in hazardous situations easily.

Skill 4: When adapt with attuning to your mind and body, your intuitive skills (from illustration Step 3) are spot on.

Optimal Option Ambition

Through research we’ve learned more about the highly sensitive brain and the dynamics of highly sensitive brain activity. Incorporating information with all the opportunities and risks involved is a skill that comes naturally for HSP (see illustration Step 4).

Sensitive people are very much aware of their surroundings, of other peoples needs, the need for a harmonious atmosphere in a group and are always thinking of what’s best of the group (see illustration Step 5). All these attributes together I call the ‘optimal-option-ambition’. It is searching for the best option given the situation but with a great social awareness. It’s hardly ever ‘what’s best for me?’, but always “What’s best for the group I’m in?”.

All these contemplations (conscious or not) are used to discern possible actions (see illustration Step 6). Inevitable, sensitive are more creative as a result. It is not surprising when a sensitive person notices so much and make so many connections, that they will have more ‘material’ to be creative. It has been my observation that this is the case.

The skills that are connected to these aspects of high sensitivity are:

Skill 5: well-balanced decision making skills

Skill 6: self-other processing; you can read the social context

Skill 7: strong sense of responsibility

Skill 8: creative thinking


It usually takes a while for a highly sensitive person to respond (see illustration step 7). After reading about your highly sensitive brain and the many processes going on inside your head, it makes sense that responding to a question or taking a decision will take more time for you and also a lot more energy. This is why HSPs find themselves feeling more stressed than others. This higher amount of stress surfaces in feelings of overwhelm. This effect is noticeable in how you may respond to others: by being cranky, emotional, or distant. When your brain is overwhelmed, there’s not much left to control your behavior.

You might also recognize that your experience of life is more intense; positive as well as negative emotions are felt deeply. Perhaps you have disliked that part of you, but emotions are an important guideline to our actions. So you could use it as an advantage as well.

Skill 9: You experience things intense, which will make your life more vibrant

Self reflection

Reflecting on ourselves, our thoughts, and behavior, is something that sensitive people do sometimes to excess (see illustration Arrow 8). Although a positive trait, it can lead to worrying too much or self-criticism, which can also affect our stress levels. Stopping your critical internal voice effective and in a timely manner, is a powerful quality to develop in yourself.

Skill 10: strong self reflecting skills, which makes it easier for you to learn and develop new skills

 Highly Sensitive Brain

As you can see, a lot goes on inside your highly sensitive brain: figuratively and literally. Using more brain areas and processing everything deeply is worthwhile, but can be exhausting as well.

Do you consider your highly sensitive trait an asset or a pitfall? That is something for every highly sensitive person to decide. But being aware how your brain works (differently than others) and all the skills that come along with it, can help you make the best of it.


About Esther Bergsma

Esther Bergsma, MA, is a frequent speaker on High Sensitivity in the Netherlands. She is an author, trainer, scientific researcher and expert on High Sensitivity. She wrote three books on the subject. Her book about the brain of the Highly Sensitive Person is now available in English. Check it out here. Esther wants to create awareness about the trait from a more scientific angle. She speaks for medical professionals, psychologist, teachers and managers. Last year, she conducted international research to gain awareness on the trait of High Sensitivity in the workplace. 5500 Highly Sensitive Persons from over 20 countries participated and the results are as important for HSP as for employers. Connect with Esther through her website which she created as a place for HSPs to meet, learn and share. You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram. Check out her research here.


  1. Pat Alley-Piccolo on January 14, 2020 at 5:43 pm

    I kept seeing myself over and over again in this article. Now I understand why I feel and act the way I do. It has made me feel so much better about myself.

    • Maria Hill on January 14, 2020 at 5:45 pm

      Excellent, Pat. I am glad it helped.

      Warm regards,

  2. julie michele on February 3, 2021 at 10:50 am

    I have never heard of ‘pause and check’. But as an HSP it makes so much more sense in how I process rather than writing it off as a ‘hyper-analytical virgo’. Interesting.