Are Highly Sensitive People More Intelligent?

a brilliant highly sensitive person (HSP)

According to one expert, there’s a peculiar connection between sensitivity and brilliance.

In our loud, fast world, being highly sensitive is often stigmatized and misunderstood. If you’ve ever been told to “stop being so sensitive,” then you know what I’m talking about. However, in my book, Sensitive, which I co-wrote with Andre Sólo, we argue that sensitivity is a strength and an advantage in life.

In our book, we identify the five gifts of sensitivity: empathy, creativity, sensory intelligence, depth of processing, and depth of emotion. These gifts are powerful tools that sensitive people can use to navigate the world, connect with others, and succeed in their careers. What’s more, we found that sensitive people are often brilliant. The characteristics of the world’s smartest people — those who are considered gifted — often overlap with the characteristics of sensitive people.

In this article, let’s look at how sensitivity is related to brilliance, in order to highlight another way that this trait can be a powerful asset in a world that often undervalues it. 

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What Does It Mean to Be Sensitive?

First, let’s define what we mean by sensitivity. Despite the stereotypes that exist, a sensitive person is not necessarily someone who cries a lot or is easily offended. Simply put, if you are a highly sensitive person, it means your body and mind respond more to the world around you. You respond more to heartbreak, pain, and loss, but you also respond more to beauty, new ideas, and joy. You’re more affected by everything around you, but you also draw more from these experiences. A better word for sensitive might be responsive.

Because the sensitive mind processes information deeply, sensitive people tend to become anxious, stressed, or overstimulated easily. A busy weekend with lots of plans, the demands of parenting, or a “normal” day at work can leave them feeling drained and overwhelmed. Like introverts, sensitive people need plenty of downtime to feel their best.

To learn more about the signs of sensitivity, read this post. Or, to understand the difference between introversion and sensitivity, check out this post.

What Does It Mean to Be Brilliant?

Next, let’s define what we mean by brilliance. To be brilliant means to have exceptional intelligence, talent, or skill in a particular area. A brilliant person is often able to think deeply and critically, solve complex problems, and generate innovative ideas. They may also be highly creative, intuitive, and have a strong sense of curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. Or, a brilliant person may have exceptional communication skills, be highly adaptable, and able to work well in a team.

When you think of brilliant people, you probably think of history’s most exceptional individuals, such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking, Mahatma Gandhi, William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Maya Angelou, and others.

The Link Between Sensitivity and Brilliance

When writing my book, I spoke with Linda Silverman, the director of the Gifted Development Center. In her work with over 6,500 gifted children, she found a correlation between giftedness and sensitivity. Highly gifted individuals are often sensitive.

“I personally consider gifted people to be sensitive,” Silverman tells me. “The higher an individual’s IQ, the more likely the person is to fit the characteristics of a sensitive person.”

She says she’s seen this correlation across a wide range of fields, from the arts to science to business. In the arts, for example, some successful musicians have been shown to be sensitive, often displaying a withdrawn and introspective personality behind the scenes. As I explain in Sensitive, the rock-and-roll legend Bruce Springsteen is one such example.

Similarly, in science and business, highly sensitive people are able to think deeply and carefully, making connections that others may miss, which can lead to innovation and good leadership. For example, Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, is often praised for his empathetic leadership style. Under his leadership, Microsoft has seen significant growth and revitalization.

Are All Sensitive People Geniuses?

What Silverman isn’t saying is that all sensitive people are geniuses. Those who are the most gifted — the people who rank among the smartest 1-2 percent — tend to be both introverted and sensitive. “We have found that highly gifted individuals are more likely to be introverted than mildly gifted people,” she tells me.

And, it’s important to note that brilliance can be subjective and context-dependent. What is considered brilliant in one field or culture may not be the same in another. Moreover, brilliance is not solely defined by high IQ or academic achievement, but also by other qualities that contribute to excellence in a particular area.

Why Do Gifted People Tend to Be Sensitive?

According to Silverman, the overlap between giftedness and sensitivity is best explained by the concept of overexcitability. This idea originates from Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration, which suggests that certain people may experience stronger neurological reactions to stimuli. These traits, known as overexcitabilities (OEs), can be psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, emotional, or intellectual.

A psychomotor overexcitability involves a heightened energy level. A person with this OE might be constantly in motion, talk rapidly, or engage in multiple activities at once. Someone who has a sensual overexcitability might experience heightened pleasure or displeasure related to certain textures, sounds, tastes, or sights. For example, they might find certain clothing fabrics intolerable or be deeply moved by music or art. Someone with an imaginational overexcitability might have a rich and active imagination, whereas someone with an intellectual overexcitability might have an intense desire to seek understanding and truth.

Of these OEs, emotional overexcitability has the strongest correlation with sensitive people and giftedness. People with emotional OE experience their emotions very deeply, whether it’s joy, sadness, empathy, or anxiety. They might have intense emotional reactions to events that others find less upsetting or feel a strong sense of injustice. For example, they might be deeply affected by news stories or personal events.

In a small study, Silverman found that parents of children with high emotional OE rated their kids as highly sensitive, compassionate, morally sensitive, and concerned with justice, while parents of kids with low emotional OE were uncertain about these traits.

Unfortunately, some academics who dismiss the inner world of the gifted also make fun of overexcitabilities. However, there is considerable research on OEs in the gifted, and it is a cross-cultural phenomenon, says Silverman. It is important to note that not all gifted people have OEs, but one meta-analysis found that the higher the person’s IQ, the stronger their OEs.

To Be Sensitive Means to Think Deeply

When I think about my own work with sensitive people, it makes perfect sense to me that they would be very intelligent. To be sensitive means to think deeply and carefully in any situation. The more sensitive a person is, the more connections they see — connections that others frequently miss.

So, the next time you feel bad about your sensitivity — or the next time someone tells you to toughen up — remember that your sensitivity is also your personal source of brilliance.

For too long, society has told us that sensitivity is a weakness, when it’s actually your greatest strength. To learn more about your superpower, check out my book, Sensitive. It was named an Amazon Best Book of 2023! Susan Cain says, “This important book reframes the way we think about sensitivity and shines a light on the great power of being highly attuned to the world.” Click here to buy it on Amazon.

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