How Sensitivity Is Linked to Brilliance

A brilliant highly sensitive person

The higher your IQ, the more likely you are to fit the characteristics of a highly sensitive person.

Being sensitive is often unfairly stigmatized and misunderstood. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “Stop being so sensitive!” or “It’s not that bad,” then you’ve experienced this stigma. However, in our book, Sensitive, which I co-authored with Andre Sólo, we argue that sensitivity is a strength and an advantage in life.

In our book, we identify 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 sensitivity is connected to brilliance. 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 explore how sensitivity is connected 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. High sensitivity is a personality trait that is characterized by increased sensitivity to stimuli. Sensitive people are more aware of their surroundings and tend to feel emotions more intensely than others. Everyone is sensitive to some degree, but about 1 in 3 people are considered highly sensitive, meaning they fall on the far end of the spectrum.

Despite the stereotypes that exist, a sensitive person is not necessarily someone who cries a lot or is easily offended. Simply put, sensitive people are born with a mind and body that respond more to the world around them. They respond more to the texture of a fabric or to the musical notes in a song or to the joys and hardships of life. In our book, we make the case that a better word for “sensitive” would be “responsive.”

Because the sensitive mind processes everything so deeply, sensitivity comes with a cost: overstimulation. In certain situations, sensitive people are more prone to feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. A busy weekend with lots of plans, the demands of parenting, or a “normal” day at work or school can leave sensitive people feeling drained or overstimulated.

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

How Is Sensitivity Related to Brilliance?

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 connection between intelligence and sensitivity has been noted by Linda Silverman, the director of the Gifted Development Center. In her work with over 6,500 gifted children, she has found that there is a correlation between giftedness and sensitivity, with highly gifted individuals often exhibiting the traits of a sensitive person. 

“I personally consider gifted people to be sensitive,” Silverman told me via email when I reached out to her while writing my book. “The higher an individual’s IQ, the more likely the person is to fit the characteristics of a sensitive person.”

This correlation has been observed 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 possess high sensitivity, often displaying a withdrawn and introspective personality behind the scenes. Similarly, in science and business, highly sensitive individuals are able to think deeply and carefully, making connections that others may miss, which leads to innovation and good leadership.

However, Silverman points out, not 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 told 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 a range of 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 can be 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.

Of these OEs, emotional overexcitability has the strongest correlation with sensitive people and giftedness. 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, said 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.

When I think about my own work with highly sensitive people, it makes perfect sense to me that sensitivity is connected to brilliance. 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. Right now, when you preorder my book, you will get immediate access to three free gifts. But hurry! The offer ends on Feb. 28. Click here to learn more.

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