Are genes to blame for people's high emotional sensitivity?
Emotions have a very significant effect on how people think and act. Some people are very emotionally sensitive, while some others are not. Science has shown that high emotional sensitivity can be linked to genes. This means the emotional sensitivity trait can be passed from parents to offspring.
Since emotions significantly affect people's lives, scientists have carried out studies to find out how emotions work. Understanding emotions and what causes them would help you understand why you act and think the way you do.
This article explores what emotions are, what triggers the display of emotions and how a person's emotions can be linked to the person's genetic make-up.
Emotions are physiological, biological and neurophysiological
Emotion can be described as a strong feeling that becomes noticeable from a person's mood, circumstances or relationship with others. It can be associated with feelings, thoughts, behavioural responses and the degree of pleasure or displeasure.
Emotion can also be defined as the feeling of happiness, sadness, fear, love, hatred or anger usually caused by an individual's circumstances and the environment or people an individual is surrounded by.
There are cases where people experience mixed emotions. For instance, a newly married woman may experience mixed emotions of joy and anxiety about starting a new family, and this is normal.
Emotions can cause strong physiological responses. For instance, when you experience fear, you can feel your heart palpate, sweat trickle down your forehead, your stomach lurch and your breathing increase.
Research has suggested that emotions result from the thalamus sending a message to the brain in response to a stimulus, causing a physiological reaction.4
When an event occurs, e.g., a frightening event, the thalamus sends a signal to the amygdala (a small oval-shaped organ in the brain that processes emotions). Simultaneously, the thalamus also signals the autonomic nervous system, causing the physical reactions that come with fear, e.g. trembling, sweating and muscle tension (neurophysiological).
There have been questions regarding whether emotions are learned or innate. Scientists have come up with different theories of emotions. One of such theories is that emotions are biologically based.
Emotions are also universal to all humans as humans are emotional beings (even though some people tend to be more emotional than others). Emotions are also typically expressed through facial expressions.2
Emotions are subjective
There are six basic emotions- happiness, disgust, sadness, fear, anger and surprise and each emotion have a facial expression that corresponds to it. Interestingly four out of the six emotions are negative.
While everybody experiences these six basic emotions, what triggers emotions differs for people. People experience emotions in different ways too.9
An event can provoke mixed emotions in one person, and the emotions each individual will experience when a similar event occurs is different. For instance, one person may feel intense sadness when a loved one dies, while another may feel deep regret and anger.
Your thoughts control your emotions
Photo by Brut Carniollus on Unsplash
Different things happen during an emotional reaction. One thing that happens is that the brain alters what is happening in the body.
Have you noticed that when you a sad, you get teary and when you are happy, you smile automatically, and your voice gets more excited? Also, when you are angry, you might start breathing faster and might feel your heart pound? Most times, you don't have control over them; it just happens.
Another thing that happens during an emotional reaction is a change of thoughts. When you are sad, you tend to start remembering sad events. That is the point where you start listening to sad songs.
Emotions can change your thoughts, but thoughts also trigger emotional reactions. If you start thinking about fear, you become afraid. If you are in love and start thinking of memorable times with your loved one, you tend to be happy.
Two people can be in the same situation yet experience different emotions simply because they are nursing different thoughts.
For instance, two people can be in a boat. One might think, "What if this boat capsizes in the middle of the river?" and start feeling scared. This might be because the person has never used a boat before.
But, the other person who might be used to riding a boat and enjoys the experience might be thinking, "What a lovely view of the water."
This shows how two people in a similar circumstance can experience different emotions because their thoughts differ.
Emotional sensitivity can be linked to genes
People are different based on how much they are affected by their lives experience. People are sometimes more sensitive than others because of the way they were raised and their life experiences.
However, besides environmental factors playing a role in emotional sensitivity, research has also shown that genes may influence how sensitive a person is to emotional information.
This means if a person has a high emotional sensitivity, chances are high that the person's parent(s) has the same personality trait.
A study led by researchers at the Queen Mary University of London compared emotional sensitivity between pairs of identical and non-identical twins raised together.1
It is believed that the twins had a similar experience growing up in the same environment. The study aimed to find out how the twins were affected by their experiences (their sensitivity level).
The research, later published in Molecular Psychiatry, found that 47% of the differences in sensitivity were caused by genetics, while environmental factors accounted for 53%.
"We know from previous research that around a third of people are at the higher end of the sensitivity spectrum. They are more strongly affected by their experiences", said Micheal Pluess, the study leader and a professor of developmental psychology.
"Because we now know that this sensitivity is as much due to biology as environment, it is important for people to accept their sensitivity as an important part of who they are and consider it as a strength", he added.
But what genes could be playing a role here? The research didn't examine the specific genes that can cause some people to be more sensitive than others. However, another study found that the ADRA2b gene variant is involved.
ADRA2b is a gene that influences the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. A specific mutation of the ADRA2b gene is known to cause the deletion of 3 amino acids in the protein it encodes.
This deletion alters the action of a receptor for the norepinephrine, which is known to play a role in emotional memory.
The modification of the receptor actually enhances the recall of emotional memories.
The research found that people with a deletion variant of the ADRA2b gene show emotionally enhanced vividness. They have increased activity in certain brain regions and perceived negative and positive images more vividly.8
"For people with this gene variation, the emotionally relevant things stand out more", says Rebecca Todd, a professor in the University of Columbia's Department of Psychology.
The ADRA2b deletion variant occurs in different degrees across different ethnic groups or populations. For instance, it is believed that about 30% of Caucasians carry the genetic variation, while about 12% of African-Americans carry the gene variant.7
Compared to people without the ADRA2b gene variant, people with the gene variant showed more significant activity in brain areas sensitive to emotional relevance.
The gene variant has been proven to cause more vividly remembrance of emotionally powerful events or episodes (both good and bad).
Emotional sensitivity may be associated with emotional intelligence
Photo by Natasha Connel on Unsplash
Emotionally sensitive people tend to be emotionally intelligent too. High emotional sensitivity may coincide with emotional intelligence. But this doesn't mean that everyone that is emotionally sensitive is also emotionally intelligent.
Sensitivity is an important aspect of an individual's personality. However, this term seems not to have a unified definition in psychology.
Sensitivity can be defined as a trait that is highly alert to external information, has a higher ability to notice even the most minor changes and can quickly obtain clues to solve puzzling situations.5
Highly sensitive people pay more attention to the words others use, the tone of voice, the way they communicate and body language. They look beyond the surface of what another person is saying to articulate what the person is trying to communicate.
Emotional intelligence, on the other hand, goes beyond sensing people's emotions. It is the ability to generate emotions, perceive emotions, understand emotions, process emotions and control emotions.
Studies have shown that people who are emotionally intelligent tend to perform better at their jobs.6
Emotional intelligence includes being emotionally sensitive to others. It has five components- self-awareness, self-management, empathy, relationship management and social awareness.
Beyond identifying and understanding emotions, emotional intelligence involves the ability to manage a situation to get the desired result. It involves making emotions work for you and not against you.
Are you emotionally sensitive? How do you use your emotional sensitivity?
There is a downside to every human trait. Emotionally sensitive people may be unable to process and deal with emotions.
Highly sensitive people think and act deeply. They absorb emotions from others, and they can sense the vibe coming from others. However, research has shown that they are not always best at managing their emotions.3 Sometimes, highly sensitive people don't even understand why they feel the way they do!
Highly emotional sensitive people are usually not good at managing changes too. Because they feel everything deeply (whether good or bad), they tend to avoid changes because the emotional feeling that comes with it can be exhausting for them.
While science shows that genes contribute to emotional sensitivity, highly sensitive people need to learn how to harness their sensitivity power, take control of their emotions, and not let their emotions cloud their sense of judgment.
- Assary, E. and Zavos, H.M. et al. (2020). Genetic Architecture of Environmental Sensitivity Reflects Multiple Heritable Components: A Twin Study With Adolescents. Mol Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-020-0783-8
- Beck, Julie. (2015, February 24). "Hard Feelings: Science's Struggle to Define Emotions." The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/02/hard-feelings-sciences-struggle-to-define-emotions/385711/
- Brindle, K. and Moulding, R. et al. (2015). Is the Relationship Between Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and Negative Affect Mediated By Emotional Regulation? Australian Journal of Psychology, 64(4): 214-221. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajpy.12084
- Fama, R. and Sullivan, E.V. (2015). Thalamic Structures and Associated Cognitive Functions: Relations with Age and Ageing. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 54, 29-37. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2015.03.008
- Li, M., FU, B., Ma, J. et al. (2021). Sensitivity and Emotional Intelligence: An Empirical Study with Mental Health As A Regulating Variable. Curr Psychol, 40, 2581-2589. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-00669-5
- O'Boyle, E.H. and Humphrey, R.H. et al. (2011). The Relation Between Emotional Intelligence and Job Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Organization Behaviour, 32(5): 788-818. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.714
- Swaminathan, N. (2007, July 30) "A Gene To Better Remember Traumatic Events." Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gene-to-remember-traumatic-events/
- Todd, R.M and Ehlers, M.R. et al. (2015) Neurogenetic Variations in Norepinephrine Availability Enhance Perceptual Vividness. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(16): 6506. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4489-14.2015
- UWA Psychology and Counseling News. (2019, June 27). The Science of Emotion: Exploring The Basics of Emotional Psychology. https://online.uwa.edu/news/emotional-psychology/