Cry At "The Fault Is In Our Stars"? It May Be In Your Genes

Is it in your genes?  Your ability to be compassionate, and sensitive, that's what.

A new study has found that, if you jump to help the less fortunate, cry during sad movie scenes, or tweet and post the latest topics and photos that excite or move you, you may be among the 20 percent of our population that is genetically pre-disposed to empathy, according to Stony Brook University psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron. reports that Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) of brains provide physical evidence that the “highly sensitive” brain responds powerfully to emotional images.

People who tend to show heightened awareness to subtle stimuli, process information more thoroughly, and be more reactive to both positive and negative stimuli. In contrast, the majority of people have comparatively low sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) and pay less attention to subtle stimuli, approach situations more quickly and are not as emotionally reactive.

In my family, I'd say I'm the one of the three of us who's the most sensitive, and not always in a good way, seeing slights where none are intended (though when my 13-year-old rolls his eyes when I ask why he gets so mad when his soccer video team goes "offside," I do get offended!).

My husband is the tough one in the family, not reacting much to sad stories in the news about kids who crash their cars because of drugs or alcohol ("serves 'em right," he's said more than once, this, the man, who drove his car into a tree twice -- ok, so it was from falling asleep behind the wheel, but still).  And yet, don't interrupt him when the Lifetime movie is on.

The brains of 18 married individuals (some with high and some with low SPS) were scanned as they viewed photos of either smiling faces, or sad faces. One set of photos included the faces of strangers, and the other set included photos of their husbands or wives.

Researchers found that that areas of the brain involved with awareness and emotion, particularly those areas connected with empathetic feelings, in the highly sensitive people showed substantially greater blood flow to relevant brain areas than was seen in individuals with low sensitivity during the twelve second period when they viewed the photos.  Experts say this is physical evidence within the brain that highly sensitive individuals respond especially strongly to social situations that trigger emotions, in this case of faces being happy or sad.

The brain activity was even higher when those with high SPS viewed the expressions of their spouses. The highest activation occurred when viewing images of their partner as happy. I guess that's only if you're in a happy marriage!

In any event, it seems like common sense to me.  Some people seem to be born caring, while others are not.  And yet, they can always surprise you.  Like my husband rolling the garbage cans up the driveway without being told -- well, at least more than once.  But then maybe what his genes were expressing was guilt.


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