Why I am now using the term High Sensory Intelligence instead of Highly Sensitive Person

Why I am now using the term High Sensory Intelligence instead of Highly Sensitive Person

The use of the word ‘intelligence’ may raise a few eyebrows but allow me to lay out a simplified way we can reasonably and accurately use ‘High Sensory Intelligence’ as a better, non-stigmatizing popular culture term than the existing ‘Highly Sensitive Person,’ which carries with it deep emotional and cultural weight for many of us who identify with sensory processing sensitivity. 

Preface these remarks with this statement, I am NOT offering ‘High Sensory Intelligence’ as a replacement term for Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).  SPS is the clinical scientific name you will see in the peer-reviewed journal articles.  Sensory Processing Sensitivity will always be the official name of the trait originated by Elaine Aron, Ph.D.  The pop culture term that is used out in the world, though needs to be immediately positive in tone, free of any negative stigma, and purpose driven; Highly Sensitive Person does not fulfill that role.  I believe that ‘High Sensory Intelligence’ can serve us quite effectively.

I realize that the use of the word ‘intelligence’ bears defining and articulating a rationale for its usage without getting beyond the scope of the way the word ‘intelligence’ is being used.  There are many theories of intelligence but the one that I have found to be most appropriate in the way that I suggest relates to the work of cognitive psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., who has a particularly interesting personal story that many people who identify with Sensory Processing Sensitivity may also find compelling and that led him to suggest that a new way of looking at intelligence was needed.          

Scott’s story involves high test anxiety on IQ tests and his poor performance and classification as a special needs student until he was in 9th grade.  IQ testing is primarily focused on linear reasoning and has its utility in predicting many factors in one’s life but is limited in its ability to encapsulate the real world of how humans live and develop over a lifetime.  Enter Kaufman’s work to reframe intelligence, and education, as inclusive of the whole person and how we might honor curiosity, openness, creativity, and exploration.  In his dual processing theory of intelligence, Kaufman integrates prior work, such as Gardener’s theory of multiple intelligences, which posits that intelligence is not finite, with his own unique perspective on the role of spontaneous forms of thinking, intuitive thinking, daydreaming, imaginative play, and learning that occurs incidentally (implicit learning). 

The way humans adapt to the demands of a given task, often increasing our capacities beyond our potential allows us to think of ‘intelligence’ as fluid, developmental, and real-world oriented.  How does this include those who identify with sensory processing sensitivity? 

Sensory processing sensitivity is a personality trait, or adapted psychological mechanism, that evolved through the natural process of necessity meeting potential.  In our hunter-gatherer period, not so long ago in geological time, humans needed to ‘read’ the natural environment with great skill to know where to find resources, viable areas for tribes to live at different points in the year, and to stay safe.  Those who were higher in an overall sensitivity to both the natural and interpersonal environments proved to yield a slight advantage on the average, so sensory processing sensitivity remained in the gene pool to be passed down through the generations.  In that vast time period, it was simple to understand the how and why of 15-20% of the population being more open and aware of danger but also opportunities. 

This developmental and whole-person view of intelligence imparts an intentionality and purpose to our lives as High Sensory Intelligence people.  Many of us report being stigmatized early in life for a variety of reasons but imagine if there had been advocates and professionals in society utilizing different terminology to describe Sensory Processing Sensitivity!  How much more accessible and inviting would it have appeared if High Sensory Intelligence were used to describe the intuition, deeper processing, high empathy, emotional range, and awareness of subtle nuance that Sensory Processing Sensitivity is known for?     

It is staggering and sobering to have to acknowledge the shallow and superficial level of rational thinking in our species where first-reaction judgements become set in stone, as with ‘highly sensitive person.’  If we truly wish for Sensory Processing Sensitivity to reach the 15-20% of the world’s population with this natural and neutral personality trait, we need to be adaptable enough in our messaging to recognize when a ‘pivot’ is necessary to move away from the stigma attached to a simple term.  In short, there is a better term available that is adequately descriptive of the D.O.E.S. core features of Sensory Processing Sensitivity that is positive in tone and stigma free, High Sensory Intelligence.

For those who speak or write about Sensory Processing Sensitivity often, here is a brief synopsis you might use to describe High Sensory Intelligence:

High Sensory Intelligence is a personality trait with a purpose and that is to help all of us survive through changing and challenging times and circumstances. 

High Sensory Intelligence is

  • A term used to describe Sensory Processing Sensitivity, a naturally occurring, neutral personality trait present in 15-20% of the world’s population
  • Inclusive of all four core elements that comprise Sensory Processing Sensitivity (the D.O.E.S.)
  • Equally distributed in males and females
  • Whole person inclusive of the entire life cycle and how we continue to develop and learn over a lifetime
  • Not limited to the perspective that intelligence is finite or purely cognitive
  • Purpose driven with the intention that it is a trait we can easily understand and utilize in service to leading, healing, creating, learning, doing, and building bridges between people

High Sensory Intelligence® is a term first used by Willow McIntosh of InLuminance. 

high sensory intelligence person

Wow, thank you so much for supporting my post yesterday on my choice to begin using “High Sensory Intelligence’ in place of ‘Highly Sensitive Person!’ In coming weeks, I will lay out why it is urgent and necessary that we reframe how we communicate about sensory processing sensitivity, the underlying personality trait we all share, to the world and with each other.

I will also examine the word ‘intelligence’ and its many definitions, while offering one that I have arrived at through careful reading, analysis, evaluation, synthesis, and creation.

WE will seek TOGETHER to arrive at clarity around how High Sensory Intelligence has couched within it the core D.O.E.S. features of sensory processing sensitivity, along with the familiar deep intuition, empathy, creativity, openness, and relational skills we know and value from ‘highly sensitive person.’

Please understand that ‘High Sensory Intelligence’ is merely a descriptive term that implies no gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class. Whether we are High Sensory Intelligence Women, Men, or High Sensory Intelligence Person/People, we are referring to the same 15-20% of the overall population with the neutral and naturally occurring personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity.


high sensory intelligence – Why I’m moving away from “Highly Sensitive”

Why I’m moving away from “Highly Sensitive.”

Very simply, the phrase ‘highly sensitive person’ is a net negative from the very start and has placed me on the defensive to reframe it as a net positive over the years. The battle to de-stigmatize ‘highly sensitive’ has been an ongoing and constant one in my writings, my seminars, and in discussing it with just about everyone, including other HSPs.

Why fight a battle that is uphill all the way and one that we will always have to fight? The broader culture will NEVER accept ‘highly sensitive,’ especially when connected with men. ‘Highly sensitive men’ is a non-starter and needs to be left aside in favor of a far more appropriate and descriptive phrase that still captures the essence of sensory processing sensitivity but reframes it as a net positive from the beginning!

It is long overdue and my adoption of High Sensory Intelligence came about as a result of working with Willow McIntosh, founder of InLuminance, the first to use the phrase High Sensory Intelligence as a way of recasting sensory processing sensitivity as having a purpose in nature, of our being able to understand that purpose and bring our lives into alignment with our capacities in ways that serve our highest abilities.

I would much rather describe to people what I mean by High Sensory Intelligence than Highly Sensitive Man any day! Now, please be mindful that the trait we are all interested in, sensory processing sensitivity, is still couched within High Sensory Intelligence, just as Highly Sensitive subsumed it in a similar way. High Sensory Intelligence simply shifts the focus from skeptical and put off to “hey, I like the sound of ‘intelligence,” let me learn more!”

So, that’s it, I have shifted from Highly Sensitive Person to High Sensory Intelligence. You may see variations of the same descriptive phrase: sensory intelligent men/people, high sensory intelligence people, etc. but they all describe the same trait, but with the added realignment of how we may flourish and create the kind of lives we are capable of and that the world needs!


How Relationship Satisfaction Changes Across Your Lifetime

How Relationship Satisfaction Changes Across Your Lifetime. Perfect reading for Valentine’s Day 2022! 🥰💜❤️💚💛💓💝🙏




“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”

― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

how is high sensitivity related to other traits?

How does high sensitivity stack up against the OCEAN model? The biggest correlations, in my view, are openness to new experiences and conscientiousness. Of course, we know that 30% of HSPs are also extraverts and that neuroticism and agreeableness do not necessarily follow from being highly sensitive. HSPs CAN be neurotic and CAN be agreeable but, in and of itself, sensitivity is neutral and does not imply anything beyond a greater openness to all stimulation and a more thorough processing of those events, experiences, memories, etc.

As mentioned in the link, many other factors shape and form how we develop as human beings with sensory processing sensitivity representing a strong, heritable trait present in the human population in a large minority 15-20%. The trick really is utilizing it in the world for its many insights, its creativity, and its ability to connect us together through vulnerability and empathy.

#thegeniusofsensitivity #tracycooperphd