Sensory Processing Sensitivity in the context of Environmental Sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019 Mar:98:287-305. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.009. Epub 2019 Jan 9.


Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is a common, heritable and evolutionarily conserved trait describing inter-individual differences in sensitivity to both negative and positive environments. Despite societal interest in SPS, scientific knowledge is lagging behind. Here, we critically discuss how SPS relates to other theories, how to measure SPS, whether SPS is a continuous vs categorical trait, its relation to other temperament and personality traits, the underlying aetiology and neurobiological mechanisms, and relations to both typical and atypical development, including mental and sensory disorders. Drawing on the diverse expertise of the authors, we set an agenda for future research to stimulate the field. We conclude that SPS increases risk for stress-related problems in response to negative environments, but also provides greater benefit from positive and supportive experiences. The field requires more reliable and objective assessment of SPS, and deeper understanding of its mechanisms to differentiate it from other traits. Future research needs to target prevention of adverse effects associated with SPS, and exploitation of its positive potential to improve well-being and mental health.

Keywords: Aetiology; Animal model; Cognition; Differential susceptibility; Environmental sensitivity; Highly sensitive child; Highly sensitive person; Mental health; Neuroscience; Personality; Sensory processing sensitivity; Temperament.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Self Concept*
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Temperament / physiology*