Sensitive? Emotional? Empathetic? It could be in your genes

This is an overall fMRI composite comparison of the brains of highly sensitive people (HSP) compared to non-HSPs. The areas in color represent some of the regions of the brain where greater activation occurs in HSPs compared to non-HSPs. The brain region highly associated with empathy and noticing emotion (Anterior Insula) shows significantly greater activation in HSPs than non-HSPs when viewing a photo of their partner smiling. Credit: Art Aron


[dropcap]D[/dropcap]o 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? If yes, 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. In a new study published in Brain and Behavior, Drs. Aron and colleagues at the University of California, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Monmouth University found that Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) of brains provide physical evidence that the “highly sensitive” brain responds powerfully to emotional images.

Previous research suggests that sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is an innate trait associated with greater sensitivity, or responsiveness, to environmental and social stimuli. According to Dr. Arthur Aron, the trait is becoming increasingly associated with identifiable behaviors, genes, physiological reactions, and patterns of brain activation. Highly sensitive people (HSP), those high in SPS, encompass roughly 20 percent of the population. Elaine Aron, PhD, originated the HSP concept. Humans characterized as HSPs 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 SPS and pay less attention to subtle stimuli, approach situations more quickly and are not as emotionally reactive.

In “The Highly Sensitive Brain: An fMRI study of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Response to Others’ Emotions,” Drs. Aron and colleagues used fMRI brain scans to compare HSPs with low SPS individuals. The analysis is the first with fMRI to demonstrate how HSPs’ brain activity processes others’ emotions.

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.

“We found 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,” said Dr. Aron, a Research Professor in Psychology at Stony Brook. “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 HSPs viewed the expressions of their spouses. The highest activation occurred when viewing images of their partner as happy. Most of the participants were scanned again one year later, and the same results occurred.

Areas of the brain indicating the greatest activity — as shown by blood flow — include sections known as the “mirror neuron system,” an area strongly associated with empathetic response and brain areas associated with awareness, processing sensory information and action planning.

Dr. Aron believes the results provide further evidence that HSPs are generally highly tuned into their environment. He said the new findings via the fMRI provide evidence that especially high levels of awareness and emotional responsiveness are fundamental features of humans characterized as HSPs.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Stony Brook UniversityNote: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Bianca P. Acevedo, Elaine N. Aron, Arthur Aron, Matthew-Donald Sangster, Nancy Collins, Lucy L. Brown. The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotionsBrain and Behavior, 2014; DOI: 10.1002/brb3.242



Mysterious ‘magic island’ appears on Saturn’s moon Titan

Magic Island Titan
Top: Ligeia Mare, the second largest sea on the Saturn moon Titan, sports its usual coastline in this image. Bottom: A mysteriously bright object appears on Ligeia Mare. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell


[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ow you don’t see it. Now, you do. And now you don’t see it again. Astronomers have discovered a bright, mysterious geologic object — where one never existed — on Cassini mission radar images of Ligeia Mare, the second-largest sea on Saturn’s moon Titan. Scientifically speaking, this spot is considered a “transient feature,” but the astronomers have playfully dubbed it “Magic Island.”

Reporting in the journal Nature Geoscience June 22, the scientists say this may be the first observation of dynamic, geological processes in Titan’s northern hemisphere. “This discovery tells us that the liquids in Titan’s northern hemisphere are not simply stagnant and unchanging, but rather that changes do occur,” said Jason Hofgartner, a Cornell University graduate student in the field of planetary sciences, and the paper’s lead author. “We don’t know precisely what caused this ‘magic island’ to appear, but we’d like to study it further.”

Titan, the largest of Saturn’s 62 known moons, is a world of lakes and seas. The moon — smaller than our own planet — bears close resemblance to watery Earth, with wind and rain driving the creation of strikingly familiar landscapes. Under its thick, hazy nitrogen-methane atmosphere, astronomers have found mountains, dunes and lakes. But in lieu of water, liquid methane and ethane flow through riverlike channels into seas the size of Earth’s Great Lakes.

To discover this geologic feature, the astronomers relied on an old technique — flipping. The Cassini spacecraft sent data on July 10, 2013, to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology for image processing. Within a few days, Hofgartner and his colleagues flipped between older Titan images and the newly processed pictures for any hint of change. This is a long-standing method used to discover asteroids, comets and other worlds. “With flipping, the human eye is pretty good at detecting change,” said Hofgartner.

Prior to the July 2013 observation, that region of Ligeia Mare had been completely devoid of features, including waves. Titan’s seasons change on a longer time scale than Earth’s. The moon’s northern hemisphere is transitioning from spring to summer. The astronomers think the strange feature may result from changing seasons.

In light of the changes, Hofgartner and the other authors speculate on four reasons for this phenomenon:

• Northern hemisphere winds may be kicking up and forming waves on Ligeia Mare. The radar imaging system might see the waves as a kind of “ghost” island.

• Gases may push out from the sea floor of Ligeia Mare, rising to the surface as bubbles.

• Sunken solids formed by a wintry freeze could become buoyant with the onset of warmer temperatures during the late Titan spring.

• Ligeia Mare has suspended solids, which are neither sunken nor floating, but act like silt in a terrestrial delta.

“Likely, several different processes — such as wind, rain and tides — might affect the methane and ethane lakes on Titan. We want to see the similarities and differences from geological processes that occur here on Earth,” Hofgartner said. “Ultimately, it will help us to understand better our own liquid environments here on the Earth.”

In addition to Hofgartner, Cornell authors include: Alex Hayes, assistant professor of planetary sciences; Jonathan Lunine, professor of physical sciences; and Phil Nicholson, professor of astronomy. A portion of the research was performed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, under a contract with NASA.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Cornell University. The original article was written by Blaine Friedlander. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.