This post has been resurrected from my old blog's location. I've copied the 2006-03-19 post as-is, and I've added a few addenda at the bottom.

I overstimulate fairly easily. This is a serious social disadvantage.

I don’t know how much there is really to this, but I’m attracted to the notion of the Highly Senstiive Person (HSP). (Also see the links from that Wikipedia article, which is really just a stub.) It doesn’t completely describe me– for instance, I am quite enamored with excessively violent video games, and even many excessively violent movies.

However, in almost every other way, the stuff about the Highly Sensitive Person describes me to a “T”. (Whatever the heck that means.) In particular:

  • What is most people’s conception of “having a life” is my conception of hell. Going out to a dance club, where there is a press of bodies all around me, flashing lights, and excessively loud, driving, pounding, music, is overstimulation to the level of extreme pain. I avoid these sorts of situations. This is why I never go to the AAS party which is organized partly by a good friend of mine, and which was celebrated by Phil Plait as evidence that astronomers aren’t losers….

  • I am, in fact, therefore, a loser, by much of the popular definition. Going to those crowded hell-places is what much of the population sees as “having fun” and “having a life,” and many people don’t even realize or comprehend that somebody else might find it as overstimulating and unpleasant.

  • Living in the dorms in college was painful. There was always somebody blasting his stereo for the world to hear. There were others, like me, who were very annoyed by this, but we were considered “squids” (which meant “nerds” at my college), or losers. I had serious trouble shutting out the incessant bassline and getting to sleep, or even just hearing myself think. I got really sick of asking people to turn down their stereos, and they got really sick of me– they probably could not understand or comprehend just how annoying it was to me.

  • I hate the boom-boom cars.

  • I have long had trouble hearing and understanding what people are saying when they talk over background noise. This is not a hearing problem– I have had my hearing tested, and they always tell me that it’s normal or even better than average. It’s a signal processing problem. I frequently have trouble understanding what people are saying at parties or in restaurants, especially if they mumble at all. (Indeed, one time I had my hearing checked, one ear was “better” than the other. Reason? Outside the “sound-proofed” booth I was sitting in, somebody came in and talked with the nurse during the part of the test that tested on ear. The rumbling of the voices– I couldn’t make out words, but there were Penuts Parent “wah wahs”– was distracting enough that I had trouble making out some of the quieter tones of the test. I mentioned this to the nurse afterwards, but she just said that the “sound-proofed” booth was up to spec.)

  • I cannot use a browser with Flash enabled. (Or with image animations enabled, for that matter.) Too many sites have embedded advertisements which animate their way around me, providing motion at the edge of my computer screen which I simply cannot ignore the way “normal” (non-HSP) people can. If I want to read the news, I have to have image animations and Flash turned off. Alas, Vanderbilt’s science and technology public outreach web magazine “Exploration” has recently converted to an all-Flash format, much to my great dismay.

  • Even over-cluttered webpages are difficult to cope with. Google has what I consider the socratic ideal of web design. Lots of white space, a few links you need, and the main function right there in front of you. Yahoo, many years ago (I’m talking mid-90’s), had good web design, but now it’s just an overwhelming, cluttered mess (and it’s not as bad as many others!). Why would I want to go there?

  • When I’m at a professional conference, I don’t get the greatest value out of it. It’s a common assumption that the “real work” of the conferences doesn’t happen in the poster and talk sessions, but at the dinners afterwards, where people make connections and really talk with each other. Well, after a whole day of being in a croweded and overstimulated conference, I can’t deal with going to dinner with a large crowd of people. Yeah, I do it sometimes, but I much rather having dinner with just a couple of other people, preferably ones I’m already comfortable with. I just need to retreat, to give myself some space and peace and quiet. Indeed, I frequently eat lunch or dinner by myself. I don’t know of any recent conference where I didn’t do that at least a few times, and a year ago at the San Diego AAS meeting, I had lunch and dinner by myself every day but one or two (out of a five day conference).

  • I can’t go through very many days, if any, without time to retreat and be by myself, or just with my wife, reading a good book, away from the stimulation of other people. I’m not an introvert, I’m not shy, and I don’t hate contact with other people or even crowds. (I love giving public taks about astronomy, for example.) But I can’t cope with it without a break.

  • Clutter really bothers me. Because I am also lazy, I often live in clutter. But I frequently get to the stage where I feel like I cannot do any work in my office if it’s too messy, and I have to clean up my whole desk before I can do anything. (Alas, the decay time before my desk is messy again is less than a day, so anybody who comes by my office will be surprised to hear me say this, for my desk is often quite messy.)

I’m not quite sure what the point of all this is, other than just wanting to get it off of my chest. It came up recently because I got into a rather heated e-mail discussion with the guy who manages the Vanderbilt Exploration site. It was a great site, but now it’s all Flash. This closes the site off to me. I expressed my disappointment, but the response was (a) he didn’t understand just how annoying and impossible the web becomes if I don’t have Flash disabled, and (b) look at how cool the site is now that we use Flash.

No matter how much Flash can do for you, it’s just not worth it. Yeah, if you are presenting an animation, then use it (although I’d prefer an open format like SVG rather than a proprietary format). But if you don’t need it, then, well, I think it’s poor web design to throw out the standards like that.

Oh well.

I should note that sometimes positive characteristics are ascribed to HPSs, but I don’t claim any of them. I don’t believe myself any more empathetic, or any better at detecting lies in other people, than a typical, average person. It’s all downside– I just overstimulate too easily, and that does have consequences. I’m not sure I’d change it if I could, though; it’s just who I am. I like retreating and getting away on occasion, and if that’s there because I overstimulate too easily, oh well.

Notes added 2007-08-17

Obviously some of this is out of date. I'm not at Vanderbilt any more. Vanderbilt's Exploration site now doesn't just show up as a black page if you have Flash disabled, and it does have a (less functional) HTML version of the site. Alas, the HTML archives don't go back far enough to include the article on me. This is the other downside of using Flash for everything; I can't directly link to that article! Flash has it's place, but using it for the basic design of your site is a huge mistake. (Why would they remove the old archives? Why??? People had linked to those articles, and there was interesting stuff in some of them! Even if they wanted to move the whole site to Flash, archives and all, they should have kept the HTML articles at their original URLs! Fortunately, there is the Internet Archive, aka the Wayback Machine.... )

Another important thing to be mentioned is the Flashblock Firefox Add-On. This is an extension to Firefox you can install that blocks all Flash content. However, it leaves a box there, with a "play" icon, so if you want to see it, you can. This is great! Now that there is finally a Linux Flash player that works with Flash 9, I can, for example, watch You Tube movies without having to give in to enabling Flash in my browser. A side benefit of this is that I get to skip an awful lot of gratuitous advertisements.... I use the Web Developer add-on to disable image animations. (It does a whole lot else, but that's about all I usually use it for.)

There are quite a number of people who will understand exactly why I choose this moment to resurrect this post. I'm at a gathering of many of the bloggers from scienceblogs.com right now. It's been a lot of fun; it's great to meet many of these people, and I'm hoping to have more time to talk to them. After a party tonight held by the head of the Seed Media Group, a bunch of people decided to go to a Kareoke bar. I was talked into going along. Now, honestly, in principle, standing in front of people and making a fool of my self hamming it up on a song I only sort of know really does sound like fun. However, to me this looked no different from typical "night life" : pressing crowds, music blaring so loud that I felt like I had to retreat into a psychological shell in order to maintain my self identity.... I lasted about five minutes. I hope nobody will think that this was me being all sad or feeling rejected, and that nobody was insulted. It's just not my scene! I'm looking forward to hanging out with all these people again tomorrow.


More like this

I was going to mention Flashblock; hlad you found it. Anyway, Flash ads are common because they're hard to ignore.

What you're describing, vulnerability to overstimulation, is usually not a free-standing condition. Rather, it's surely an element of some more general disorder such as an Autistic Spectrum condition.

In my case, that would be Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, and I mostly share your experience. I actually can enjoy overstimulating environments for short periods, but then I'll be a wreck for a while afterwards, especially if I actually overreached my endurance. Just last weekend I went to my stepbrother's wedding. It was a hell of a lot of fun, but I was literally staggering with fatigue afterwards, and it's taken me most of the week to recover. (Two drinks for the night....)

By David Harmon (not verified) on 18 Aug 2007 #permalink

Say hi to my blog crush for me. ;-) We'll try not to kill your character while you're gone.

We'll wait until you get back. =)

By Melissa G (not verified) on 18 Aug 2007 #permalink

Glad to see that someone likes Flashblock as much as I do -- that was all it took for me to fall in love with Firefox.

Rob, your description of sensitivity does actually sound like introversion; in the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, an introvert is someone who is depleted by social situations, and re-energized by time alone or with one-on-one encounters. Being a strong introvert who unwisely went into an extroverted field (ministry), I have had to constantly monitor my energy levels, and plan for a long nap after every busy Sunday, or risk ending up with a migraine. My return to academia this fall feels like a huge relief, and I'm hoping to feel a little less depleted in the future.

Thanks for posting this! I am also a HSP and get easily overstimulated. We share the same concept of hell. I have a hard time understanding people over background noise too, which is one reason I'm not fond of loud parties. I'm also shy too though and don't get much out of conferences due to that and not being able to understand what people are saying at bars, parties, etc. It definitely creates a career disadvantage for me - being around people who are mostly looking for more stimulation can be difficult at times.

Moi aussi.

I grew up in a large family where I treasured those moments when I could block off noise from the TV, records and music generated by my siblings. I felt those feelings again when I had myown family. I could never understand how someone could get any work done with the TV on, drawing my concentration away. What's interesting about this in me is that background music doesn't bother me at all when driving or doing some mindless housework, so there is a very real threshhold. Unless the music is something I don't like, then my concentration is drawn into thinking about how much I detest that particular piece. The 'cocktail party effect' is very pronounced in me - my inability to discriminate and concentrate on a particular person or voice tends to annoy others so I tend to withdraw and be only an observer.

Growing up with these differences led to conflicts and misunderstandings - I perceivged a great deal of negative feelings towards me due to this. It was later diagnosed as a form of ADD, which is what I was thinking when I read the blog.

p.s. the mute button is soooo nice.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 18 Aug 2007 #permalink

Interesting -- I've got a few of those traits. I like parties (small ones), enjoyed dorm life as a college student, really like going to conferences, and don't usually mind noise if I'm not trying to sleep. But, one thing that usually makes me overload completely is a street festival. For some reason, that's just a few people too many.

I also have an odd aversion to large, looming shapes. I really dislike city skylines, especially when they're lit up at night; the sight of one makes me seriously irritable. If I'm in a high place, like an observation deck, I can look straight down with no problem at all, but if I look UP at a tall building, or have my back to a steep drop, I get dizzy. I have trouble looking at maps, especially vividly colored ones, and have to open an atlas very slowly if I don't want the big shapes to make me hyperventilate slightly. When I was about four, my mother had to glue together two pages in one of my activity books, because they had huge numerals on them and I used to cry every time I opened the book to that page.

And all this from a woman who happily handles live tarantulas ....

I think the other posters have made my point for me ... everybody with a slightly different pattern of responses to individual stimuli, reflecting their individual neurology. O.T. digs up a good point: just being on the long tail of a bell curve can be as rough as having a diagnosible condition!

Incidentally, I hate Flash in web pages too, it's usually tacky and it tends to "break" the browser's use pattern for the Web. (e.g., can't right-click to open in a new tab/window!)

By David Harmon (not verified) on 18 Aug 2007 #permalink

Yeah, I don't know if HSP is "real" or not, of if it's just being out on the tail of a distribution. But I do know that I see people in social situations where I simply cannot fathom that they are really having fun, and suspect that they're all pretending to each other that they're having fun because it's what they think everybody else expects. But, I step back, realize that this is me projecting my perceptions and biases on to everybody else. Observing how popular "night life" and the like is amongst most of the population, I know that I am the odd one, one way or the other.

Interestingly, I am very much *not* shy. Yeah, like everybody, in some situations I find it difficult to approach strangers. I have to be in *some* sort of comfort zone before I'm really happy approaching strangers and striking up a conversation. But I will sometimes do it just randomly as well.

Am I an introvert? Perhaps, but there are a lot of things about me that are extroverted as well. I love theater, and have done a lot of acting. Public speaking doesn't scare me, and indeed I've really loved giving public outreach talks in astronomy.


Interestingly, I am very much *not* shy. Yeah, like everybody, in some situations I find it difficult to approach strangers. I have to be in *some* sort of comfort zone before I'm really happy approaching strangers and striking up a conversation. But I will sometimes do it just randomly as well.

Yeah, that's characteristic of a social but easily overwhelmed person. It doesn't sound like you're on the A-Spectrum, though -- I do sometimes make friends with strangers, but I also have some problems processing social cues. That same circuit is probably why I don't project my discomfort onto the others at a party; I just feel jealous: "Why can't I just chat with people like that?" (My answers: hard-of-hearing, ADD, aforementioned social problems, and of course being stunned by the music, lights, and crowd!)

By David Harmon (not verified) on 19 Aug 2007 #permalink

I always suspected that what I always described as overstimulation had some connection to my NLD...funny another poster mentioned that specific condition. I can completely relate to a lack of desire for those kinds of places that people usually go for socializing, because the noise levels and commotion and general sensory overload make me quite uncomfortable. I was just discussing this the other day as one reason I don't want to attend a family gathering where I know there will be at least seven small children. It's also a big reason I want so badly to get out of my current job, and they've made formal notice of it, like they think its a personality flaw. ARRGGH. Glad to know I'm not the only one out there!

By medrecgal (not verified) on 19 Aug 2007 #permalink

Rob -

What you're describing sounds very much like ADHD to me. I have other neurological issues as well, but much of that is classic ADD/ADHD. Especially the issue of having so much trouble dealing with clutter, but living with it because you have a hard time keeping tidy.

Interestingly, I am very much *not* shy. Yeah, like everybody, in some situations I find it difficult to approach strangers. I have to be in *some* sort of comfort zone before I'm really happy approaching strangers and striking up a conversation. But I will sometimes do it just randomly as well.

A lot of people assume that to be introverted, one must be shy and entirely withdrawn, nothing could be further from the truth. Most introverted people I know, including myself, are some of the most successful at meeting new people and making new friends. Being introverted, has nothing to do with one on one, or small group, social interactions. It has everything to do with how one deals with large crowds, especially when they are full of strangers.

Church is a my best crowd element. It still wears me out and causes overstimulation, but being surrounded mostly by people who love me and whom I love, it is much easier to handle. Weddings, dinner parties, crowded restaurants and the like, leave me very uncomfortable. Throw in the flashing lights and noise of a club or bar and I will have a breakdown, if I don't get out quickly enough. The exception to that being, if I am performing, I can be in front of any size crowd you put there. I have no problems playing in front of a thousand plus people (the largest crowd I've played - big festival), put me out into the crowd after, and I have trouble with twenty.

medrecgal -

That's kind of funny, because in a crowd situation, with kids involved, I usually feel better, if I can go off with the kids. This varies, depending on the behavior of the kids involved, but most of the time this happens, I am at either a activity with my church or one with another group from the interfaith coalition I am a part of. Nearly all of the children that I come across, at my church, someone elses, temple or mosque, are well behaved, at least enough that I can tolerate them.

If success is ever measured by the number of concurrent blaring televisions one can endure, I'll meet you in Loserville and buy you a beer.

When I find the person who started the "flash is cool" web phenomenon, I'm going to put their brain in a blender. It's not cool. It's not useful. It's pretty, and FLASHY, which is not a compliment; it's impossible to navigate and requires a totally different skill-set than useful, traditional web design, and invariably all the information you need is spread across fifteen different "pages" that, on a normal website designed the way the web was MEANT to work, you could have at least patched together via c/p. Flash is superb for videos of any kind on the internet, but a website is not and never was intended to be a damn VIDEO!


I've also seen flash used well for some webapps -- things that perhaps would have been written in Java if Java had taken off back when we all thought it was going to. Flash was lighter weight, and didn't suffer from a Microsoft Attack the way that Java did.

But using Flash just to lay out your site-- evil.


Funny you mention that problem understanding people over background noise. I never really made that connection, but thanks for making sense of one of my bugs ;-) If possible I read lips, it helps. I have no particular problem with flash, but can't stand websites with advertisements in general. Btw, I've recently been asked to join scienceblogs but declined - Can't stand the idea of being framed by ads that scream "Get a free Coffee mug!" - "Oceans are part of your world - Keep them clean!" - "See the world through the eyes of the Human Element" - "Free Trial Issue of Seed" Are you happy with having moved your blog?

I am happy with having moved, primarily because of the community of sciblings that I'm now a part of.

I also do get more traffic, I'm pretty sure. I've never actually looked at any of the various traffic statistics. However, I do keep an eye on who else is commenting on my blog via technorati, and I also see that I'm getting more comments.

I and at least one other science blogger have commented that the front page of scienceblogs.com just feels a little too cluttered. The ads at the top don't really bother me, though, because I've disabled Flash and animated images. I find I am able to ignore static ads; it may be that I've trained myself to do that, but I can. I was never able to ignore animated ads. If there is an animated image in the corner of one page, it makes it impossible for me to concentrate on reading something elsewhere on the page.


I have a genetic glitch that has been linked to autistic spectrum disorders (Cowden's syndrome, a problem on PTEN). I don't have problems picking up social cues, etc. but I sure have trouble filtering out stimuli. Ad-blocking software is my best friend.

This year I realized that I depend partly on reading lips when eating with others. I have a couple of friends who think it's polite to cover their mouth if they talk with food in their mouth. As a result, I miss at least half of what they're saying. There's nothing wrong with my hearing--if anything, it's too sensitive. It's just that I can't filter out all the other sounds.

Interesting post; I have some of those characteristics, some of the time (and others all of the time). I don't mind clubs at all and frequently visit them and don't particlarly seem to have the hearing problems you mention. However, the noise in college dorms used to really bother me, indeed any human related noise at night is a real problem. Or, to be more specific, what I deem to be inappropriate human noise; like talking outside my room at 2am or loud music in the middle of the night. I find it impossible to sleep under such circumstances and generally get increasingly wound up and annoyed by whoever is making noise to the point where I'm so upset that rest is out of the window. I find the noise from birds, or the wind or rain or whatever to be no problem (pleasant even).

Also agree on the clutter front and the need for a bit of solitary time (I really enjoy going for dinner on my own, usually with a good book or the paper). I also can struggle in some social circumstances; with my friends I can be very gregarious and outgoing, but sometimes new people (especially in larger groups) can be tricky. This doesn't always occur (and is probably getting better over the years), but there are times when I just don't want to meet people and get rather moody as a consequence (though I try to disguise it). I also have occasional moments with my friends; last night for example, I was sitting in my front room with very close friends who were being generally rather loud (not in an obnoxious way) and boisterous; I got very frustrated by it and had to leave (this form of irritation seems to be growing).

In general, I think I'm pretty "normal" in social circumstances, but I definately have some of the traits you described. I guess most of us do to a certain extent; it's what makes us the complicated beings that we are.

Oh and Rob, I think you will really enjoy this article (recently published in The Guardian) on clubbing:

I'm convinced no one actually likes clubs. It's a conspiracy. We've been told they're cool and fun; that only "saddoes" dislike them. And no one in our pathetic little pre-apocalyptic timebubble wants to be labelled "sad" - it's like being officially declared worthless by the state. So we muster a grin and go out on the town in our millions.

Clubs are despicable. Cramped, overpriced furnaces with sticky walls and the latest idiot theme tunes thumping through the humid air so loud you can't hold a conversation, just bellow inanities at megaphone-level. And since the smoking ban, the masking aroma of cigarette smoke has been replaced by the overbearing stench of crotch sweat and hair wax.


I find I am able to ignore static ads; it may be that I've trained myself to do that, but I can.

It's funny - until this thread came up, I didn't know there were ads on scienceblogs. I use Adblock Plus with Firefox, and I don't seem to really notice much of anything in the way of ads, possibly because they never appear.

By David Williamson (not verified) on 20 Aug 2007 #permalink

SteveF -- your description of "inappropriate human noise" while trying to sleep nicely sums up most of my bad memories from college. (Well, other than a particular woman-related series of events in my late junior and early senior years.) I would be annoyed by the music playing, then get more annoyed because I had become so annoyed, and get, exactly as you described, too wound up to rest.

I hate always having to ask people to turn it down, and they hated me coming and bugging them about it.

I learned to cope, sometimes, with lots of white noise. I always had a fan running in my dorm room at night my freshman year. It *was* Southern California, so that was pleasant for air flow reasons. But I needed the white noise to mask out the human noise. Lots of people thought I was odd. And, I was, but that wasn't really the reason....


Based on that last set of comments, Rob, I'm now just giggling uncontrollably. At that place, you might think that lots of people thought you were odd, but you should consider the sources!

At the last reunion I attended, a math prof recounted a tale from days of yore at HMC. As you might recall, there seemed to be one female math major every year. Apparently, this specific one was being teased about the good odds in her department. She noted, "the odds are good, but the goods were odd."

Seriously - no one there was socially normal.

By David Williamson (not verified) on 20 Aug 2007 #permalink

What you describe about yourself is EXACTLY the way I feel about noise, clutter, and crowds. And I share that exact hearing difficulty. I thought I was selectively deaf or having some sort of mental problem.

Seriously - no one there was socially normal.

Indeed... but I was a "nerd amoung nerds" :)

Which was true, sort of. I was not socially awkward the way some people were -- you and I could probably quickly come up with a handful of names without much effort. Nor was I the most brilliant genius -- once again, you and I could come up with a handful of names.

But of all the people we knew at HMC, I am the only one who was later to win the title of second nerdiest science blogger :)

Pyracantha -- I've heard estimates that the HSPs (again, I'm not completely convinced it's really a category, but roll with it for now) are as much as 10% of the population. But, similar to the guardian article SteveF links to above, I sometimes suspect that *nobody* can hear what anybody else is saying at cocktail parties and the like, but that most people are really good at faking it and pretending they understood. I am an OK actor -- I've done a lot of theater -- but I'm a sucky liar.

ah well, I am not sure about the club thing. I am pretty sensitive to everything that's busy, but interestingly the louder the music the better it gets. seriously, if the music is too loud to talk, it gets very peaceful. I've been visiting techno clubs for a while, there's no point even trying to talk to somebody. it's a bit like moving under water or so.

...inappropriate human noise; like talking outside my room at 2am or loud music in the middle of the night....

In general, I find music nearly as distracting as language, probably because it sort of is a language. Construction noises are annoying, but eventually I can tune them out. Natural and white noise are no problem.

I'm also another adblocker, leaving my ScienceBlogs with excessive whitespace but no distracting ads.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 22 Aug 2007 #permalink

I don't think this depends on ADHD or autism spectrum disorder or anything like that. I think that what you grow up with and normalise on has a heck of a lot to do with it too.

I'm nowhere either on the ADHD or autism spectra; I don't fit even the grossest distortion of either. However, the press of bodies, loud/driving music, flickering lights around the edges of my vision, difficulty processing voice signal against background noise, etc., I have all of these. But I'm pretty sure where it comes from.

I grew up largely outside, in an extremely rural area. It was very, very quiet (except for the western meadowlarks, which are surprisingly loud for their size, and coyotes at night). It was dark like the inside of a boot at night (except for full moons) and very quiet (again, except for the d*** coyotes). I rarely watched TV. I even more rarely deliberately listened to the radio or music. My visual, auditory and moreover mental processing got tuned to slowly changing scenes, not flickering anything, and subtle signals against very little background noise, and I very much got used to having a lot of room around me and not so many people. The way my brain processes things is entirely different from the way that most current-generation Western kids, who grow up on the glass teat and processing visual images which change every few seconds process things.

Kids now get "bored" if they don't receive constant stimulation in the form of fast-changing visual and auditory scenes -- unless they are raised in a family that doesn't watch TV or do a lot of computer games. This isn't genetic, it's learning. Comfort with loud noises and a press of people is very likely much the same a lot of the time.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 23 Aug 2007 #permalink

Rob, I think you got it from your mother - but reading Luna_the_cat's post makes me wonder, was it nature, nurture, or some of each? Interesting concept. See "Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder." by Richard Louv.

By Nancy Knop (not verified) on 04 Sep 2007 #permalink