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Behaviour, Book, Children, Stress, Toxicity

The Culture of Stress

Another hidden cause of stress for highly sensitive children is our western culture. Many children attend desensitized school worlds. Most schools are loud, bright and chaotic environments that tend to provoke sensory overflow. In Toronto, public schools were designed by the same architect who designed our jails, they are visually unappealing, their corridors echoes, many of their features can turn them into sensory torture chambers for the sensory gifted.

Not only do our homes, schools and other institutions overflow with sensorial toxins but also in terms of emotional toxins. The competitive values that they reproduce can make social life be very stressful as interpersonal communication can be painfully transparent to these children. A normal day at school is exhausting for empathic children and bullying is draining them. Large classes can be draining for these children as well as they will absorb the emotions of others.

Where do we learn to let stress dominate our lives and how do we learn that stress is a normal expectation of modern life?

Cultural learning seems to be one of the roots. As we saw previously, isn’t dren often learn the tacit rules of cultural behaviors by imitating the adults in their lives. Stress is a dominant part of adults lives and no one tells children that the current high stress aren’t normal. Without articulating values that explicitly state stress is not normal and the levels we are experiencing are harmful, children learn tacitly that stress is the norm. Albert Mehrabian, cited by Nowicki and Duke, demonstrated that in face-to-face interactions, 55% of the emotional meaning of a message is expressed through facial, postural, and gestural means, and 38% of emotional meaning is transmitted through the tone of voice. (Nowicki and Duke, 1992)[i]. Yet, we tend to teach children to only comprehend the left hemisphere reality instead of the right hemisphere holistic subtext. These hidden forms of language are established by our culture.

In North America, this cultural language is in direct conflict with unfiltered sensory processing which perceives reality outside the boundaries of societal myths. Our North American culture is based on the British colonialist culture of suppression and oppression. As the anthropologist Joseph Campbell reminded us, British culture is an anti nature culture (Campbell, 1991)[ii]. It has established rigid conventions that deny our nature and remap human natural sensorial languages with man made ones such as drinking, a means to dull the senses. This culture values cultural imperialism that works by suppressing other cultures and any forms of dissent. We only need to look at the attempts at suppressing arboriginal culture in Canada to see how this works.   We also have been taught to suppress our sensory nature to the benefit of social class ascension. The higher the imperialist social class, the less embodied knowledge seems important to a person.

This form of cultural oppression is embedded in the socialization and acculturation processes by which children tend to learn about the rules and regulation of their social life. Cultural oppression works over time and eventually leads to cultural suppression. This form of psychological suppression has succeeded when the new values have been internalized and children repressed themselves without being told to do so: “Having learned to suppress their own thoughts and ideas, or natural forms of languages, individuals can repel their own desires and impulses to ensure that what is unacceptable to the conscious mind, and would if recalled arouse anxiety, is prevented from entering into it‘”(Gregory, 1987)[iii] To that end, pleasurable instincts are excluded from their consciousness and holding or subduing it in the unconscious. In that process the sensorial self is imprisoned in a castle of chasms, the truth that the senses perceives are in direct conflict with cultural norms. Could this repression lead to mental illnesses in sensitive people?

If we consider that highly sensitive children possess a different type of insight, this could indeed be the case. These children are affected by the dominant culture in very different ways. Research in sensory processing sensitivity is starting to show that people with high-sensory processing sensitivity are less influenced by cultural context than others:

“ One of the study conducted by Dr. Arthur Aron’s analyzed how a basic temperament/personality trait, called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), interacts with culture and neural responses.

The major finding of that study was that the frontal-parietal brain region (see Figure in original news release) known to be engaged during attention-demanding tasks was more activated for East Asians when making judgments ignoring context, not their specialty, but was more activated for Americans when making judgments when they had to take context into account, not their specialty.

They found SPS as a trait yielded a very clear pattern of results:

Culture did not influence the degree of activation of highly sensitive individuals’ brains when doing the two kinds of perceptual tasks used in the previous study.  “It was as if, for them, culture was not an influence on their perception.”(Suny Brook, 2010)[iv]

Given that sensory gifted people are highly empathic, this is not surprising. They perceive what is embodied instead of what is being said. As such their high empathy seems to by-pass cultural bias. No wonder we pathologize these forms of perceptions. We can’t mold sensory processing sensitive individuals via social acculturation. Empathy if understood as a ”sense” becomes the only one that cannot be molded by culture. But when we deny these children access to their natural forms of communication, their broad attention, we are traumatizing them by asking them to suppress and deny the only forms of language that can help them making sense of the world and themselves.

Jasunhorusly has an interesting hypothesis as to why that is for members of the autistic community:

“If there is a link between the autistic perceptual mode and high affective empathy (and relatively low cognitive empathy), this might help to explain why autistics do not respond well to cultural indoctrination or conditioning: because, being highly empathic, they don’t subscribe to an “us and them” view of the world. To perceive autistically means to have highly amorphous boundaries between the self and the environment. One response to this amorphousness is to try and shut out the environment any way possible and withdraw into the “self”(i.e., the inner world). This is a common “symptom” of autism, and even the source of the term itself. It may even be that a less defined sense of self, or at least a less rigid identification with the self, is the primary component of the autistic perceptual mode.”[v]

The separation between the natural and social self that characterize our western North American Culture is traumatic for our sensory gifted children. We choose as a society to value our visual senses to the detriment of the others, in the process, we have isolated and ostracized many of our most talented, creative and gifted who possess skills and abilities we do not understand, value or perceive.

For these children space has been emptied of its natural aesthetic and sensorial meaning and as a consequence they are living a lie. What they sense, is not what is admitted to exist. Autistic or introvert children might withdraw into their own world. ADHD and extrovert children, being so much more in their bodies than their introverted counterparts, will become under-aroused and agitated, and as Sir Ken Robinson tells us:

“ These kids are being given sometimes quite dangerous drugs to get them to focus and to calm them down. The arts, not exclusively the arts, I think it is also true of science and of math, are victims of this mentality. The arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you are present in the current moment, when you are resonating with this thing you are currently experiencing, when you are fully alive. An Anesthetic is when you shut your senses off and deaden yourself to what is happening. And a lot of these drugs are that, we are getting our children through education by anaesthetizing them.

I think we should be doing the exact opposite. We should not be putting them to sleep. We should be waking them up to what they have inside of themselves.”(Robinson, 2010)[vi].


Work Cited

[i] Nowicki, Stephen and Duke, Marshall. 1992. Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In. Peachtree Publishers.

[ii] Campbell, Joseph (1991). The Power Of Myth. Anchor Books.

[iii] Gregory, Richard L. (1987).The Oxford Companion of the Mind. Oxford University Press. p. 681

[iv] Stony Brook. “SBU Brain Study: Sensitive Persons’ Perception Moderates Responses Based On Culture”. Stony Brook News. May 3, 2010. http://commcgi.cc.stonybrook.edu/am2/publish/General_University_News_2/SBU_Brain_Study_Sensitive_Persons_Perception_Moderates_Responses_Based_On_Culture.shtml#sthash.XUMXu3ID.dpuf

[v] Horsley, Jason. Transforming the Obligatory into the Desirable: Autism & Shamanism (Perceptual Warfare 18). Auticulture. Jan 2013. https://auticulture.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/transforming-the-obligatory-into-the-desirable-autism-shamanism-perceptual-warfare-18/

[vi] Robinson, Ken (2011). Changing Education Paradigms. RSA Animate. Oct 14, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&feature=youtu.be


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Next: No role models for sensorial growth



  1. Pingback: The Complexity of A Spatially Embedded Social Life | The Highly Sensitive Family - December 22, 2014

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