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Highly Sensitive Children’s Holistic Experience of the Environment: Identity and Sensory Experiences of Spatial and Social contexts

Holistic Experience of the Environment: Identity and Sensory Experiences of Spatial and Social contexts

Interestingly, the quadrivia approach, that we saw earlier, reinforces from a theoretical perspective what aboriginal culture already articulated: a child exists in a social context, a family, a community and the world. Adapted from Cindy Blacksock’s aboriginal health model, which we explored in chapter 5, the figure below shows these influences.

Figure 4: Experiential Environment Influences




These elements constitute the immediate environment (E) of a child and are the first items that will be sensed or experienced by a child and as a result have a direct impact on his/her sense of self. This environment is built upon matter, energy and force fields (e) emanating from all these elements. While their influence can be undetectable, nevertheless, they have an incredible impact on a highly sensitive child sensory health. These elements are intertwined, operating simultaneously on the senses, thus the use of circles to represent each field of influence, affecting and reacting to each other. These fields of influences shape a child’s experience of the world and as a result unconsciously forge his/her perception of reality and self. A highly sensitive child through his/her own spatial awareness perceives these varied sensory dimensions.

A person can obtain a deeper level of awareness by becoming familiar with these fields of perception using the quadrivia approach:

“Through his use of different aspects of his own awareness, or through formal methods based on these dimensions of awareness, he is able to encounter these different realities in a direct and knowable fashion. In brief, he has direct access to experiential, behavioural, cultural, and social/systemic aspects of reality because these are actual dimensions of his own existence. This is useful to him because it empowers him to notice, acknowledge, and interact more effectively with his world. In short, the more of these “channels” he has open the more information he will be obtaining about what is happening around him and he will be able to feel and act in ways that are timely and insightful. Notice right now how you are engaged in all three perspectives: first-person (e.g., noticing your own thoughts as you read this), second-person (e.g., reading my words and interpreting what I am trying to convey), and third-person (e.g., sitting there aware of the light, sounds, and air temperature around you). Do you see how you are always experiencing the world from all four quadrants—right here, right now? It is that simple.”[i]

The rest of this section explores these perspectives. Let’s begin with a child’s “first person” experience.

The Highly Sensitive Child: A Deeply Spatially Interconnected Holistic Being

A crucial characteristic of highly sensitive children is that their heightened sensory life is central to the nature of their emotions, self-identities, and beliefs of being an individual. Their cognitive, psychological and experiential perceptions of life are deeply rooted in their sensory perceptions. Their ability to read subtleties implies that highly sensitive children experiences are holistic.

One of the most common distinctions in the literature on cognitive style is between analytic and holistic styles. Analytic thinking involves understanding a system by thinking about its parts and how they work together to produce larger-scale effects. Holistic thinking involves understanding a system by sensing its large-scale patterns and reacting to them. A holistic person does not tear things apart mentally, to understand them. Instead, the holistic person tends to approach a subject by trying to understand its gist or general meaning. Their ability to get a general feeling about a situation may open their minds to subtle nuances of complex situations (Dewey)[ii].

Analytical thinkers may focus on what a person says to understand how they feel, a process regulated by cultural and social norm, but holistic thinkers operate differently. They read the subtlety of another person’s energy and body language to gage their emotions. This makes them also highly empathic.

An Empathic Experience of the World

Neuroscientists use the term “Theory of Mind” to define the ability to infer other people’s mental states such as intentions or desires. Theory of Mind can be differentiated into affective (i.e., recognizing the feelings of another person) and cognitive (i.e., inferring the mental state of the counterpart) subcomponents (Bodden, 2013)[iii].

It is becoming increasingly evident that our cognitive and affective states are influenced by our senses but are processed differently. The cognitive and affective aspects of theory of mind share the same local patterns of activity in the posterior temporal cortex. The posterior temporal cortex allows us to derive meanings from sensory input for the appropriate retention of auditory and/or visual memories, language comprehension, and emotion association (Smith, 2007)[iv]. In other words, cognitive and affective theory of mind both call upon the area of the brain that is involved with processing sensory input.

Nonetheless, the cognitive and affective aspects of theory of mind both do not use the medial prefrontal cortex in the same way (Corradi-Dell’Acqua, Hofstetter and Vuilleumier, 2013)[v]. The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision-making, and moderating social behaviour (Yang and Raine, 2009)[vi]. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals (Miller, Freedman and Wallis, 2002)[vii], it is the of the brain involved in analysis, behaviour regulation and attention.

Interestingly, destruction of the orbital (frontal) lobe results in inappropriate social behaviour. What if, highly sensitive children’s empathic thinking and feelings bypass the area of the brain that moderates social behaviour? Some research points towards this idea.

Neuroscientists have demonstrated that empathy represses analytic thought, and vice versa. When the brain fires up the network of neurons that allows us to empathize, it suppresses the network used for analysis (Case Western Reserve University, 2012).[viii] There is evidence of separate neural pathways activating reciprocal suppression in different regions of the brain associated with the performance of “social” and “mechanical” tasks (Jack et al, 2013) [ix].

Our brain is triggered and responds to the inputs it receives from the external world, and, depending on the person, sends or suppresses signals that influence the behaviour of a person. It would seem that a majority of people, what we call neuro-typical, have developed the ability to suppress empathy in favour of analytical though; while highly sensitive people can not. On the contrary, in their case such a suppression is damaging to their well being.

Both holistic and empathic thinking are intuitive processes that bypass cultural and social norms of communication. When a holistic and/or empathic thinker is unaware of this distinction, he/she may not be able to reconcile this intuitive reading with the dominant cultural and social analytical communication conventions and, confused by the disjunction between what is said and what is felt and seen, become out of sorts.

Instead of assuming all children follow the same psychological development path, the fundamental foundation for highly sensitive children should be their “unitive” sensory experiences. Unitive experiences refers to their “present-centered” flow of awareness within their environment , they should be considered the foundation of their psychological development.

But in ego-centered theories, such as Loevinger’s (1976)[x] theory of ego development, a unitive skill is the highest level of ego development while for highly sensitive children, these skills are paradoxically central to their first levels of personality, the Pre-conventional development, which is marked by low impulse control and fear of punishment.

This could explain some of  the rise of autism and adhd diagnoses. As our culture becomes more repressive, children, often very sensitive until a certain age, become overwhelmed and develop brain patterns that block out the disjointing input (autistic associated behaviours) or need to loose control to let the discordance out of their body (adhd associated behaviours) since, at this stage, they have low impulse control and fear punishment.

There lays another challenge, addressing high levels of development in certain areas within a highly sensitive child’s mind that is still, in many aspects, in its infancy. The more heightened their unitive skills are, the more asynchronic their development may be in other areas and the more difficulty they may have adapting to cultural learning. A potentially very damaging situation when faced with school that tend to require all children to mature in the same areas at a similar rate and a medical culture that is based on synchronic developments and a normative approach to what is health.

As we saw in chapter 1 and chapter 4, in addition to their holistic and empathic perceptions, the boundaries of highly sensitive children’s self are not confined to their body, rather they are first defined by their position in space. Hence, we must think of their being in a different way, one that is influenced by the hidden dimension of the environment and be prepared for them to have a different development scales. Their development scale should consider spatial, empathic and holistic sensing as the foundation of their being. Instead of an ego-based model, a sensory-based model should be developed for each child.

Self-Aware, stage 5 of traditional ego development, is the stage of development where children can begin to understand and articulate the nature of their sensory reactions. As an individual moves from Pre-conventional development towards conventional development they need to understand personal differences and, with age, become more tolerant in order to achieve Self-Awareness. Instead of focusing on analytical skills, highly sensitive children should be encouraged to develop their sensory skills and in time become analytical within a sensory reality of the self.

If we accept that, as holistic and empathic thinkers, highly sensitive children’s development process is different from Neurotypical children, we can help highly sensitive children become aware of the differences in process. A child could then begin to use this understanding and learn how to analyse his or her thinking and sensations and learn to respond in a language and behaviours appropriate for the specific social/cultural group and context.


How a child react to environmental and other types of stimuli is individual. Responses depend on the type of personality the child has. Integral theory can help understand what needs to be considered through its notion of types. These are the variety of consistent styles that arise in various domains and occur irrespective of developmental levels. We can think of types as the different personality or temperament traits highly sensitive children can have; those who are introverted, those who are extroverted, those who get over-stimulated, those who get under-stimulated, those who are sensory seekers, and those who are sensory defenders. All these children have heightened sensory processing capacities, this regardless of the type of stimuli they are reacting to; but they bring their unique temperament or “personality styles” to their responses to stimuli. Types have expressions in all four quadrants (see Figure below).


Figure 5 illustrations of Personality Types

This illustration of types designed by Sean Esbjörn-Hargens allows incorporating the various dimensions related to personality we explored in chapter 3. Internally, an individual has a specific personality type and also a gender type. In general, individuals have access to both masculine and feminine qualities and thus tend to have a unique combination of traits associated with each type. Externally, each child has a blood type (A, B, AB, O) and a body type (ectomorph, endomorph, mesomorph) these two types can be presumed to influence the chemical and sensorial reactions of a child to the world. In terms of external environment, each child exists in a specific ecological biome types (e.g., steppe, tundra, islands) and may have specific environmental sensorial needs (needing cold or hot temperatures, a certain type of natural stimuli, etc) and governmental regime types (e.g., communist, democracy, dictatorship, monarchy, republic) or social rules which regulate the nature of sensory experiences that are acceptable.

Internally, a child is influenced by a collective type of religious system that influence his/her understanding of reality as well as the meaning of sensory experiences, and different types of kinship systems (e.g., Eskimo, Hawaiian, Iroquois, Omaha, Sudanese), the later regulates the genetic make up as well as cultural norms of that child and potentially regulate his/her nutrition needs.

Types are stable and do not change, by becoming more aware of them and their role in a child’s sensory health, we could infuse sustainability into our efforts by tailoring them to the unique patterns of a child. For instance, considering introversion and extroversion can help us to shape what would be an appropriate sensory experience for a child.

These internal attributes all inform the “first-person” perspective of a Highly Sensitive Child. They will also influence the other two perspectives, the second-person and third-person perspective.

There are many types of sensory experiences that can influence a child (figure below).

Figure 6 illustrations of Sensory Experiences






While the list is not exhaustive, it may help a parent begin to observe during which of these experiences a child changes behaviour. Some of the most obvious are physical (bodily and biological) experiences, which relate to the “first-person” perspective. But in addition, there are mental (emotional, empathic and cognitive), social, spatial, temporal and mediated experiences. Each is informed by specific senses as is outlined in the figure below.


Figure 7 Relationship of Sensory Experiences to Specific Senses



According to the quadrivia approach, the second person perspective relates to how we absorb external experiences while the third-person perspective relates to our sensory awareness during these experiences. Before we can explore how a child’s “second-person” perspective is influenced by how he or she experiences the social and cultural environment, it is important to understand what is a sensory experience itself.   But these sensory experiences are more or less acknowledged by our culture depending on the way we define the senses.


The next section will therefore focus on the senses themselves and how cultural and social regulations of our definitions of the senses influence our perceptions of sensory experiences. In other words, we will focus on the collective/external dimensions of sensory reality.

Previous: The Hidden Dimensions of Sensory Perception

Next: The Senses, Center Of A Complex Perceptual System

Work Cited



[i] Esbjorn-Hargens, Sean (2009). “An All-Inclusive Framework for the 21st Century. An Overview of Integral Theory”. Integral Post. Integral life. March 12th, 2009. https://www.integrallife.com/integral-post/overview-integral-theory

[ii] Dewey. “Cognitive Styles”. Introduction to psychology. http://www.intropsych.com/ch07_cognition/analytic_vs_holistic_thinking.html

[iii] Bodden, Maren E., Kübler, Dorothee, Knake, Susanne, Menzler, Katja , Heverhagen, Johannes T., Sommer, Jens, Kalbe, Elke, Krach, Sören and Dodel, Richard (2013). “Comparing the neural correlates of affective and cognitive theory of mind using fMRI: Involvement of the basal ganglia in affective theory of mind”. Advances in Cognitive Psychology. 2013 • volume 9(1) • 32-43. http://www.ac-psych.org. DOI• 10.5709/acp-0129-6

[iv] Smith; Kosslyn (2007). Cognitive Psychology: Mind and Brain. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. pp. 21, 194–199, 349.

[v] Corradi-Dell’Acqua, Corrado, Hofstetter, Christoph and Vuilleumier, Patrik (2013). Cognitive and affective theory of mind share the same local patterns of activity in posterior temporal but not medial prefrontal cortex. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience. Volume 9, Issue 8. Pp. 1175-1184. http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/9/8/1175.abstract

[vi] Yang Y, Raine A (November 2009). “Prefrontal structural and functional brain imaging findings in antisocial, violent, and psychopathic individuals: a meta-analysis”. Psychiatry Research 174 (2): 81–8. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2009.03.012. PMC 2784035. PMID 19833485.

[vii] Miller EK, Freedman DJ, Wallis JD (August 2002). “The prefrontal cortex: categories, concepts and cognition”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 357 (1424): 1123–36. doi:10.1098/rstb.2002.1099. PMC 1693009. PMID 12217179.

[viii] Case Western Reserve University. (2012, October 30). Empathy represses analytic thought, and vice versa: Brain physiology limits simultaneous use of both networks. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 3, 2015 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121030161416.htm

[ix] Jack, Anthony I.; Dawson, Abigail J.; Begany, Katelyn L.; Leckie, Regina L.; Barry, Kevin P.; Ciccia, Angela H.; Snyder, Abraham Z. (2013). “FMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains”. NeuroImage 66: 385. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.10.061.

[x] Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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