I’m happy to be in Hurst, Texas, for the 2011 Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented Parent Conference, where this morning I’ll be speaking about how gifted children, young and old, “grow with intensity,” so it seems fitting to share the following thoughts here on being sensually intense (or overexcitable).photo of Teddy Sniffing Flowers

One of the most exciting developments in understanding giftedness that goes beyond IQ scores has been the work of Kazimierz Dabrowski, who theorized that there are five areas of overexcitability or intensity that gifted people can experience—intellectual, psychomotor, emotional, imaginational, and sensual (read an excellent overview of overexcitabilities by Sharon Lind). Michael Piechowski, an expert on Dabrowski’s theory, writes that people with sensual intensity “immerse themselves in the delight of beautiful things, sounds of nature, sounds of words and music; they note the form, color, and balance in anything around them. Specific aversions to certain tastes, smells, or touch, and the like are also common.” ~ Michael Piechowski

Sensual intensity has to do with having overexcitable sensory experiences, such as these:

  • You appreciate comfort in ways that others do not, preferring soft or natural fibers in your clothes, specific colors in your living space, a near-silent work environment or one with very specific background sounds, or certain weather conditions or indoor temperatures.
  • You notice and appreciate beauty, whether in the natural world, artwork, literature, music, or everyday scenery and objects.
  • You might hear or be distracted by noises that others don’t notice, to the point of being unable to concentrate if, for instance, a clock is ticking in another room.
  • You can be very sensitive to tastes and smells and may enjoy fine food, cooking, and dining.
  • You might have a low tolerance for feeling dirty.
  • You might be extremely bothered by specific flavors and aromas, limiting your choice of foods or use of scents.
  • You might enjoy being the center of attention, whether in informal groups or on stage.
  • You may seek stimulation in various ways, which may include thrill seeking or sensual activities.
  • You like to feel good and may have a narrower range than others of what conditions allow you to feel good.

In her excellent book The Gifted Adult, Mary-Elaine Jacobsen describes people with sensual intensity as “serious experiencers”:

“Across the board, experts identify our heightened sensory awareness and perceptivity as markers of giftedness. This means we are serious experiencers. Life really is dramatic for us. Each part of our sensory system is magnified, so we operate in, around, and through all the sensations of the moment. We react to things more because we feel them more and respond to the intricacies, patterns, tone, and color of different situations. The gifted person understands on a sensory level the difference between a lavender velvet evening and a white satin morning.” [emphasis added]

The problem is that someone who is a serious exerpiencer can easily think of herself as (or be told that she is) “too” sensitive, too reactive, too much, to the extent that she tries to hide who she is or never sees the strengths of her sensual intensity. Jacobsen urges sensitive people to reframe the criticisms they are used to hearing (“You’re so sensitive and dramatic!”) as something more positive (“My feelings and senses are heightened”).

Do you or does a loved one have sensual intensity?

Have you been criticized (or do you criticize yourself) for being too sensitive?

How can you begin to understand the trait of being a “serious experiencer” differently?

How can sensual intensity be important for writers?