January 17, 2007

A Neurobiology of Sensitivity? Sentience as the Foundation for Unusual Conscious Perception

SCR Feature, altered states, human nature, perception, personality, phenomenology — alice

Consider the following scenario. A man – let’s call him Todd – is beset by what he calls ‘visions’ over a nearly 24-hour period. He sees a figure struggling at the bottom of a ravine, fighting for life. The visions are clearly not dreams, nor are they part of normal wakeful awareness. Todd does his best to ignore the stimuli but they will not go away. Rising for work after a restless night, he drives down the road with his twenty-something son in the front seat. A scant mile or two away, he sees a damaged guardrail by the side of the road and asks his son, “Did you hear any ambulances last night?” The son replies no, and the father decides to investigate. At the bottom of the embankment, in a shallow creek and partially camouflaged, lies an SUV with its driver inside, critically injured. Thankfully, he is rescued in short order and recovering as I write this. Can a sentient human being, with a given genetic inheritance and set of life experiences, become conscious in a way that differs markedly from the day-to-day awareness of most people? Todd, who I interviewed as part of a survey on unusual experiences, has not always been plagued by visions. But they have recurred often enough over the past 20 years to give him pause. He was one of ten children who grew up with an alcoholic, abusive father. He is the only sibling who harbors these lifelike, occasionally precognitive visions. He also reacts adversely to many everyday chemicals, sometimes becoming dizzy or disoriented at work. Additionally, he claims to have suffered two major electrical shocks in his life. Intriguingly, his eldest daughter – who survived her own life threatening automobile accident—is apparently affected by ‘visions’ as well. Hours before Todd set off for work that morning, she called him to say that she’d seen him at the bottom of a creek, making his way through brambles. Ever since her accident, this daughter has also been affected by severe migraine headaches.

What is going on here? Are Todd and his daughter delusory? Fantasy-prone? What link, if any, can be hypothesized with such physical concomitants as migraine and chemical sensitivity? Is it possible that the individuals we’re tempted to write off as either highly imaginative or emotionally overwrought (or both) offer a living laboratory wherein we can forge a better understanding of the sensory components of anomalous perception? Last but not least, could study of these exceptional cases add to our knowledge of sentience itself and the mechanisms whereby raw sensation is transmuted into conscious awareness?

Over ten years of collecting such reports and systematically surveying the people involved, I have come to suspect that a ‘neurobiology of sensitivity’—combining elements of nature as well as nurture—explains these odd perceptions better than the old standbys magical thinking, gullibility, hypochondria, self-deception or outright deceit. Clearly individuals who regard themselves as anomalously sensitive could be victims of their own internal con job, courtesy of a well-oiled imagery apparatus that kicks into gear through the mechanism of dissociation. But it is worth considering whether some of these people, at least, might be reacting to genuine external stimuli—much as a person with a migraine headache may react to lights, sounds, smells, or changes in barometric pressure. In that sense, what we marginalize as ‘extra’ sensory may not be so. It may, instead, constitute a highly refined capacity to fix on a range of stimuli that never really registers with the rest of us.

Individuals surely differ considerably in the amount and kind of sensory information they overtly react to. My question is this: can a sentient human being, with a given genetic inheritance and set of life experiences, become conscious in a way that differs markedly people with a ‘sensitive’ personality type are far more likely to report anomalous experiences from the day-to-day awareness of most people? This is precisely what happens with synesthesia (overlapping senses, such as hearing colors or tasting shapes): certain people do perceive the world quite differently, and from an early age. Why are they synesthetic and others not? For that matter, some people will swear that they perceive their surroundings—or themselves—much differently under hypnosis. Before the advent of MRIs and other forms of advanced brain scan technology, it was easy to ignore or deride such reports. Now we realize they have a bona fide neural basis.

Could anomalous perceptions, which have persisted across societies and throughout history, have a similar legitimacy? And, if so, what would we stand to learn about perception itself, or memory, or imagination, or empathy, or any of the myriad of other factors that make us human?

My own investigation—published via papers in the journals Seminars in Integrative Medicine and, yes, the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (one has to start somewhere)—suggests that people with a ‘sensitive’ personality type are far more likely to report anomalous experiences. Such persons commonly report longstanding allergies, chronic pain and fatigue, depression, migraine headaches, or sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. These individuals are also more likely to report that immediate family members suffered from the same conditions, raising the nature-nurture question in an altogether fresh venue.

My thesis came together gradually, and from a most unlikely source. In the course of my job at the time—which involved developing indoor air quality guidance for the nation’s commercial building owners and managers—I was researching so-called Sick Building Syndrome and another poorly understood condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. (In the former, groups of people feel unwell inside buildings for no immediately discernable reason; in the latter, people claim to be allergic to trace amounts of chemicals, aromas, even electricity.) I read various accounts and went on to speak with people who said they were affected by these conditions. Rather than chalk up their complaints to a hyperactive imagination or some shade of mental illness, I suspected they might have a threshold sensitivity much lower than average. When several individuals confided to me that they’d had apparitional experiences, the wheels started turning. Since then, I have delved deeply into the possibility that a variety of odd sensitivities may have a common neurobiological foundation—stemming at least as much from the body as the brain.

The survey I constructed drew 62 self-described ‘sensitives’ along with 50 individuals serving as controls who did not profess any outstanding forms of sensitivity. Persons in the former group were 3.5 times as likely, on average, to assert that they’d had an apparitional experience (defined as perceiving something that could not be verified as being physically present through normal means). Sensitive persons were also 2.5 times as likely to indicate that an immediate family member was affected by similar physical, mental or emotional conditions.

Overall, 8 of the 54 factors asked about in the survey were found to be significant in the makeup of a sensitive personality:

  1. Being female
  2. Being a first-born or only child
  3. Being single
  4. Being ambidextrous
  5. Appraising oneself as imaginative
  6. Appraising oneself as introverted
  7. Recalling a plainly traumatic event (or events) in childhood
  8. Maintaining that one affects—or is affected by—lights, computers, and other electrical appliances in an unusual way.

Interestingly, synesthesia (a condition I was not familiar with at the outset of the project) was reported by approximately 10% of the sensitive group but not at all among controls. This finding gives added weight to the possibility that anomalous perception stems from an inherited neurobiology—as does the striking result that 21% of sensitives reported being ambidextrous against just one individual in the control group. However, a sensitive neurobiology could be conditioned as easily by nurture as by nature. To wit: recall of a traumatic event in childhood was indicated by a majority of sensitives (55%), as contrasted with less than a fifth of controls (18%). Furthermore, a startling 14% of sensitives reported having been struck by lightning or suffering an electrical shock (remember Todd at the beginning of this article?), whereas none of the control group checked this item.

Evidence is steadily accruing across the sciences that certain individuals are, from birth onward, disposed to a number of conditions, illnesses, and perceptions that, in novelty as well as intensity, distinguish them from the general population. If this is indeed the case, anomalous experience may have a bona fide neurobiological basis that (finally) makes it accessible to scientific inquiry. We may also have a means – through these quite remarkable people – of furthering our understanding of the sentient base that conscious awareness is built upon.

The Data

Table 1. Respondents’ medical self-profile.
Table 2. Family members’ medical profile (attributed).
Table 3. Apparitional and other reported psi perceptions.

About the Author

Michael Jawer directs the Emotion Gateway Research Center, an independent organization that investigates the neurobiological basis of personality. His professional responsibilities are unrelated to this project; he currently works for the U.S. General Services Administration and resides with his wife and children in Northern Virginia. He can be reached at emotionalgateway [at] hotmail [dot] com.



  1. The Ocean Of Mist…

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    Trackback by TURFING — January 19, 2007

  2. Fascinating.

    The business about the electric shocks and the lightning particularly resonated with me: when I was a kid living in Liverpool (UK) in the Sixties, many places we ‘lived’ in were only just starting to get wired for electricity, a job often haphazardly undertaken by own Dad in a very ad hoc, utilatarian, dare I say dangerously hit and miss manner; and boy did I receive some terrific electric shocks, (often with very strangely striking visual and kinetically violent side effects) and yet somehow I managed to survive them all.

    And as for the lightning, as recently as only a few year ago, in spite of being extremely frightened of it, I found myself being ‘guided’ to go out in the middle of the night to stand directly under this huge thunder storm hovering seemgly for ages over Liverpool, to watch as ghostly fingers of lightning flickered and darted all around me, all the time clawing away at, but not quite managing to touch my chest region, creating at the centre of it this terrifically powerful and painful pulsing sensation, as if some sort of huge but invisible vortex was positioned right in front of me and was trying to suck me up by my chest directly into the heart of the storm.

    Something possibly related to this is the fact I’ve long been aware of a sort of highly detailed, full scale possibly electric energy ‘model’ of my body and its internal structures rippling away inside me, which may also be related to reports given by some amputees of being possessed of ‘phantom’ limbs. I’m not constantly aware of it, but I can usually switch it ‘on’ at will if I so desire.

    And while it’s also true I’ve long been prone to apparently accurate ‘visions’ of the future, not to mention a wide and wild extremely powerful variety of often seemingly spiritual or religious ‘experiences’, one of the most persistent ‘effects’ I’ve experienced literally since I was a baby is that of Time seeming to slow down to a dead stop, leaving people and objects seemingly hanging there in thin air until Time decides to start up for them again, which is why whenever I watch a film like say The Matrix the slo-mo sequences always send a shiver racing up and down my spine.

    Comment by alanborky — January 19, 2007

  3. Interestingly, synesthesia (a condition I was not familiar with at the outset of the project) was reported by approximately 10% of the sensitive group but not at all among controls.

    That is a fascinating fact. Can it verified with something stronger than self-report?

    Comment by virgil — January 19, 2007

  4. Very interesting. I have 4 of the 8 factors noted above. I had a series of precognitive experiences in my mid to late 20’s. After the last one, which occurred precisely as my waking vision indicated would occur, I became somewhat frightened and anxious about what was happening to me. I went to a therapist, described the incidents I perceived before they occurred, and she was quite supportive and calm about these incidents, saying she thought I was apparently adept at perceiving, on some level, subliminal cues or clues about things. I just told her I wanted it to stop. She said, then tell yourself you want it to stop. I did and the precognitive incidents did stop. Then, in my mid to late 40’s there was a murder of a woman, her daughter, and the daughter’s friend near Yosemite. They had disappeared from a hotel just outside the gates to Yosemite. Their car was found burned out, and for some reason the story really bothered me. About two weeks after the murders were reported in the local paper, one day I suddenly had an occurrence of a waking vision, in the daytime, where I was looking down a hotel hallway, and an average, well-built man was standing near the end of the hallway. In his right hand he held a push-broom. The hallway, where doors with hotel room numbers were evident, was darker toward the end where the man, who seemed to be in his late 20’s or early 30’s, white, in good physical condition, suddenly and slowly began to turn his head to the right. I saw his profile. This happened when the murders were still unsolved, and all sorts of speculation about meth crazies or motorcycle club members being responsible was noted in the papers. My “waking vision” was quite disturbing, and the thought occurred to me just after it occurred that, I thought the person must be a suspect or had committed the murders. My thought was that he worked at the hotel, and was a handyman there. I even seriously considered calling the FBI to report what I had “seen”. I considered how I could do that anonymously, and still get the information taken credibly by FBI investigators. I then decided to let matters lie, and did not report it or mention it to anyone. Some months later, after cutting off the head of a female acquaintence, a man was arrested for that crime. Later, it came out that the person, Cary Stayner, was responsible for and had admitted murdering the three women. It turned out that, in fact, he had been employed at the hotel the women were last seen at, was very physically fit (he worked out), and was the hotel’s handyman. When this appeared in my local paper (Sacramento Bee), I was shocked. I also then felt guilty and regretted not reporting my “vision” to the FBI or police. I thought maybe, if I had, that perhaps the woman who was beheaded, Stayner’s fourth murder, might have been prevented. I had not done so because I assumed I would be ridiculed or might even become a suspect myself, which is why I had contemplated how to report it anonymously. Make of this what you will, but what I have said here is the truth. I don’t know what to think of it, and assume, somehow, that my “vision” was probably coincidental, and probably not “psychic”, as I am a rationalist, and thought perhaps some “magical thinking” might occur if I bought into my “vision” as significant or some kind of anomalous perception. On the other hand, my “vision” turned out to be correct in most essentials. I still don’t what to think about what happened, but I thought I should mention it here in order to say maybe there is something to what the author of the above article, Michael Jawer, is investigating.

    Comment by anonymous — January 21, 2007

  5. I’ve found that my best ‘precognitive’ experiences…the ones that impress me the most….tend to be simple and straightforward rather than dramatic perceptions of major events.

    For example, a few years back I awoke one morning at around 7.30am from an otherwise unremarkable dream. In this dream I was looking out of the patio doors at my garden, and for some strange reason the fence on one side was missing. One could walk right into the neighbour’s garden. An odd little dream, which would have been quickly forgotten but for what happened next…

    Fifteen minutes later, I was just in the process of getting dressed when a note on a piece of paper was shoved through the letter box. It was from our next door neighbour ( who had only the day before moved in and we had never spoken to ). The note said that in a few hours workmen were coming round to remove the fence seperating our gardens and put in place a new one.

    Just an hour later…..I stood at the patio doors and saw exactly what I’d seen in my dream…..the fence between the gardens missing. I found this quite remarkable. I had dreamed this very sight just over an hour earlier! That fence had been there for 15 years, and it’s not every day that one dreams about a missing fence. That I should do so only an hour or so before the event actually occuring is way beyond coincidence.

    So we have only two possible explanations. The first is some form of ‘genuine’ precognition. The second is some form of exremely heightened sensitivity or perception to environmental cues of which one is not consciously aware. Of course, with the event occuring only next door, it is easier to argue that perhaps some such subtle cue occured…..even though consciously I am certain no such thing happened. But it cannot be ruled out.

    It is, of course, harder to explain away cases where such distance seperates the precognition and the subsequent events that no subtle cues could possibly have arisen. I wonder what percentage of cases that occurs in, and would like to see a study relating to this. What portion of such events occur within a range where subtle environmental cues could be a factor ?

    Comment by Peter — January 21, 2007

  6. Perhaps it would be productive to try “treating” these sensitives with a new type of hypnosis.

    Comment by Tokorotim — January 22, 2007

  7. Very interesting. I am a “sensitive” myself, alcoholic parents, one a sociopath. Definitely consider myself extremely imaginative and introverted. Wouldn’t it be nice if the world at large found out that we’re not just making this stuff up.

    My answer to that is that, yes, yes it would. :)

    Comment by Andy — January 22, 2007

  8. For all who grew up in the sixties and participated in the fad of psychedelic drugs, there is no question that one’s day-to-day level of perception can be heightened to undreamed of extremes. That, of course, begs the question of a neurobiologic basis for those heightened perceptions, but it clearly shows that within any given individual there exists multiple levels of sensory perception that normally go unnoticed. Accepting that various individuals are wired differently on a continuum of possible human perceptions is not that much of a stretch. Great variation exists between individuals in every sphere of physical, psychological, and genetic composition - all of which has a neurobiological basis. Why would the area of sensory percpetion be any different? What would be fascinating is a study that compared objective and subject parameters between Mr. Jawer’s ’sensitive’ types and controls during the heightened experiences of a psychedelic drug trial. Would the control group “cross over” into the sensitive group categories, and the sensitive group perceptions grow exponendially compared to controls?

    Comment by Jim — January 23, 2007

  9. Just wrote an article today that I thought was rather “coming out of the closet” for Sensitives. Then I Stumbled upon this site by way of a friend’s linking it from a Sensitive forum - comprising about 500 members.


    Thank you for this. Thank you for publishing it.

    Oh and the article: HSP: Seeing the Paranormal in Everyday

    Thanks again,

    Comment by Samsara — January 24, 2007

  10. I have always been sensitive,& it used to scare me, so i tryed to ignore it! After I grew up, I began to appreciate my gift. One question… why do i have days where i can see & feel so much more than other days? Today was one of those days where I was picking up everyone around me, thoughts and feelings so clearly, that for a minute, I thought i was going crazy!

    Comment by Rose — January 31, 2007

  11. Has anyone else here had any precognitive or premonitory about dates/years in the future as possibly being “significant”, or some kind of major societal “turning point” or possible “large-scale disaster” or, in turn, “conciousness paradigm shift” or “scientific discovery” or other positive or negative “mass event”? I’m really curious, as 2017 A.D. seems have recurred in my thoughts many times, and I’d like to know how some “sensitive” or otherwise might be able to discern scientifically or reliably how to tell what might be confabulation from a possible real insight of some kind tied to a particular year (and or month, or day). Please comment. I’d appreciate it.

    Comment by anonymous Dr. X — February 8, 2007

  12. Does the year 2017 A.D., or any other year or month within a specific timeframe recur in their mind, or how can one be better able to scientifically discern between confabulation or other mental artifact and potentially a genuine precognitive or premonitory insight of some kind? Please comment if you have, or if you have an opinion, hopefully with references or links, to why this kind of thing might occur? Appreciate any input. Dr. X

    Comment by anonymous Dr. X — February 8, 2007

  13. Dr.X, rotten.com puts the end of the world around 2012 AD (perhaps around Dec 21). So, not 2017 AD, but close.

    Comment by anon — February 8, 2007

  14. Yes, I’m well aware of the 2012 AD mythos. And I don’t know if I’d depend on rotten.com as any kind of authority on anything serious. That’s not what I meant. I’m not predicting anything like the end of the world. That would be incredibly presumptuous and a form of “magical thinking”, as noted in the psychological literature, a form of delusion.

    But I still have a kind of eerie, recurrent feeling about 2017 AD, and while I assume it is some of slightly aberrant confabulation of sorts, it still recurs periodically in my thoughts. If there is any linkage of that year to any potential event, the only thing that has occurred to me is a possible terrorist nuclear weapon exploding in either Washington, D.C. and/or New York City. So, there, I’ve said it. I hope I’m wrong, and I would guess intellectually that I am. But my intuition says something will occur that is damaging to a degree far greater than 9/11, and that it will cause a paradigm shift of some kind.
    Only time will tell. Maybe that’s when formal acknowledgement of some form of non-human, advanced intelligence or conciousness will become known, but that seems far less likely. I know all this sounds pretty goofy, and delusional, but still the year 2017 seems very significant on some level, and if I had to narrow the time frame down, I’d suggest November or December at this point.

    Dr. X

    Comment by Dr. X — February 11, 2007

  15. Sorry it took me so long to comment on this, Michael. I really appreciate your keeping me in the loop. The article is marvelous! I’ve posted about it on my website. Your investigation has certainly progressed along some fascinating lines! It’s interesting to see where I fall amongst your other test subjects. Although I have not experienced the same electrical exposures and sensitivities as many of the others - I certainly fit firmly in amongst the majority of remaining factors. I cannot wait to read your book on the subject! And thank you again for allowing me to participate. I personally think your research is very important. Additionally - I’m glad you’ve approached that research from a scientific point of view. As I’ve stated before – I generally do not discuss this subject as I’m uncomfortable assigning 19th century spiritualist labels to my experiences. So bravo. There is much food for thought here. I hope you will continue to keep me apprised of your work.

    Comment by The Fat Lady Sings — February 12, 2007

  16. I actually wrote a fairly long comment on this subject a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t see it featured for some reason. I don’t like repetition in general. Anyway, I remember that I wrote: 1)”Sentience as the foundation for unusual concious perception” ( the title on the post above) encourages me to show my concurrence to it, yet with a slight modification : change of the definite article “the” with only ‘a’.
    This suggestion is due to the availability of other bases for unusual conscious perception such as faith, a certain natural yet distinguished gift, the milieu ..etc., however “sentience” or sensitivity is undoubtedly of great significance in this respect. Jawer’s serious efforts exerted in colleting information necessary for his research move us to thank him. Thanks.

    Comment by Abdu "The One" — March 17, 2007

  17. I’d like to see the list of other criteria. Until recently, I had 8 out of 8 of the factors listed. As I get older, I have more frequent psi perceptions. If this keeps up, I should have an interesting retirement someday.

    Comment by Raven — April 17, 2007

  18. as of late ive been having this weird “feeling” like i sorta know what will happen in the future but its very immediate like 1 minuet and only about what around me or just me, however this only happened to me from about april-june (during the end of school) and usually when im walking home alone and letting random thoughts go through my head. so i cant really control it or call it since its a random thought that i think nothing of until it happens

    here are 3 examples (i only remember these out of many since they were “milestones)

    1. i had the feeling since the 3rd grade that i will finish my days at my private school (8th grade) on june 13, and every end of the year i would remember that and when it actually happened (i did finish on june 13) i was blown away, but due to a tragedy in my life after i didnt experience this until the spring of my freshman year.

    2 it started out at first by knowing which way a car would turn or when i street light would turn on, but then one day on the bus home i saw this girl, who i had never seen on that bus line, and once i saw her a thought or picture of the movie theaters (where a bus stop is located) and minuets later she got off at that stop.

    3 this is general but i usually can finish everyone’s sentences’ (strangers or friends) in my head with great accuracy

    but now on summer vacation (and having just come from a month and half trip out of state) i have been unable to experience this, save for one instiance, so i think that by being near somebody i would be able to do this

    but the main reasons i think i lost my ‘ability’ are when i started to watch the show heroes in may and began to want to control it, and when i heard about the concept of the movie the secret where i tried to actually use it.

    but today i was able to achieve 2 separate precog thoughts that happened right after i thought with in the same hour

    Comment by Jonathan — August 13, 2007

  19. BINGO ! I possess all 8. Finally some sort of an explanation for my experiences. I find this absolutely fascinating.

    Now what? lol

    Comment by Dustwitch — August 29, 2007

  20. I used to have alot of predictions which came true. I once predicted what side a coin came down 48 times in a row, even before it was tossed.

    Comment by Leon — September 6, 2007