Reflection 6: HSP and Learning

HSPs learn differently. They learn through their senses/bodies/spirit. In that sense they are like visual-spatial learners who, according to Linda K. Silverman and Jeffrey N. Freed:”  learn holistically rather than in a step-by-step fashion.” While these authors see visual sensing as primordial, in the HSP context, all senses play an important role in learning.  HSPs  process input from all their senses in order to perceive the world and their sensations are intertwined and highly interconnected.They understand the world by perceiving sensory detail and nuances in meaning, through emotional awareness and heightened empathy.

One thing that people dealing with HSP and other learning differences must remember is that the psychological make up of the individual and their ability to filter the various energies that they must encounter in social interactions are also important in how well these individuals can focus and learn.  This is particularly important with children who are still learning how to adapt to their sensory systems and get overwhelmed and often do not understand why.

But as an adult I struggle with how to positively integrate these gifts in my life. As highly sensitive people we are easily overwhelmed and overstimulated,  affected by emotions of others in very intense ways, we need lots of space and time to ourselves, we also are unhealthy perfectionists and tend to be living out of sync with our culture.

My children are highly anxious, like me, even if to the eye they seem very calm. They are perfectionists and therefore very insecure.  They also seem to want to understand full systems rather than single elements, which can make learning very challenging. HSP often are diagnosed with “learning disabilities”, and ADHD is a common label. Indeed, these learners, particularly children learners, struggle in traditional classrooms. Simply, they can become simultaneously over and under whelmed by various stimuli and they have physiological and personality factors which mean they learn differently.

One of my children learns by observing before doing while the other must be active to learn.  In other words, one needs to experiment, the other analyze. One gets overwhelmed by too much sound, the other by too much anxiety in others. Metaphorically, while non sensitivities people can not hear one tree falling in the forest, HSPs hear all of the trees falling in the forest, constantly…

While all HSPs have heightened sensory awareness, each HSPs has particular sensitivities and each has a unique balance of various sensory inputs.

According to Gail Ruth, sources of Stimuli Includes in different shades of intensity:
Anything in the immediate environment:

  • Textures
  • Temperatures
  • Odors
  • Light
  • Movement
  • Sound
  • Color
  • Vibration
  • EMF and other energies not usually sensed
  • Spiritual energies
  • Other people’s emotions
  • Aesthetics or lack thereof
  • Information perceived intuitively

Sources of Stimuli May Include:
Anything in one’s own self:

  • One’s thoughts
  • One’s own emotions
  • Bodily sensations
  • One’s deep subconscious states

For instance, one of my children fits the description of visual learners in that he as extreme sensitivities to smells, acute hearing and intense reactions to loud noise.  But my other child has extreme sensitivities to touch, social interactions and taste and ressembles an asperger person. Both are constantly bombarded by stimuli; they get so much information that they have trouble filtering it out. While one will have excellent hearing and social interaction abilities, but poor listening skills, the other will have excellent listening and sequential skills but poor social interaction and writing skills.In other worlds, These differences create different learning problems.

Both my children have amazing abilities to “read” people. Both are adept at reading cues and observing people and both can tell what a person is thinking almost verbatim. But one can’t rely on audition for information, so he has developed remarkable visual and intuitive abilities, including reading body language and facial expressions, while the other one who can’t rely on embodied/social information, has developed remarkable analytical skills including deducting someone’s reaction and an incredibly deep self awareness.

In her book upside-Down Brilliance Dr. Silverman explains how many visual-spatial learners are lost in the traditional school system because their mind functions differently.

Imagine what it is like to have multiple senses overwhelmed. Imagine going to school and everyday being blinded by a very bright, extremely hot light pointed directly into your eyes. Now imagine that touching or being touched hurts no matter how gentle the touch… Think of the many times in learning situations when your skin is stimulated. Now imaging your hearing is super sensitive, imagine what the noise of 30 students in  classroom is like when a you can clearly hear whispers. Now imagine food sensitivities are making you feel disoriented or in a fog, or pain is jabbing you… How well would you be able to focus in any of these situations? Or when being so anxious that your mind is a blur….

This is a tremendous challenge for educators and parents….While my children’s teacher do an incredible job at insuring our children do well and develop a strong self-esteem, I am understanding more everyday how much more fragile their ego are. A simple no, can be taken as a major failure for them, never mind an impatient parent or angry parent.

Traditional teaching and parenting techniques are designed for the learning style of sequential learners assuming we learn in a step-by-step manner from easy to difficult material. The problem for teachers and parents is to understand that these children do not need instructions but experiential gentle learning and that their inability to learn a particular subject does not need more drill to grasp the material. I have experience and witnessed first hand  Linda K. Silverman and Jeffrey N. Freed‘s claim that rote memorization and drill are actually damaging for some learners, since they emphasize the students’ weaknesses instead of their strengths. I have also  experience sensing a teacher’s anxieties and ambivalent feeling towards me, and reacted with feeling of inadequacies and turned off one of the subject I happened to be gifted in. As these authors explain, when these negative learning experiences happen, the HPS gets caught up in a spiraling web of failure, assumes he/she is stupid, loses all motivation, and hates learning. When teachers  assume that the student doesn’t care or is being lazy, behavior problems come to the fore. Meanwhile, the whole cycle creates a very deep chasm in the student’s self-esteem

The  video below is an interesting approach to the role of the brain in how we pay attention. According to the video lecturer, Iain McGilchrist,  we have the ability to stand back in space and time, and that distancing is what allows us to empathize with others. The right side of the brain sees an “embodied world”, the living and social world, while the left side only understand the “concrete world”, the world of categories, individuality and mechanisms. While need both sides in a balanced way to make sense of the world and to learn, but in the history of western culture, the left brain hemisphere has dominated. Unhappiness is the underlying root of mental illness, technology controls us, we have more information  but less understanding and knowledge and our society thrives for  “empty controlled perfection” instead of intuitive rationality. The last sentence of the video is very powerful for me: ” Einstein said the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant, we have created a society that honors the servant but has forgotten the gift.” Seems to me that HSPs have the gift of embodied intuitive thinking as well as broad focus and struggle in a world that focuses on rigid, narrow focus.  HSPs  in my family understand the world as intertwined/overlapping/interrelated systems, we all thrive on complexity. We can not study the tree without first understanding and seeing the forest. The world is not a  series of disconnected objects. They have a hard time translating specific, compartimentalized knowledge into the systemic knowledge they seek.

The conclusion  of Linda K. Silverman and Jeffrey N. Freed’s article offers advise that can directly apply to my children: A key component for success in HSP’s learning is rooted in experiencing success: “Individual tutoring should be sought to help these students learn to use their strengths and build their feelings of competence. Sincere praise works wonders. Any skill in which these young people experience success should be encouraged and nurtured. Their skills, interests and hobbies may lead to careers in adult life.” But here is the caveat. If you bring in a tutor in class, chlldren feel singled out, if you bring in a tutor after school, they are too tired to learn…. Thus my decision to try to help them myself…

And I agree that : ” In adulthood, these individuals excel in fields dependent upon their spatial abilities: art, architecture, physics, aeronautics, pure mathematical research, engineering, computer programming, and photography. Frequently, they develop their own businesses or become chief executive officers (CEOs) in major corporations because of their inventiveness and ability to see the relationships of large numbers of variables. We need individuals with highly developed visual-spatial abilities for advancement in the arts, technology and business. These are the creative leaders of society. We need to protect their differences in childhood and enable them to develop their unique talents in supportive environments at home and at school.The issue really then becomes how do we help children survive school years until they know how to self regulate and use their gifts to their fullest… My kids are lucky, they are in a school that is extremely engaged in helping each student succeed. But as a parent I find that our urban life makes us too overstimulated most of the time and we end up wasting away trying to remain sane within too much social/auditive/environmental toxins……

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