In sensual/sensory overexcitability, the pleasures and delights of the senses—seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and touching—as well as multisensory experiences become enhanced. Sensual overexcitability gives children heightened experiences that can provide much delight, and as we shall see, irritation and frustration for the gifted individual as well. As our sensually overexcitable children seek and receive heightened pleasure through their senses, they also may experience intense irritation and frustration from sensory overload. Smells and tastes are more pungent to them. Sounds seem to have more depth and character. Those with sensual overexcitability have heightened sensory awareness and with it, often, enhanced aesthetic appreciation.
Source: Susan Daniels, coauthor of Living With Intensity
Tea shops know how to get to me. These tea shops with worlds of flavors were a weakness of mine for a while, and I have a basket on my kitchen counter with a collection I’ve slowly built: marzipan black, peaches and cream green, coconut chai rooibos, cherry white, milky oolong as an exquisite splurge—you probably didn’t need to know my current favorites of all the various sorts of tea, but I couldn’t not list them! Fortunately for my savings, I decided that good mint tea with milk or a chamomile from the supermarket provide sufficient options at a much more reasonable price and opted eventually for self control and simplicity over consumerism. But these tea shops that let you smell all the things certainly know how to make money off of those of us with sensory (also called sensual) overexcitability until those higher executive functions can engage the brakes.
The first bad memory I have of smells involves the elementary school cafeteria at the public school I attended for the first two weeks of third grade. (My parents moved me back to Montessori in third grade after my mom tired of trying to drag me out from under my bed every morning.) One of the many things I remember telling my parents was that they made us eat lunch in a smelly gym. (I also remember my dad remarking with some amusement that 40 years of sweat and peanut butter sandwiches probably did leave an aroma.)
This wouldn’t be the last cafeteria to mess with me. In high school, there was so much background noise given the acoustics of that particular lunch room that I sometimes tuned out of conversations that other people seemed to be following easily. Considering I’ve had my hearing tested and it was fine—indeed, my dad once expressed amazement that I could hear the quiet, high pitched whine of his camera’s flash charging—I suspect I have something called Central Auditory Processing Disorder and/or Sensory Processing Disorder, which I gather is somehow correlated with sensory OE. It’s worth noting that some people have attempted to pathologize OEs, and I mostly think this misses the mark, the CAPD thing seems to ring true in my case, though I think it’s but a sliver of a bigger picture. I should also add that I’ve never been diagnosed with such a thing; indeed, it’s not a big enough problem to merit diagnosis. I just try to avoid noisy bars, which is fine because I don’t enjoy them anyway.
But let’s go on about the negativity of sounds. You know, now that I’m putting this together, while I think all the other OEs are wholly positive forces in my life, I gotta say that sensory OE is a mixed bag. I also experience something called misophonia, which means that I really, really do not like certain sounds because they seem to conjure negative emotions out of nowhere. I can reason my way out of these artificial emotions, but it takes energy to do so, so I’d just as soon not hear gum chewing or chips or apples crunching. In eleventh grade, the kid assigned to the seat next to mine in an otherwise delightful English class would chew gum in class every day. I thought I would go insane.
When I was on study abroad in Japan, the other American students thought it was hilarious to ride up behind me on their bikes as I was walking and ring their bells, because I would jump a foot in the air every time. As I explained to them, I wasn’t really scared; I just couldn’t help jumping.
Tactile sensitivity has also been part of my sensory OE, but not as strongly for me as for some. I do remember wearing stretch pants every day in the sixth grade because I thought jeans were uncomfortable, but I finally found some comfy jeans sometime in the next couple years and now I’m fine with them. Some tags have bothered me, but I’ve cut out only a few over the course of my lifetime. I do frequently like to take off my shoes, including at my desk at work.
And I was a massively picky eater. Mom, I’d just like to apologize now. It wasn’t your fault, and anyway, there was always cereal. Flavors plus textures were just too much to take.
But it’s not all bad. I do get pretty excited about sunsets. I regularly call Max over to look at the sunset out our apartment window. And I would not shut up (at age 34) about the glistening on Lake Michigan as we drove along Route 2 in the Upper Peninsula.
Bright colors also make me happy. When I was 31, someone told me that I dress “age inappropriately” because I was wearing a kelly green dress. What can I say? I like color saturation and don’t see any need to conform to people’s artificial norms in this respect. (Besides, according to society, aren’t I supposed to want people to think I’m still in my 20s? Except maybe at work, I guess. Oh, how we torture ourselves! I think people who worry excessively about this have it much worse than anything OEs have ever done to me, but I digress.)
A particular delight during my time teaching in Japan on the JET Program was when I would go down to the art supply store and pick out new shades of Copic art markers. I bought myself a large set for my 26th birthday, but there were many more colors that were not included, and you could buy them one by one. Some friends started tagging along for the excitement of marker selection, and I remember discussing with one of them exactly what shade Barack Obama’s skin tone was, because I had to color a picture of him I’d drawn around his inauguration. (I built quite the collection of skin tones for a range of ethnicities.)
And I really like that picture of raspberries at the top of this page. When I saw it on Pixabay (which is where I get most of my clip art), the vivid colors combined with the evoked taste of raspberries to create a powerful impression, at least for me. (Now, if they were thimbleberries, that would be an emotional reaction, because thimbleberries are from the U.P. and make me think of my dad, but there I go digressing again.)
Speaking of colors, I also experience synesthesia, including both grapheme-color (which happens all the time and is mild) and auditory-tactile (which is infrequent but strong when it happens). I remember first discussing with someone that numbers had colors at my Montessori school’s annual New Year’s Eve sleepover. I made a poster to commemorate each new year, and I remember telling someone as 1988 dawned that the year would be dominated by lime green because of the double eights. I remember the adults saying “uh-huh, sure,” and realizing that they didn’t seem to get it; it wasn’t until I was an adult that I heard the word “synesthesia” and thought, oh, hey, there’s a name for that. And it turns out that the misophonia I described earlier is probably part of the same phenomenon of brain wiring—a “sound-emotion” synesthesia that happens to evoke negative emotion. If only there were a sound that evoked happiness! Hmm, you know, now that I think about it, there might well be, but because it’s not negative, I didn’t mull over it. Now I’m going to have to give this some more thought…!
Sensory OE is the overexcitability that has had the biggest drawbacks, I suppose, but even here, the negatives are mild, and there are plenty of benefits to offset it.
Or check out these other experiences of sensory OE: