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Hyper empathy syndrome means a heightened sense of awareness for other people's emotions. What are the symptoms of hyper empathy syndrome and is it possible to test for it?

In recent years, there has been a burst of investigatory activity in the sphere of empathy. From neuroscientists exploring the unchartered impact of removing brain matter through to laboratory studies examining genes, the domain of empathy has captured the interest of medical professionals worldwide.

However, one condition related to empathy has remained an enigma, hyper empathy syndrome. A quick internet search will reveal various articles and blogs related to the topic, but much of the available information isn’t grounded in hard science.

Therefore, the question raised is: is hyper empathy syndrome a true condition? The answer to that is yes.

In 2013, a peculiar case was reported in the Journal of Neurocase: the neural basis of cognition, by French neurologists involving a woman who presented with an extreme ability to empathize with the emotions of others, including TV and novel characters, after undergoing brain surgery to treat epilepsy [1].

Existence of Hyper Empathy Syndrome

Hyper empathy syndrome has emerged as an interesting phenomenon which requires further, ongoing, investigation. However, medical professionals have not yet conducted the vast amount of clinical research necessary to define the symptoms of hyper empathy and the clinical guidelines regarding testing for hyper empathy syndrome are not readily available. Nevertheless, clinical research regarding empathy, Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), and what is known as the Hyper Sensitive Person Scale (HSP) is still ongoing. Interestingly, individuals displaying the personality trait of SPS, show heightened emotional recognition, which could be termed as hyper empathy syndrome.

Symptoms of Sensory Processing Sensitivity 

As it is not yet possible to accurately define the symptoms of hyper empathy syndrome, let’s examine SPS.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity is the degree to which an individual can perceive a stimulus, regardless of how faint, in their environment [2]. While this includes stimuli such as sound and visual input, people with SPS demonstrate a higher level of activity on the part of the brain responsible for empathy [3].

This section of the brain is known as the anterior insular cortex and allows one to recognize and share another’s emotional state, although it is not their own [4]. Therefore, an increased amount of activity on the anterior insular cortex could point to an increased ability to perceive another’s emotions, and this could be termed as hyper empathy.

The symptoms of SPS are defined as:

  • Highly sensitive to pain
  • Sensitive to sensory input (visual, audio, touch, smell and taste)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Social Withdrawal
  • Alexithymia (difficulty experiencing and expressing emotional states) [56]

When testing for hyper empathy syndrome, the symptoms of SPS could be considered, as SPS is essentially one’s ability to perceive and feel another’s emotions at a fundamental level. Being able to recognize and feel subtle fluctuations of emotions, in someone else’s tone of voice or facial expression for example, and then processing them as one’s feelings and emotions, could lead to anxiety and social withdrawal if that is what the other person is experiencing.

The Hyper Sensitive Person Scale

The Hyper Sensitive Person Scale was established as a way of exploring the mental construct of SPS personality. Factors such as aesthetic sensitivity, unpleasant sensory arousal and the feeling of being overwhelmed by internal and external demands (your expectations and the perceived expectations of others), are taken into consideration while establishing an individual’s score. Personality traits such as openness and narcissism are also factored in. [7]

Testing for hyper empathy syndrome is not straightforward due to the lack of available research within the field.

The reason for the lack of research could be because neurologists and psychologists are turning their attention instead to sensory processing sensitivity and other personality traits and disorders. However, clinical research continues to grow, and the study of hyper empathy syndrome is becoming more prevalent, especially when cases of hyper empathy have presented as an unexpected result of a clinical intervention. The very fact that this has occurred will spur the medical community to investigate the risk of occurrence as the best treatment is prevention.

Nevertheless, hyper empathy is a fascinating emergence in the fields of neurology and psychology, and an increased prevalence is likely, due to the global populous. Fortunately, advances in technology mean that with greater awareness comes further clinical analysis and therefore, subsequent test methodologies, diagnosis, and treatments if necessary.

Overall, testing for hyper empathy syndrome remains elusive. However, symptoms for SPS are clear, and diagnostic capabilities are accessible. Until further clinical research is available, which could be a substantial amount of time, the symptoms of hyper empathy remain unclear. Perhaps the best test for hyper empathy now is your sensory awareness towards another’s emotions. 

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