When different people take the same dose of any psychedelic, some will have a more subjectively intense experience than others. This is due to dose-independent factors, or what many psychonauts, psychedelic enthusiasts, and researchers call set and setting. Set is your mindset going into the experience, whereas setting refers to all the environmental factors that can potentially colour the trip. While a person’s pre-existing mood and setting are seen to (and definitely do) play a significant role in the quality of the psychedelic experience, there is one undervalued aspect of set that can influence how intense someone’s journey might be: his or her personality.
Indeed, people intuitively feel that they are more sensitive to psychedelics than others. Even when considering all of the facets of set and setting, it seems that some individuals will have a more perceptually, emotionally, and spiritually intense experience than others – and that this is due to an underlying sensitivity to psychedelics. But where does this sensitivity come from? I will describe some perspectives from psychology that can help shed some light on this phenomenon, and further argue that anyone’s inherent sensitivity should be taken into account before deciding on a dosage.
Being Sensitive to Psychedelics Could Be Due to Your Personality
A fundamental reason why some individuals are more sensitive to psychedelics than others is that they are more sensitive people in general. In psychology, sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is a heritable temperament/personality trait that refers to the tendency to process stimuli and information more strongly and deeply than others. 47% of the differences in people’s sensitivity are explained by genetic factors, with the rest (53%) shaped by life experiences and one’s environment.
SPS includes sensory processing of aesthetic experiences, other people’s moods and feelings, loud noises, pain, hunger, bodily sensations, medications, caffeine, and other drugs (including psychedelics). In a 2016 paper published in Personality and Individual Differences, Sofie Boterberg and Petra Warreyn state that SPS “reflects an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system”. The nervous system is hyper-excitable, in other words.
Synonyms for SPS include hypersensitivity or high sensitivity while an individual who has the trait is known as a highly sensitive person (HSP). The American psychologist Elaine Aron, who coined the term HSP in 1996, has stated that the trait SPS can be found in 15 to 20% of the population. HSPs are believed to be easily overstimulated by external stimuli because they have a lower sensory threshold. This means that their nervous system is varied in such a way that it takes a weaker stimulus to generate a response than a less sensitive person. HSPs will be quick to notice – and react to – stimuli, they react strongly to more types of stimuli compared to non-HSPs, and they react more strongly to stimuli overall. They simply notice sensory stimuli more easily. This would include, for instance, being more bothered by intense and chaotic stimuli, such as loud noises and crowds.
We can see from brain imaging studies that SPS is associated with differences in brain activity when information is being processed by an individual. HSP scores are associated with stronger activation of brain regions involved in awareness, empathy, and action planning. There is also evidence that high SPS is associated with genes that affect the activity of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
The trait SPS has been observed in more than 100 nonhuman species. SPS is not a disorder, although it does increase an individual’s risk of experiencing high stress, being easily overwhelmed, sleep problems, depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses; having a generally high sensitivity means, of course, that you will respond more strongly not just to positive stimuli but to negative stimuli as well. Aron has sought to clarify that high SPS is not the same as similar-appearing traits or disorders, such as shyness, sensation-seeking, sensory processing disorder, and autism. SPS is linked to brain differences that are not seen with these other conditions, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Moreover, both introverts and extroverts can be HSPs.
SPS is an innate survival strategy and, like all with survival strategies, it has its advantages and disadvantages. SPS persists as an inheritable personality trait and nervous system variation because it can have adaptive value, even if, in some individuals, a condition like depression develops or is more likely to be chronic and severe. It’s important to keep in mind that no survival strategy, evolutionarily speaking, can be perfect; there will always be trade-offs. Furthermore, these survival strategies, such as being more sensitive to your internal and external world, are concerned with gaining advantages that allow you to survive longer or mate more often, so you can pass on your genes, not so you can be a happier person. HSPs, while they are at additional risk for psychological distress, are, nonetheless, psychologically primed to form deep social bonds, as well as be more attuned to the external world, which is useful for avoiding threats, obtaining resources, and adapting to environmental circumstances.
Amongst both humans and members of other species, individuals who differ in their responsiveness to stimuli coexist, with variations having different evolutionary costs and benefits. So being an HSP is normal and nothing to feel ashamed about; it is not a defect, weakness, or character flaw. And while it may, indeed, feel like both a blessing and a curse, it is a trait that must be understood, accepted, and taken into consideration when navigating one’s environment, emotional life, and relationships. It is not a trait that should be denied, ignored, rejected, hated, or medicated. High sensitivity should be valued and appreciated, as this trait can greatly enhance one’s capacity for creativity and empathy; plus HSPs tend to have a rich and complex inner life and are often deeply moved by the arts and music.
Taking all of this into account, when people claim they are sensitive to psychedelics, they may, in fact, be HSPs. Often, people who are sensitive to psychedelics display high sensitivity in other respects, such as being more sensitive to other psychoactive drugs, medication, caffeine, as well as the situational, social, and emotional dimensions of life.
When you are highly sensitive and you take, say, a moderate dose of a psychedelic, the same dose as a fellow tripper, it is very possible that your experience will be more intense than theirs, and not just because of individual differences related to your pre-tripping intentions, expectations, thoughts, feelings, life situation, history, attitudes, worldview, beliefs, mental health issues, or other personality traits. All of these myriad factors are relevant, but so is the influence of innate sensitivity. Those who are less sensitive to psychedelics may (excluding the factor of tolerance) have a higher sensory threshold than others, and so find that they need to take larger doses to achieve desired effects.
Some psychedelic users may be surprised about how they can take a dose of a psychedelic that results in such a sensorily and emotionally rich experience, which, for others, may feel underwhelming. Being sensitive to psychedelics, like being highly sensitive in general, has its advantages and disadvantages. It is true that HSPs may not need to take as high a dose as others (giving them more bang for their buck), or that they are prone to have deep psychedelic experiences, but the flipside of this is that there is perhaps a greater chance of being overwhelmed and reacting more strongly, in a negative way, to other people (including what they say and their non-verbal cues) and one’s environment (including how it changes during the trip).
Another personality trait that appears to predict sensitivity to psychedelics is ‘absorption’, which refers to the disposition of someone to become absorbed in their mental imagery, particularly fantasy. This trait is most commonly measured by the Tellegen Absorption Scale (TAS), which includes the following nine subscales:
- Responsiveness to engaging stimuli
- Responsiveness to inductive stimuli
- Imagistic thought
- Ability to summon vivid and suggestive images
- Cross-modal experiences (e.g. synesthesia)
- Absorption in thoughts and imaginings
- Vivid memories of the past
- Episodes of expanded awareness
- Altered states of consciousness
In a 2019 article published in Consciousness and Cognition, a group of researchers note that “Some people seem to have a ‘talent’ for spiritual experience: they readily sense the presence of supernatural beings, receive special messages from God, and report intense feelings of self-transcendence, awe and wonder.” They examine various forms of evidence and conclude that “the trait of ‘absorption’ captures a general proclivity for having spiritual experiences. Participants scoring highly on the Tellegen Absorption Scale report vivid experiences of hearing God’s voice during prayer, intense mystical experiences in response to psychedelics or placebo brain-stimulation, and strong feelings of presence and transcendence when confronted with natural beauty, virtual reality, or music.” Focusing on psychedelics here, a review of studies on differential responses to psilocybin found that absorption was one of the most important predictors of the intensity of the experience, and this trait, out of all the personality traits, was most strongly associated with mystical experiences.
The Need to Take Sensitivity to Psychedelics Into Account
Given that being sensitive to psychedelics can alter the intensity of a trip, it seems that this should be taken into account when these compounds are taken, whatever the context, be that in a clinical trial, at a clinic or retreat, or amongst individuals taking psychedelics in a setting of their choosing.
In clinical trials with psychedelics, differences in body weight are sometimes used to adjust the dosages given to participants. And psychedelic users often mention their body weight when publishing trip reports, considering this to be a relevant factor in how intense their experience was relative to their dose. However, researchers who have compared psilocybin studies including weight-adjusted groups and fixed-dose groups found “no evidence that body weight affected subjective effects of psilocybin.”
I would be interested to see, though, trials whereby scores of SPS and/or TAS lead to adjusted doses compared to trials involving fixed-dose groups and to find out if high sensitivity does influence the subjective effects of a psychedelic experience and, if so, to what degree. I would not be surprised to see a relationship. (It should be stressed that personality is not necessarily the only or even the most crucial factor when it comes to people’s differing reactions to psychedelics. Individual differences in genetics and the brain could play a role too, as there are genes that influence the activity of serotonin 5-HT2A receptors, which are what the classic psychedelics bind to and which mediate the resulting psychoactive effects.)
If sensitivity to psychedelics is a significant factor influencing the intensity and subjective effects of a trip, it isn’t just clinical trials that should be interested in taking this into account, but clinics and retreats, too. This would be useful for several reasons, with one major reason being harm reduction. If you give all depressed clients at a future psilocybin clinic the same dosage, without taking into account sensitivity, and some of these clients are HSPs (which is likely, given how sensitivity is connected to depression), then some individuals may have especially strong trips. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, the experience will be overwhelming, but there is an increased chance of this when someone trips harder than they need to. This is why people in clinical trials are given doses that are typically high enough to induce a mystical experience but they are not unnecessarily high. HSPs, nonetheless, might be able to reach states of ego dissolution, unity, and transcendence from a dose that would certainly cause a non-HSP to trip but perhaps not lose their sense of personal identity.
Finally, for anyone thinking of taking a psychedelic, it’s best to have as much self-awareness as possible before going into the experience; and this includes having an understanding of whether or not you’re an HSP or fantasy-prone (as indicated by a high score on the TAS). Signs of high sensitivity, for example, have already been alluded to. You can see the clues of it if you have tendencies like becoming easily overwhelmed or overstimulated, needing to withdraw from stimulation, being easily startled, taking things personally, absorbing other people’s emotions, being very sensitive to animal suffering, taking longer than most to make decisions, becoming irritable when hungry, having a hard time faking an interest in topics, feeling engaged when having deep and meaningful conversations, and being aversive to small talk.
If you come to understand yourself as an HSP or as scoring high on the TAS (so predisposed to be deeply immersed in sensory and imaginative experiences), you may find you really don’t need to take the same doses of psychedelics as others to reach the level of intensity you’re aiming for. On the other hand, if you lack this understanding and take what is considered by many to be a low or moderate dose of a psychedelic, some of the resulting subjective effects may be unexpected. HSPs should also be cautious when thinking about taking higher doses: this means paying close attention to set and setting, as well as making sure that support is available should things become overwhelming or distressing.
Being sensitive to psychedelics is something considered and taken into account by many psychedelic users, yet it is an area that deserves more research. This will benefit both our understanding of how psychedelics affect individuals differently and our subsequent ability to administer and take these compounds with the utmost care.