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I was once criticized when I was much younger for being “too sensitive.”  The criticism made me wonder: Can you be too sensitive? I decided that you can be too sensitive about certain topics. I know people who seem to me to be too sensitive about politics, for example. But can you be too sensitive about the abuse of children, women or people in general?

What is the difference between highly sensitive people and people known as empaths? An article that popped up in my reading feed was by  Judith Orloff who has also written The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.

“Empath” comes from empathy which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I don’t think anyone considers empathy to be a bad thing. But some people say that highly sensitive people can cause problems for themselves and others.

These people have a lower threshold for stimulation than most people. They have a need for alone time and an aversion to large groups. They can be physically more sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. Their ability to quickly make a transition from high stimulation to being quiet is slower. It will take them longer to unwind from work or stressful situations.

“Empath”is a term I actually associate more with science-fiction as a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual. You’ll find them in some of the writing and film versions of Philip K. Dick’s future worlds, such as Minority Report (with its “precogs”) and Blade Runner.

The two Blade Runner films ask us to empathize with artificial intelligence. That is a strange thing to ask in a time when we might question the lack of empathy many people seem to have for other people.

In HBO’s series Westworld, the ask is something very different. Set in an AI  amusement park for adults, the new series is quite different from the Michael Crichton original novel. In that book and film, the robots are clearly the bad guys and they take control of their intelligence and begin killing guests. The new version focuses much more on the growing sentience of the androids. The humans are the bad guys who wildly and gleefully mistreat the robots sexually and in the many violent scenarios.

The newest Blade Runner 2049 also brings the story into our time by making the protagonist, K (Ryan Gosling), be a replicant himself, but one charged with hunting down his own kind who break the laws that control them.

Steven Spielberg took on some of these issues in his film AI Artificial Intelligence. In this future, there are already robots called Mecha that are very advanced humanoids that are capable of thoughts and emotions. One Mecha, David, is like a human child and is programmed to love his owners, a couple who want a replacement for their real son who is in suspended animation waiting for a cure for his rare disease. What happens when human treat a robot as if it is real?

The TV series HUM∀NS also explores the psychological impact of  anthropomorphic robots (called “synths”) on their human owners, and the growing sentience of the robots.

This is not to say that we should connect sensitive people to AI robots. These questions go back to Enlightenment philosophers. The point is to examine how empathy may have changed in society.

Highly sensitive people and empaths are not mutually exclusive; you can be both. There is a kind of spectrum with empaths on the far end and highly sensitive people further down, and at the other end of the spectrum are narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths who have “empath-deficient disorders.”

In researching this area, I found books on a range of related topics, including dealing with being highly sensitive, as well as enhancing these qualities and making it part of your life’s work (counseling, teaching, mental health and healing).

I would never have guessed that a query on YouTube for “empaths” would turn up 179,000 results.

Take all this another step into New Age territory and you’ll find a kind of energy (called shakti or prana in Eastern healing traditions) that empaths can actually absorb from other people and from environments. This is far from just being highly sensitive and enters into spiritual and intuitive experiences .

Sensitivity and empathy are qualities we should respect and encourage, but we should be aware of what areas of relationships and society can be embraced and which ones can harm us.

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