It seems that there are a good many kinds of sensitiveness. Whether it is a good or bad possession depends entirely on what kind of things a person is sensitive to. If he is quick to take in a situation, easily impressed with the needs of others, open-doored to beauty and to the appeal of the spiritual, keenly alive to the humorous, even when the joke is on himself and the situation uncomfortable, then surely he has a right to be glad of his sensitiveness. But too often the word means something else. It means feeling, intensely, physical sensations of which most people are unaware, or reacting emotionally to situations which call for no such response. It means, in short, feeling our feelings and liking to feel them. There seems to be nothing particularly praiseworthy or desirable about this kind of sensitiveness. If this is what it means to be a “finely-wrought violin,” it might even be better to be a bass drum which can stand a few poundings without ruin to its constitution.
“But,” says the sensitive person, “are we not born either violins or drums? Is not heredity rather than choice to blame? And what can a person do about it?” These questions are so closely bound up with the problems of nervous symptoms of indigestion, fatigue, a woman’s ills, hysterical pains and sensations, and with all the problems of emotional control, that we shall do well to look more carefully into this question of sensibility, which is really the question of the relation of the individual to his environment.
=Reaction and Over-Reaction.= Every organism, if it is to live, must be normally sensitive to its environment. It must possess the power of response to stimuli. As the sea-anemone curls up at touch, and as the tiny baby blinks at the light, so must every living thing be able to sense and to react to the presence of a dangerous or a friendly force. Only by a certain degree of irritability can it survive in the struggle for existence. The five senses are simply different phases of the apparatus for receiving communications from the outside world. Other parts of the machinery catch the manifold messages continually pouring into the brain from within our bodies themselves. These communications cannot be stopped nor can we prevent their impress on the cells of the brain and spinal cord, but we do have a good deal to say as to which ones shall be brought into the focus of attention and receive enough notice to become real, conscious sensations.
=Paying Attention.= If a human being had to give conscious attention to every stimulus from the outer world and from his own body, to every signal which flashes itself along his sensory nerves to his brain, he would need a different kind of mind from his present efficient but limited apparatus. As it is, there is an admirable provision for taking care of the messages without overburdening consciousness. The stream of messages never stops, not even in sleep. But the conscious mind has its private secretary, the subconscious, to receive the messages and to answer them.