What the Future of Psychology Looks Like
Neurodiversity, sensitivity, and how the status quo snubs 20–30% of us
“We’d love your help promoting our conference,” the woman said over the phone. “We have some of the biggest names in psychology.” I flip open my laptop to see who she has lined up.
To be clear, I’m no therapist. I’m a journalist with a public health degree and a media consultant covering the future of psychology.
Scrolling through the website of this large industry conference, I see the predictable lineup of balding white men. I take a deep breath to calm my nerves, but quickly and politely end the call.
The history of Western psychology is plagued with a skewed and narrow lens on humanity. From its earliest origins, the care of human minds was put in the hands of a select few. This is a field that would have benefited from the integration of diverse viewpoints so as to be reflective (and effective) for the diversity that exists in our human species. Instead, psychology has inherited the same bias that we now see in other fields like technology, artificial intelligence, medicine, the research sciences, and health care more broadly. Alas, not everyone is a 70-kilogram white male.
After 141 years, the field is now at a meaningful juncture — an amazing, incredible confluence and overturning of social norms emerging from popular culture is now pushing psychology to its edge, both scientifically and ethically.
Psychology’s future currently rests on the melding of two threads of inquiry that are interrelated but too often siloed: acknowledgment and appreciation of cognitive diversity (or “neurodiversity”) and trauma reconciliation (on a widespread systemic and societal level, as well as a personal level).
The majority of psychologists… are so focused on getting everyone to adapt, adjust, and acclimate to the status quo that they often miss what is right in front of them: Our status quo itself is harming people.
Here’s what I mean:
A number of research psychologists have each separately found that around 20–30% of the population is born with heightened sensitivity — with all the gifts and challenges that entails. Sensitivity is defined as a heightened response to the world — to events, changes, one’s own internal emotions, the feelings of others, and subtleties in the environment like light and sound, sometimes aesthetics.
For brevity’s sake, I’ll introduce three of the leading researchers here.
Elaine Aron is a psychologist who coined the term “highly sensitive person” to capture a depth of processing characteristic of 20% of the population. This encompasses women and men, introverts and extroverts. HSPs are sensitive to light, sound, the emotions of others, and too much commotion and rushing around. University of California, San Francisco pediatrician Thomas Boyce deems such people “orchids” — they thrive when in positive, supportive environments or wilt when in neglectful environments. His own sister was a highly gifted orchid child, who later was labeled with schizoaffective disorder and took her own life. And finally, University of California, Berkeley Professor Robert Levenson has identified that 30% of the population experience a certain emotional intensity resulting in higher highs and lower lows that are due to a shorter allele variant of the 5-HTTLPR gene.
So here’s the thing, what orchids or HSPs find traumatic differs significantly from the remainder of the population, those who Boyce calls “dandelions” or who I may call “neurotypicals.” This is incredibly important information, and I hope you can see why.
Currently, in the field of psychology there are those who are overly eager to blame events and trauma for a person’s struggle to live a fulfilling life. What that perspective misses is that the things that are traumatizing to almost 30% of the population are things considered normal by everyone else. In other words, the problem is not the events, but the very culture in which we are all swimming.
The majority of psychologists, therapists, somatic practitioners, and others are so focused on getting everyone to adapt, adjust, and acclimate to the status quo that they often miss what is right in front of them: Our status quo itself is harming people, making them sick, and causing trauma. When we overlook this, we overlook a basic fact of diversity in how humans respond to the environment — diversity of neurological wiring.
This is a problem because the mechanics of psychology are often designed to get individuals to return to some kind of normal. But how can that work when the “normal” that is being asked of 30% of the population is unbearable? No one is adequately talking about this, and no one is noticing the profession’s giant blind spot because this reframing is perceived as too tall an order, too big an ask. It’s also frankly terrifying to think about how to drastically change the currents of our daily lives in ways that would make our culture saner.
For example, for an orchid or HSP, the superficial chitchat that dominates daily life may become traumatic over time. The brightness of streetlights are often way too much, resulting in migraines and sensory overload. Or perhaps school starts far too early. So what does it mean — how does it feel — to think about taking on these kinds of questions? How might we begin to realize that the problem is not as simple or cookie cutter as what happened to the person when they were a child? Should psychologists be tasked with street design, urban planning, school scheduling, corporate meetings?
I hope I’m conveying both the severity of the challenge and the light, hope, and brightness of the possibilities. The point is this: Those in the orbit of mental health need a massive reframe, narrative shift, and professional pivot to understand and see the role that basic, hardwired neurological diversity plays in our human species. Many of our most sensitive people have been traumatized by normal life, not always by trauma in the form of neglect, abuse, divorce, accidents, and so forth.
And the very people who are canaries in the coal mine about these issues are often the ones disregarded and pathologized by the medical system — those with sensory processing differences or autism, those who notice how dysfunctional our environments are.
As a voice for the importance of recognizing neurodiversity, I am emphatic in what we’re missing, but I am hopeful, too. Sensory rooms are popping up in NBA stadiums and airports, for one thing. But rather than ancillary initiatives, this kind of thoughtful design should be the norm, a mainstream approach that becomes the default, that everyone can access. Only then will we as a global society move toward more regulated nervous systems as a human species.