Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion: An Interview with Michael Jawer

Jawer really small.jpg
Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Michael Jawer, coauthor of “The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion,” which you can read about at He is an emotion researcher and expert on “sick building syndrome” and lives in Vienna, Virginia. I found his book incredibly intriguing and comprehensive. He dabbles in every topic you have ever wondered about in relationship to depression: sensitivities to chemicals, highly-sensitive people, different types of personalities, what the brain does while feeling anger and fear as opposed to compassion and empathy.



Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, Michael!

1. Since you’re a specialist in this area–and I have always wondered this myself, feeling the effects of toxic places–how does poor air quality contribute to depression and other illness?

Michael: If a building’s air quality is not up to par, particularly sensitive people may react to it, finding themselves feeling ill. And if these same people find themselves sidelined from work for any length of time, it’s likely questions are going to be raised: what’s going on? Are they malingering? Hypochondriacs? How much of it is in their heads? These kinds of questions – from colleagues, neighbors, even family and friends – can prompt someone who’s frankly not sure why he or she is feeling ill into feeling down as well. Many especially sensitive people suffer from depression, perhaps not as a root disease so much as a learned accompaniment to their difficulties. The key thing that sensitive people need to understand is that poor air quality probably exacerbates what one researcher has termed “Central Sensitivity Syndrome,” a predisposition for their nervous system to be unusually vigilant. It’s not pathology – in most cases it’s their intrinsic physiology.


2. You have so many insights on highly sensitive people. Could you summarize your points and come up with a few ways HSPs can live and cope in an insensitive world?

Michael: First and foremost, highly sensitive people (or, as another author has referred to them, “sensory defensive” people) should resist the temptation to feel marginalized or embarrassed. Estimates are that 15-20% of children, for example, are high reactors or sensory defensives. Often they grow up into highly sensitive adults.

Consider that one especially acute form of sensitivity, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), was put down as the “Yuppie Flu” a mere decade ago and yet, the more it’s studied by reputable organizations, the more it seems to be a bona fide susceptibility that some people are born with. (Whether it’s triggered has to do with accumulated stress in some cases, childhood trauma in others.) Same with synesthesia or overlapping senses: until brain imaging showed that certain people really do “hear a flavor” or ” smell a color,” their reports were regarded as metaphorical at best. So HSPs needn’t deny the validity of her own perceptions.


Likewise, a sensitive person should recognize his/her particular needs and be willing to speak up for them. It’s a matter more of education than agitation: recognize that most people aren’t highly sensitive and don’t have share the same perspective, don’t have the identical feelings. They can understand how another person lives, though, if that other person is patient and instructive, yet ultimately insistent. Realize that no one else can be counted to speak up for you, but do so with the same respect that you’d want for yourself.

3. I love the distinction you make between people who have thin boundaries (HSPs) and people who have thick boundaries. Could you describe this for my readers?


Michael: The thick-to-thin boundary spectrum isn’t a concept I came up with, it’s one I borrowed from Ernest Hartmann, a psychiatrist and dream researcher in Massachusetts. This way of describing personality is so useful when talking about sensitivity that it’s actually a foundation for my book. Basically, Hartmann says, thick boundary people are the ones who strike us as very solid, rigid, or thick skinned. Then there are people who are especially sensitive, open, or vulnerable. These are the thin boundary types. They’re very interesting since thin boundaries have been shown to correlate with dream recall and vividness, heightened emotional reactions, imagination and creativity, fantasy proneness, environmental illness, and mystical or psychic experience.


Thin boundary people hold the key, in my view, to understanding a lot about ourselves that has remained out of reach until now. The more science takes seriously what thin boundary people have to teach us – especially about the centrality of emotions to existence – the more we’ll come to appreciate distinctions in human nature that are really fundamental to how we all get along.

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  • Thom Hunter

    I had never really heard of people described by their boundaries, but it does make sense. Obviously we’ve referred to people as thick-skinned and others as too sensitive. By thinking of these as boundaries, it somehow makes people seem more approachable . . . or at least it invites the effort.
    Good interview.
    Thom Hunter

  • Your Name

    It is amazing and awesome to hear of my super sensitivity as a plus for once in my 51 years. I have heard you are too sensitive, why don’t you calm down, what are you crying for, and various ans sundry negative comments. I feel like I can almost read peoples minds – not in the twilight zone way, but I feel plugged into everyone. I can walk into a room and tell you who is hurting, even if they are the one laughing the loudest. People can feel this sesitivity in me too. I am constantly stopped by someone in a store or something and before I know it they are telling me of their hurts and asking for help. It is weird in a lot of respects. I’ve taken all the tests and I test so sensitive that it is off the chart. But most people can’t or won’t accept my sensitivity. I really try to rein it in because I know I’m different. I feel very alone……

  • Your Name

    Thank you for this post! I’m familiar with boundaries and “the highly sensitive” personality, but it is the first time I’ve ever heard of these characteristics in a positive light. Usually, like introversion, these qualities are presented as weaknesses, as something one needs to improve on or change. My personal belief is that God made us all to represent a broad spectrum of personalities, intrinsic gifts & skills. And the best groups and communities are ones where all are valued and incorporated. But our society highly values certain sets of personality types & associated qualities and devalues others, so these groups are rarely seen. In this context, one can hardly help feeling marginalized because of the way other people respond to us. God speed the scientific basis for valuing everybody!

  • John Folk-Williams

    Hi, Therese –
    Thanks for letting us know about the author & his book. Like others, I’ve not heard about thick vs. thin skinned in this way. The idea reminds me in some ways of the idea of boundaries. Thin or permeable boundaries, though, are almost a definition of co-dependence & other problems. Perhaps the two conditions often occur together? I think both in my case correlate with the positive qualities Jiwar mentions, especially dream vividness and creativity.
    This is extremely helpful in so many ways.
    All my best —

  • sally pain

    I treat many in my practice who are very affected by energy and emotions around them. I havent read the book yet but it must be about auras as well. the aura needs to be strong and secure to help the person cope. Boundaries are something that takes time to build up and learn to have but auras can be changed in an instant. I must read the book though as I might be spouting about something completely off track.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Your Name

    My father always referred to me in his snarky tone “you’re too senestive” and would laugh at me when I would say things like I could smell the color purple or literally have all of the energy drained out of me just by going to the mall or working around negative people. As I get older I get better at drawing my boundaries but I am no longer shamed at the person that I am.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment JiLLB

    I also find this interesting. Like others, I am constantly told that I’m too sensitive – I need to toughen up or lighten up. I think the quality can make a person a good friend, as long as appropriate boundaries are kept. It’s also a great/necessary quality for people in “helping” professions. How can someone do those types of jobs successfully and not be a sensitive person?

    I couldn’t tell from the article if he was referring to sensitivities with the senses – touch, taste, smell, etc. When I am touched, I have to scratch because I itch where their hand was. I also cannot have two noises occur simultaneously. If the TV is on and the phone rings, I have to put the TV on mute.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Anne

    Thanks for this positive spin on what has always been described as a curse by others. Very good interview.

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