Red hair is caused by mutations in the MC1R gene, which controls how much of the dark pigment eumelanin and the light pigment pheomelanin is produced in hair and skin cells. Redheads have two copies of this recessive gene, leading to higher levels of pheomelanin and lower levels of eumelanin. This results in the distinctive red hair color and fair skin tone commonly associated with redheads. But are redheads also more sensitive or reactive to stimuli than people with other hair colors? Let’s delve into the research and evidence around this question.
Some studies have found that redheads may be more sensitive to certain types of physical pain or temperature changes compared to people with darker hair. For example, one study found that people with red hair require about 20% more anesthesia for procedures than those with dark or blonde hair. Researchers theorize this could be related to genetic differences that also cause red hair pigmentation.
Another study exposed participants with different natural hair colors to cold pain (through applying ice water) and heat pain (through a heated probe). Redheads reported sensitivity to cold pain at lower temperatures than those with dark or blonde hair. However, there were no differences between hair colors when it came to heat pain thresholds.
So there’s some evidence redheads may be more sensitive to cold temperatures and require higher doses of numbing medications for certain medical procedures. But more research is still needed to confirm if this constitutes a significant biological difference.
Beyond physical sensations, some research has investigated whether redheads are more emotionally sensitive or reactive compared to other people.
One study measured electrodermal activity (small changes in electrical conductivity caused by sweat gland activity) in response to emotionally charged images. Redheads showed greater electrodermal reactions to pleasant, unpleasant, and threatening images compared to participants with darker hair, suggesting greater emotional reactivity.
Another study exposed women with different hair colors to stress by having them do mental math out loud while being judged. Researchers measured levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress. Redheaded women in the study released higher levels of cortisol, indicating their stress response system was more reactive.
So there’s some limited evidence redheads may be more emotionally sensitive or reactive to stressors. However, more research is needed as the studies done so far have been small.
In addition to biological reactivity, some studies have investigated whether redheads are more likely to have certain personality traits connected to sensitivity:
Neuroticism: Neuroticism refers to the tendency to experience more frequent or intense negative emotions like anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, and loneliness. A study of over 200 women found that those with natural red hair scored significantly higher in neuroticism compared to women with other hair colors.
Introversion: Introverts tend to be more solitary, introspective, and sensitive to external stimulation than extraverts. A study of 500 women found that those with red hair scored higher in introversion than women with dark and blonde hair.
Sensation-seeking: Sensation-seeking refers to the tendency to pursue novel, varied, complex, and intense sensations and experiences. A study of twins found that those with red hair scored lower in sensation-seeking than those with other hair colors.
So there’s some correlative evidence that redheads are more likely to have personality traits connected to sensitivity, such as neuroticism, introversion, and low sensation-seeking. However, more research is needed to establish if there is a causal relationship at play.
Experiences of Prejudice
Beyond biological and personality differences, many redheads describe experiencing prejudice, bullying, and stereotyping related to their hair color.
Some common redhead stereotypes are that they have fiery tempers, are highly sexualized, or are strange and outsiders. Starting from childhood, many redheads report being teased, excluded, or treated differently because of their distinctive appearance.
One study found that red-haired children were twice as likely to be bullied at school compared to children with other hair colors. Another study found redheaded adults were more likely to be avoided and less likely to be chosen as friends compared to non-redheads.
Facing extensive prejudice and mistreatment could plausibly make some redheads more sensitive, reactive, insecure, or quick to detect threats in their environment. So experiences of discrimination could also play a role in the research connecting red hair to sensitivity.
There is some limited evidence that natural redheads may be more sensitive to certain types of physical pain, have greater emotional reactivity, and be more likely to have personality traits connected to sensitivity. However, the research remains preliminary and inconclusive at this stage.
More studies are needed with larger sample sizes and rigorous methodology to establish if redheads are indeed highly sensitive compared to the rest of the population. And if so, more research is needed to determine if the root cause is biological, psychological, or a result of cultural prejudice towards red hair.
It’s also important to emphasize that sensitivity levels can vary widely among redheads as a group – not all redheads are necessarily highly sensitive. Generalizations should be made cautiously even if clear group differences are eventually found.
So in summary, the jury is still out on whether redheads are highly sensitive overall. But the existing evidence points to possible small differences in sensitivity on average compared to people with other hair colors.
|Cold Pain Sensitivity