Somatosensory Hypervigilance

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(Peters’s term.)


Standard definition

This is an excessive tendency to attend to somatosensory stimuli.

Author’s broader definition

This is both a predisposition and a brain state. It involves a state of watching out and readiness to react to somatosensory stimuli coupled with intense attention in reaction to even mild stimuli. As such, logically, the readiness is an ongoing “resting” state and the increased attention reactions logically involve activations of the processor in the brain for attention. The attentiveness is probably both tactile and proprioceptive (as when something unexpected cause a joint movement.

Van Hulle definition

Van Hulle defines somatosensory hypervigilance “as the prioritized processing of somatosensory information in the context of multiple attentional demands (Crombez et al., 2005), and therefore is highly similar to the term ‘attentional bias’ (see Crombez et al., 2013).” (Somatosensory hypervigilance and pain: An experimental approach, Lore Van Hulle, 2013 available in full online at:

Relation to fear

It is believed to be related to fear.

Studies of fibromyalgia

A study by Van Damme et al. comparing fibromyalgia patients to controls used a “tactile change detection task in which they had to detect whether there was a change between two consecutively presented patterns of tactile stimuli presented to various bodily locations.” This was done under an unpredictable condition in which “tactile changes occurred equally often at all possible body locations.” It was also done in a predictable condition whereby most “tactile changes occurred at one specific body location.” Results showed that fibromyalgia patients did not demonstrate better tactile change detection in the unpredictable condition and when changes occurred at unexpected locations in the predictable condition.” In neither scenario did the fibromyalgia group perform better than the control group in detecting tactile changes. The author’s concluded that their evidence did not “support the claim that patients with fibromyalgia display somatosensory hypervigilance.” They interpreted their findings as posing a challenge to “the idea of hypervigilance as a static feature of fibromyalgia, and urges for a more dynamic view in which hypervigilance emerges in situations when bodily threat is experienced.” (Hypervigilance for innocuous tactile stimuli in patients with fibromyalgia: An experimental approach, Stefaan Van Damme, Lore Van Hulle, Charles Spence, Jacques Devulder. European journal of pain (London, England) October 2014, 19(5), DOI: 10.1002/ejp.593)

A study by Peters et al. “tested the hypothesis that fibromyalgia patients display hypervigilance for somatosensory signals.” They tried to test it using detection of weak electrocutaneous stimuli. They exposed the subjects to innocuous electrical stimuli and they gradually increasing the strength at one of four different body locations. Subjects were asked to “respond as fast as possible to stimulus detection by pressing a button corresponding to the correct body location.”

They compared thirty female fibromyalgia patients to 30 healthy controls matched on age, sex and educational level. Results showed that: detection of electrical stimuli was “predicted by pain-related fear and pain vigilance.” (Do fibromyalgia patients display hypervigilance for innocuous somatosensory stimuli? Application of a body scanning reaction time paradigm. Peters ML1, Vlaeyen JW, van Drunen C. Pain. 2000 Jun;86(3):283-92.)

Studies of chronic back pain

A study by Peters et al. interpreted their evidence “as showing that patients with elevated levels of pain-related fear habitually attend to somatic sensations, giving less priority to other attention-demanding tasks.” (Is pain-related fear a predictor of somatosensory hypervigilance in chronic low back pain patients? Peters ML1, Vlaeyen JW, Kunnen AM. Behav Res Ther. 2002 Jan;40(1):85-103.)

Further perspective

For further perspective on the concept of hypervigilance to danger, see the entry for The Danger Hypothesis.