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- Apr 4, 2010
The qualities that define introverts have been historically misunderstood, due, in large part, to the fact that for every introvert, there are three extroverts. With numbers in their favor, what we perceive to be extroverted behavior has become the approved societal standard—outgoing and gregarious, pleasantly stimulated by social and sensory hubbub, assertive and enthusiastic. In contrast, we perceive introverts as being shy, socially awkward, withdrawn, even antisocial. One study, no doubt designed and interpreted by extroverts, found that extroverts were “happier” than introverts (an oddly subjective thing to attempt to quantify with such broad strokes), further fueling the prejudice against introverts and leading some people to deduce that introverts could be a lot happier if they would just be more extroverted.
According to research compiled for the book The Introvert Advantage, by psychotherapist Marti Olsen Laney, though, the situation just isn’t that cut-and-dried. Introversion is a hard-wired temperament, as is extroversion (also spelled “extraversion”). Introversion is not the same thing as shyness and it’s not that introverts don’t like people. It’s a cluster of traits we’re born with, and it’s encoded into our genes and neurophysiology. You might as well try to be more mathematically gifted or more innately adept at spatial reasoning as become more “extroverted.” You can improve whatever abilities you have, of course, but nothing is going to alter what you were born with.
For years, introversion was believed to be a pathology rather than a temperament type. The more introverted you are, Laney maintains, the more likely you are to have encountered shame and guilt about who you are. She traces some of this misconception to the animosity that sprang up between Freud, an extrovert, and Jung, an introvert. Fortunately, more contemporary studies of temperament are allowing us to define them without so much bias. And what has been discovered about the differences between the two temperaments is both fascinating and encouraging for those of us who are introverts (and those who love us .
According to Laney, the main difference between introverts and extroverts is the fact that introverts focus inward to gain energy while extroverts focus outward. She uses this analogy to put the difference in perspective: Introverts are like a rechargeable battery. They need to stop expending energy and rest in order to recharge. Extroverts, on the other hand, are like solar panels. For them, being alone is like being under a heavy cloud cover. Solar panels need the sun to recharge, in the same way that extroverts need to be out and about, interacting with lots of people, to refuel. Introverts need time to restore their energy, and it flows out faster than an extrovert’s energy. In order to function to the best of their ability, they need to calculate how much energy something will take, how much they need to conserve, and plan accordingly.
In general, extroverts like breadth—they like to have lots of friends and experiences, knowing a little bit about everything. Introverts prefer depth. They tend to limit their experiences but feel each of them deeply. Often, they have fewer friends but more intimacy within the friendship.
Experiments performed by Dr. Debra Johnson et al, using positron emission tomography, found that introverts experienced more blood flow to their brains than extroverts and that their blood traveled along different pathways:
This study revealed a pattern of increased blood flow in the frontal lobes associated with introversion. This pattern generally supports both Eysenck's and Gray's biological theories of personality (4–6, 14) and is consistent with results of previous studies (15, 16, 44, 45). Eysenck's model (4, 5) proposes that introverts have higher cortical activity than extraverts; indeed, in the present study, there were more cortical regions associated with introversion than with extraversion. Gray suggested lower than normal activity in the behavioral inhibition system in extraverts; in the present study, extraverts did show lower blood flow in several regions in the behavioral inhibition system, namely, the frontal lobes and the hippocampus.
Blood flow measures were acquired while subjects were free to think about anything, providing a picture of the activity of the undirected and uncensored mind. Normal subjects have reported engaging in a series of loosely connected personal recollections and plans for future activities during the uncontrolled cognitive state (17). Higher flow in bilateral frontal lobe regions suggests that introverts were engaged in frontally based cognition, including remembering events from their past, making plans for the future, or problem solving. In addition, Gale (46) speculated that introverts might engage in a running monologue in the absence of external stimulation. The observed increased blood flow in Broca's area in introverts might be interpreted as biological evidence of "self-talk."
Extroverts’ blood flows to the parts of the brain where visual, auditory, touch, and taste sensory processing occurs (but not smell, for some reason—perhaps because olfactory stimuli are so deeply linked with emotion). Their main brain pathway is short and less complicated. It’s geared for action without getting too much thinking involved. The introverts’ pathway is more complicated and focused internally; blood flows to the parts of the brain involved with internal experiences such as remembering, solving problems, and planning—a long, complex pathway.
This may explain the tendency of introverts to experience what is known as l’esprit de l’escalier (stairway wit)—the frustrating experience of thinking of a clever comeback when it’s too late. The witty remark comes to mind much too tardily to be useful, when one is on the “staircase,” so to speak, leaving the scene. It’s probably why a lot of introverts are writers. They have all the time they need to come up with what they want to say—especially witty comebacks
In addition to differences in brain pathways accessed, extroverts have a low sensitivity to dopamine—often known as one of the “feel good” neurotransmitters—yet they require large amounts of it. Adrenaline is needed to make more dopamine in the brain; so the more active the extrovert is, the more adrenaline is released and the more dopamine is produced. Dopamine is correlated with movement, attention, alert states, and learning.
Introverts, however, are highly sensitive to dopamine. If their bodies produce too much of it, they feel over-stimulated. An introvert’s dominant pathway uses acetylcholine, which plays a large part in our sleep and dream states. This difference in neurotransmitter sensitivity and production goes so far as to favor which basic parts of our systems are activated: Whereas extroverts are linked to the dopamine/adrenaline, energy-spending, flight-or-fight sympathetic nervous system, introverts are associated with the acetylcholine, energy-conserving, parasympathetic nervous system that relaxes and calms the body. In The Introvert Advantage, Laney has included a fascinating set of diagrams that map the pathways used in the introverted brain vs. the extroverted brain.
Laney also describes some quirks of temperament that extroverts might find mystifying or annoying: Introverts may appear glazed or dazed when they’re stressed out, tired, or in groups. They may start talking in the middle of a thought. Introverts have a good memory but they can take a long time to retrieve memories. They can also experience a temporary inability to access things they know quite well, fumbling around to explain a task they perform all the time or forgetting a word they want to use. They might think they told you something when they have only thought it. And they may be slow to react under stress.
To further delineate the temperament type and clear up misconceptions about it, Laney discusses the difference between introversion, shyness, schizoid disorder, and highly sensitive temperaments:
Introversion, according to Laney, is a healthy capacity to tune into one’s inner world. Introverts have social skills, they like people, and they enjoy some types of socializing—usually one-on-one.
Shyness, on the other hand, is an extreme self-consciousness experienced around other people. It may have some genetic roots (in the form of a highly reactive fear center), but generally, it’s learned behavior, from experiences at school and with friends and families. It’s not an issue of energy; it’s a lack of confidence in social situations.
The personality disorder known as “schizoid” describes people who need relationships, yet fear close involvement with other people. In most cases, these individuals have grown up in traumatizing or neglectful home environments and have withdrawn or detached to avoid any more pain from human contact.
The highly sensitive temperament, which I discussed in an earlier post (“Are You or a Loved One Highly Sensitive?”), refers to individuals born with a certain cluster of traits that heighten their senses, perceptiveness, and intuition. They may stay away from social engagements because they can’t handle the agonizing flooding of their hyper-developed senses. There can be overlap between the highly sensitive and the introverted temperament, although you can be extroverted and highly sensitive, and introverted and not highly sensitive. What introversion and the highly sensitive temperament have most in common is that they can both become easily over-stimulated. You can imagine what a highly sensitive introvert might be dealing with in terms of overload in our highly stimulating contemporary environment.
Being realistic and educating yourself about your temperament type can allow you to maximize your strengths while minimizing that which is not your strong suit. Laney gives a number of strategies for introverts to use in work situations, dating and partnerships, child-rearing, and socializing. She cautions that, in order to avoid becoming drained, introverts need to limit their social experiences and not feel guilty about this, nor compare their desires and reactions to those of extroverts. Introverted people who balance their energy, she observes, have perseverance and the ability to think independently, focus deeply, and work creatively.
Above: A pic of a gorgeous moth I saw outside of Hill Country Health and Wellness Center one day. Might be some symbolism there; I’m not sure