– By a friend of the CT admins –
What do Johnny Depp, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hans Christian Andersen and Richard Nixon have in common? None of them could fill a position for which the employer sought an “extrovert and dynamic” staffer. Why? Because all of the above belong in a psychological category which scientists call introverts.
Introvert. The word is often associated with something odd and negative. The ingrained cultural examples are found, for example, in the standard characterization of Beethoven as “brusque and introverted”; an unpleasant fellow at whom one would not even look the wrong way.
Introvert. Antisocial. Uninterested. Unapproachable. A real party pooper. That is how introverts are usually characterized in a world which considers extroversion as the one and only healthy stage. Introversion is something the introverted should apologize for and not speak too loudly about.
But what if introversion is not pathological? What if introverts are not inhibited in the way we usually describe them? What if introversion is more than a confused teenager’s awkward attempts to cope with his Weltschmerz? What if it isn’t a personal decision that testifies to selfishness, but a naturally occurring neurological configuration, complete with both advantages and disadvantages? That assertion is now legal tender in the neuroscientific field.
Brain researchers have identified a number of physiological differences in the brain that separates extroverts from introverts. Specifically, one difference is found in the thalamus area and another in the frontal lobes. These are areas of the brain involved in memory, planning and problem solving.
By studying the behavior of introverted and extroverted people, we can observe how these physiological differences are expressed. Research shows that people who meet the criteria for introversion are less able to cope with distractions such as background chatter, noise and passive, white noise while working on problems. When exposed to distracting and turbulent surroundings, introverts are simply slower and less able to solve the given assignments than extroverts are.
The open-plan office is a living nightmare for any introvert as it actively hinders concentration and furthers stress by going completely against the introvert’s preferred working conditions, namely peace, tranquillity and predictability.
To verify the theory of introversion/extroversion, researchers also did the opposite experiment: They placed a number of test subjects in a completely white room with no windows or pictures on the walls. Here they told the test subjects to remain quiet. And while the introverts followed the instructions and did indeed remain quiet, it did not take long for the extroverts before they began to whistle or drum the walls with their fingers. The most radically extroverted of the test subjects even began to walk in circles, despite the researchers’ unambiguous instructions to the contrary.
Looking over the evidence, a recurring feature across various research results is the introvert’s increased response to external stimuli: Introverts react more strongly to pain, smell and taste – they even produce a larger amount of saliva when a drop of lemon juice is placed on their tongues, and when measuring various physiological parameters such as brain waves and blood flow in the brain, one can see that there is generally increased activity in the introverted brain.
One theory goes like this: As the introverts have a naturally high level of activity in the anterior part of the brain, they are therefore not in need of significant extraneous stimuli. You could say that introverts are by nature is more or less chronically preoccupied by their own cognitive processes. Extroverts, by contrast, live in a form of chronic “activity deficit” and must therefore seek external stimuli to maintain a certain level of activity and function in their brains. – You can say that extroverts need stronger influences before the brain understands the message (e.g. more lemon juice to produce the same response), and so a room without stimulants provokes the extrovert to produce his own entertainment.
Dopamine and the Brain
The higher activity in the brains of introverts is thought to be caused by dopamine, and it is believed that the introvert brains contains a greater quantity of dopamine. – And that the level of dopamine determines the degree of introspection or extroversion. Comparing this with the existing genetic studies of introverted and extroverted, it turns out that there are in fact structural differences between the dopamine receptors of introverts and extroverts.
Introverts thus find themselves in constant danger of being over-stimulated or “flooded” by dopamine. Introverts therefore exhibit certain empirical commonalities, however different their personalities may otherwise be.
Introverts hesitate before engaging in speech, and in contrast to extroverts they often have a need for a “familiarization process” before they can “find their feet” in unexpected situations or in an interaction with strangers. Introverts works best alone and undisturbed and when they have time to immerse themselves in their own thoughts and ideas. They communicate best one-on-one, and when they socialize, they often prefer small intimate companies rather than large parties.
Looking at the demographic breakdown, introversion is evenly split between men and women. However, when we can still can speak of a cultural hegemony in favour of the outgoing it is undoubtedly because introverts are a minority in the population at large, specifically around 25-40% of the population qualify as introverts, varying from strongly introverted, to certain introverts who are so close to limit that in practice they might as well be extroverted, in the scientific jargon known as “ambiverts”.
Many introverts report that they experience their introversion as a handicap in a society where extroverts set the agenda: Because introverts may be soft-spoken and slow to adapt to new input, they are often overlooked in social situations, and the outcome of the introvert’s carefully used cognitive processes never enter into play, which is a shame because introverts are often able to tenaciously concentrate on a specific topic for long periods of time and therefore can be incredibly creative and original.
So don’t let yourself be fooled by the introverted, at times somewhat reserved people around you. There is a force inside them which harbours a rich and imaginative world, just waiting to be let out.