Introverts Are Born That Way

I tend to shy away from books that focus on helping a child to “overcome” being an introvert.

Although I think it’s important to help introverted children learn to effectively navigate our extrovert-dominated world, I don’t see introversion as a characteristic that needs to be “overcome,” and neither do psychologists. They see it as an enduring trait, not a “state.” –Mark Phillips, Introversion and the Invisible Adolescent

Me, too.  Whenever someone in college would suggest a book about overcoming shyness, I wouldn’t bother looking at it.  Why should I change the way I am to suit others?  Just accept me the way I am!

In The Introvert Advantage How to Thrive in an Extroverted World, Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., makes the case that the brain chemistry in introverts is markedly different than that of extroverts.

In short, processing pathways in introverts are longer and more complex than the pathways found in extroverts, thus it takes them longer to process information, which causes a problem in our schools….Literally.

Because introverts re-energize through solitude, it’s important to provide the space needed for them to be alone. –Tony Baldasaro, Embracing Introversion: Ways to Stimulate Reserved Students in the Classroom

Extroverts, on the other hand, get their energy from people and are almost always bored by being alone. For an introvert, recharging alone is as regenerative and necessary as sleep.

I often think that introverts understand extroverts, in that we can see the way they play out loudly and clearly in the world. But extroverts sometimes see introverts as offensive or self-alienating and they cannot see why we would ‘want to be alone’.

But there is at least one neurobiological explanation for us wallflowers that our party-animal friends can’t argue with! Although it is not recent news, science has discovered by conducting brain scans that introverts process information differently than extroverts. Researchers at a couple different universities in the U.S. almost a decade ago examined healthy subjects by taking PET, or positron emission tomography scans of their brains while they were asked to ‘think freely’.

The PET scans, which generate hi-res activity areas based on where blood flows in the brain, showed that introverts have more activity than extroverts in the anterior (frontal) thalamus and the frontal lobes of the brain, areas which control making plans, remembering things and problem solving.

Extroverts had more going on in the temporal lobes, anterior cingulated gyrus, and posterior thalamus, three different parts of the brain which probably control the way we interpret sensory information such as when driving, watching or running.

Since introverts rely on the self for stimulation while extroverts rely more on outside sources for entertainment, this makes complete sense. –Mara Flannery, This is your brain on introversion

2. Introverts don’t converse as easily as extroverts do. It takes them longer to process what has been said to them and to formulate a suitable reply.

This often results in introverts being somewhat socially awkward because they aren’t good at the witty repartee… one of the many reasons we hate parties. –IfByYes, I am introvert, hear me speak in a reasonable tone of voice!

Johnson added, “The implication is that one personality trait — introversion or extroversion – isn’t right or wrong. These variations in brain activity suggest that a lot of our individual differences have an underlying biological cause.” —Introverts at the Front, Extroverts to the Rear

This is because introverts tend to sit expressionless as a friend pours out their deepest, darkest heart secrets. This leads people to conclude their introvert friend is a  bad or uncaring listener.

But it’s not necessarily that the introvert isn’t listening – it’s that their brain is concentrating so hard on what you’re saying, they’re unconscious to the fact they haven’t nodded in understanding for the past ten minutes. –Sarah K, I DO Care, I’m Just an Introvert

The most important support you can offer to introverted teenagers is to accept them as they are and not try to force them to become extroverted.

Recent research shows the brain chemistry of introverts and extroverts is different, and even leads to the use of different neural pathways.

As parents and teachers begin to understand the brain biology differences between introverts and extroverts, they should be better able to resist the urge to change their introverts into extroverts or to discriminate against them for not behaving in more extroverted ways.

The brain processes information, memory, and decision-making along different pathways, mediated by two major brain chemicals – acetylcholine and dopamine. Each of these neurotransmitters starts a different process in the brain, resulting in different behaviors and different rewards for those behaviors.

Introverts rely much more on acetylcholine-mediated pathways, resulting in a longer circuit through the frontal lobes of the brain, a longer time in the planning and decision-making mode, and slower memory retrieval.

However, they have greater synthesis of information from different parts of the brain. The brain receives chemical boosts or “rewards” for thinking, pondering, focusing on a particular item for study, and concentrating. Laney refers to this process as the “put on the brakes” pathway.

Extroverts rely more on the dopamine-mediated pathway, which takes a shorter circuit through the mid-regions of the brain, making more connections in sections that “start and stop speaking, trigger interest in others, shift attention quickly . . . focus on the outside world, pleasure, and what’s new and exciting.”

Laney refers to this process as the “give it the gas” pathway. Dopamine pathways provide powerful rewards that can promote addiction.

Findings published in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that extroverts had more blood flow to the back of the brain, while introverts had “higher blood flow to the frontal lobes – home to the system that inhibits behavior and promotes planning and thinking before acting.” –Catherine H. Knott, PhD, Intriguing and Intelligent: Three Ways to Nurture the Introverted Teenager

Introverts walk around with lots of thoughts and feelings in their heads. They are mulling—comparing old and new experiences. They often have an ongoing dialogue with themselves. Since this is such a familiar experience, they may not realize that other minds work in different ways.

Some introverts aren’t even aware that they think so much, or that they need time for ideas or solutions to “pop” into their heads. They need to reach back into long-term memory to locate information. This requires physical space to let their feelings and impressions bubble up.

During REM sleep or while dreaming, this pathway integrates daily experiences and stores them in long-term memory, where they are filed in may areas of the brain. Introverts are in a constant distilling process that requires lots of “innergy”….

Extroverts are alert for sensory and emotional input. When they get stimuli, they can answer quickly because the pathway is rapid and responsive. Their short-term memory is on the tip of their tongue, so while the introvert is still waiting for a word, the extrovert has spit out several.

Extroverts need more input to keep their feedback loop working. Their system alerts the sympathetic nervous system, which is designed to take action without too much thinking. It releases adrenaline, blood (oxygen) to muscles and glucose, thus flooding the body with energy.

The release of neurotransmitters from various organs enters the feedback loop, sending components back to the brain to make more dopamine. Dopamine and adrenaline release [hits of happiness] from the “feel good” center. No wonder extroverts don’t want to slow down.

…The dominance of the long acetylcholine pathway means introverts:

  • Hesitate before speaking
  • May start talking in the middle of a thought, which can confuse others
  • Have a good memory but take a long time to retrieve memories
  • Can forget things they know very well—might stumble around when explaining their job or temporarily forget a word they want to use
  • May think they told you something when they just have thought about it
  • Not offer ideas freely; may need to be asked their opinion
  • Are clearer about ideas, thoughts, and feelings after sleeping on them
  • May not be aware of their thoughts unless they write or talk about them

The dominance of the short dopamine pathway means that extroverts:

  • Shoot from the hip, and talk more than they listen
  • Have a good short-term memory that allows quick thinking
  • Do well on timed tests or under pressure
  • Feel invigorated by discussion, novelty, experiences
  • Make social chitchat easily and fluidly

…Introverts aren’t unsocial – they are just social in a different way. Introverts need fewer relationships, but they like more connection and intimacy.

Since it takes a great deal of our energy to engage with other people, we are reluctant to need to spend too much energy on socializing. That’s why we don’t enjoy idle chitchat. We prefer meaty conversations, which nourish us and energize us.

Energy conservation is also why we are very interested in other people but sometimes prefer to observe others rather than join them.

Extroverts, being the majority, influence the entire cultural view of introversion. Extroverts’ verbal ease intimidates introverts, making it even easier for them to conclude that they shouldn’t speak.

Introverts can appear cautious or passive to extroverts. Extroverts are so used to speaking off the top of their heads that they may be distrustful of more reticent introverts.

When introverts speak with hesitation, extroverts may feel impatient: Just spit it out, they think. Why don’t you have more confidence in your own opinion? What are they trying to hide? Extroverts may experience an introvert as withholding information or ideas. —The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney