I’ve seen the memes. Introverts announcing our time has come, saving the world with our stay-at-home superpowers, quietly living the dream. I’ve laughed at them along with everyone else because I can relate. But they all imply being an introvert is about how much you like people, and that simply isn’t true.
I’ve spent the last several years studying introversion and I discovered much of what we believe is a myth or misunderstanding. Whether we’re introverts or extroverts isn’t based on our social lives. It’s shaped by how our brains and nervous systems respond to our external environments. As three examples, introverts and extroverts differ in our neurotransmitters, whether we rely more on the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system, and our brain pathways.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that help shape our responses and behavior. The neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine play a significant role in the differences between introverts and extroverts.
Think of dopamine like caffeine. We each have a level of dopamine that makes us feel our best. Too little and we feel lethargic and bored. Too much and we’re overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Dopamine motivates us to seek external stimulation and rewards us when we find it. Introverts need less dopamine than extroverts to feel their best.
Jenn Granneman says in Why Introverts and Extroverts are Different: The Science, “Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that provides the motivation to seek external rewards like earning money, climbing the social ladder, attracting a mate, or getting selected for a high-profile project at work. . . . The difference is in the activity of the dopamine reward network. It is more active in the brains of extroverts than in the brains of introverts.”
By contrast, acetylcholine, another neurotransmitter, is more active in introverts. It helps us feel our best, and internal stimulation triggers it. Our introvert brains release feel-good chemicals when we turn inward, focus on ideas, have meaningful conversations, and do work that matters to us. We’re motivated by internal rewards.
Extroverts are wired to spend energy, introverts to conserve it. The autonomic nervous system includes two divisions: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system gets us ready for action and is associated with the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system relaxes and restores us.
While we all use both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, Dr. Marti Olsen Laney says, “Extroverts are linked with the dopamine/adrenaline, energy-spending, sympathetic nervous system, introverts are connected with the acetylcholine, energy-conserving, parasympathetic nervous system.”
Introverts in high-stimulation situations who are forced to rely on the sympathetic nervous system feel drained. Olsen-Laney explains, “For introverts, all that adrenaline and glucose soon leaves them feeling wiped out. It’s too stimulating, consumes too much fuel, and leaves them with their fuel tank empty.”
When Dr. Debra Johnson scanned the brains of introverts and extroverts, she found the two also use different primary brain pathways. These pathways are not about intelligence but about how we process.
An introvert’s primary pathway is longer, more complex, and internally focused. An extrovert’s primary pathway is shorter, more straightforward, and externally focused. Extroverts rely on short-term memory, the here and now. Introverts draw more from long-term memory, taking into consideration the past, present, and future. Because of the way we process, introverts often need longer to respond. We do well with mental margin.
Dr. Laurie Helgoe says, “Neuroimaging studies measuring cerebral blood flow reveal that among introverts, the activation is centered in the frontal cortex, responsible for remembering, planning, decision making, and problem solving—the kinds of activities that require inward focus and attention.”
Loving the Introverts in Your Life
If you’re not an introvert but suddenly find yourself spending more time with one because you’re both at home, understanding the differences in how you’re wired matters. It could make or break your relationship. Here’s a brief guide to how to love your introvert well right now.
First, realize introversion is not simply a preference or personality trait. It’s the way the person you love is wired. This means he or she isn’t going to respond in the same ways you do. Take time to pause and ask, “What do you need most right now?” Share what you need too. Because the two of you are different, your introvert may not know.
Don’t take it personally when your introvert needs even more time alone. It might seem that staying at home should be enough but being with even one other person takes energy for introverts. No matter how much your introvert loves you or enjoys being together, he or she is still going to need to be by themselves. One of the greatest gifts you can offer your introvert is having that time guilt-free.
If your introvert is suddenly with people even more because your kids are out of school, roommates are off work, or other similar circumstances, it may be a tough adjustment. Home, the place he or she has used as their refueling station, has now become draining. This is true even if your introvert really likes the people in his or her living space. Encourage your introvert to take breaks and use your bigger social capacity to fill in the gaps.
When an introvert hits his or her “empty” point he or she may become irritable, cry, or stop talking. Watch for these signs like you would the warning light on the dashboard of your car. Your introvert can’t simply go on indefinitely, even if he or she really wants to do so. Take good care of your introvert and appreciate the gifts he or she quietly, consistently adds to your life. He or she is likely the peace in the middle of your storm, the listening ear when you need to process, the one who finds meaning in small, everyday moments—even in the middle of a pandemic.
Introverts may naturally be better at social distancing. But that doesn’t mean we value people any less than extroverts. Because of the way we’re wired, introverts also have essential strengths to offer, like our calming presence, capacity for reflection, and ability to quietly persevere. Our noisy, busy culture needs to take a deep breath and slow down right now. Introverts can lead the way in what we all need to get through this time—and maybe even come out of it with better and more balanced lives.
I agree that introverts are having a moment. But not because we’re good at staying home. We’re having a moment because we’re great at some things our world needs more than ever before.
Cheering You On,
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