Camilla, 31, felt a little out of place at university. She made a few very close friends, but avoided the rowdy pub crawls loved by her peers and was reticent at seminars. Now, 10 years on, she holds back during work meetings (she’s a web designer), but is happy to send her colleagues reams of ideas by email. Every weekend she potters round her flat listening to music, cherishing having a whole quiet day at home, leaving her free to think, read and be.
It’s fair to say that Camilla is a typical introvert, and if this sounds like you, rest assured that you’re not alone: between a third and half of the population are introverts, too. You might think you’re in a minority, but that’s only because you make less noise.
‘The classic definition of an introvert is that when you’re out and about, even if you’re having a good time, after a while you feel drained and want to recharge by yourself,’ says Susan Cain, self-confessed introvert and author of Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking. ‘Extroverts, however, recharge through stimulating situations such as the proverbial loud party. What’s really happening is that introverts and extroverts have preferences for different levels of stimulation.’
Studies have shown that introverts are physiologically more sensitive than extroverts – they sweat more in reaction to stimuli such as noise and emotions, and salivate more in response to a drop of lemon juice on the tongue. ‘These reactions transmit into subtle signs that are not necessarily perceptible in a social setting – a quick aversion of the eyes before you shake hands with someone new, for example,’ says Cain. ‘It’s only in the lab that we can pick these changes up.’ In short, introverts react more strongly to stimulus and therefore need much less of it or they rapidly become overstimulated.
‘When overstimulated, an introvert’s mind can essentially shut down,’ says life coach Nancy Okerlund of introvertenergy.com. ‘It becomes hard to think, hard to make light conversation, hard to feel comfortable, even in a room full of close friends.’ Introverts thrive in a lifestyle that provides frequent opportunities for quiet, ‘and even solitude doesn’t necessarily guarantee downtime’, she says. ‘Sometimes downtime means giving the hard-working, complex introvert brain a rest from thinking, by smelling the flowers or staring out the window at a cloud.’
Introversion shows up early in life. In a seminal study, American psychologist, Jerome Kagan, identified ‘high reactive’ four-month-old babies as nascent introverts. These babies reacted strenuously to new experiences, thrashing their limbs about and crying when they saw new faces or objects or experienced new smells. They were found to have over-active amygdalas (the part of the brain that triggers the adrenalin response to danger) so were easily overstimulated. As they grew up, Kagan found these babies became quiet and careful children and teenagers.
Although introversion is a common enough characteristic, our society is becoming increasingly hostile to it. In the US, a profoundly extroverted nation, parents seek professional help if their children are quiet, and these children find themselves diagnosed as suffering from ‘social anxiety disorder’. Even in the UK we’re fascinated by a never-ending parade of pop culture extroverts. It’s this lionising of extroversion that Cain has dubbed the ‘extrovert ideal’ – despite the fact that there are many high-profile introverts who have made their mark on the world, from Bill Gates, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and JK Rowling to Jodie Foster and film director Ang Lee.
‘The “extrovert ideal” is the cultural phenomenon where in our schools, workplaces and religious institutions, we revere people who are bold, entertaining, alpha and gregarious, and appreciate far less a different constellation of traits – the serious, reflective, cerebral characteristics associated with introversion,’ says Cain. However, she points out that these serious traits are greatly admired in some countries, such as China, where shy and sensitive children are popular at school.
While introverts are easily overstimulated, in one particular way they are less easily enlivened: the dopamine pathways of an introvert’s brain are less active than the corresponding pathways in the brain of an extrovert. So they are less susceptible to the euphoric dopamine ‘buzz’ we experience when we achieve our goals.
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It was interesting to read a few new things that I've not heard before (or forgotten).
One I noticed was that we are "less susceptible to the euphoric dopamine 'buzz’ we experience when we achieve our goals". I've noticed that I'm quite pleased when I achieve a goal, but the pleasure disappears rapidly, and I forget my accomplishments, and go back to dwelling on the negatives.
Another thing that caught my attention was that "Sometimes downtime means giving the hard-working, complex introvert brain a rest from thinking, by smelling the flowers or staring out the window at a cloud." I don't stare a clouds much, but I do stop and watch every group of geese that fly over, as well as airplanes and helicopters. And, the most relaxing and enjoyable activity I know is gardening.
One of the other things that struck a cord with me is that we "sweat more in reaction to stimuli such as noise and emotions." I've not noticed whether I sweat more, but I do hate noise, and I try to get away from emotional situations as quickly as possible.
When I read the word 'emotions', I thought of the guilt I felt by not often visiting my wonderful dad when he was nearing the end of his life. His mind was going, and I couldn't bear to see him that way. I also had to leave the house when he started swearing at mom or my sister when they were trying to help him with certain things. Swearing was something he never did his whole life, until the end. He was very patient.
Perhaps I shouldn't feel so guilty, if that's part of my personality that is very difficult or impossible to change.