Introversion has become a bit of a buzz word on the internet as of late. There are articles springing up left right and centre like Why Introverts Are Different, You Know You’re An Introvert When, How To Take Care Of Your Introvert… and projects such as Susan Cain’s book Quiet (which I highly recommend) and her Quiet Revolution blog have done an excellent job at bringing introversion into our every day vocabulary.
Despite the increased interest in understanding our interaction styles, stereotypes about introverts still exist- for example that they are shy or lack social skills. In fact some people would still define introversion this way – But introverts aren’t necessarily shy, not are shy people always introverts. Shyness stems from fear of judgement, which is more about self esteem than introversion – and in a world where extroversion is touted as the ideal many socially adept ‘extroverts’ may actually be introverts in disguise.
So what is an introvert then?
The origins of ‘ introvert’ come from two latin words: Vertere – to turn, and Intro -to the the inside.
Extroversion/Introversion is simply how much stimulation you prefer from the outer world vs. the inner world of the mind.
Extroverts prefer more stimulating environments with lots of interpersonal interaction. They find it energising to be surrounded by others – if they were a battery people would be their charger! An introvert however, finds too much interaction drains them of energy and prefers to spend more time in less chaotic environments, dealing with people in smaller numbers or less frequently – their battery is exhausted by too much time around others. Introverts enjoy solitude and reflection for longer periods of time than the extrovert who is prone to feeling lonely more quickly without company.
Another way to understand introversion is the preference for processing the world rather than being directly engaged in it. If introverts and extroverts were two photography projects an extrovert would be like taking a hundred photos and with them making one giant collage – lots of input, little processing. The introvert, by contrast would have perhaps only four or five photos which then got Photoshopped in various ways to produce a hundred final images – that’s not much input but a lot of processing.
The outside world is secondary to an introvert who tends to engage with it for less time in order to give them new things to explore in their minds.
Why that is the case is under scientific exploration but is thought that the way the brains of introverts and extroverts process information differently in several ways. For example one study where both introverts and extroverts were given Ritalin and shown videos of nature scenery the extroverts’ brains were excited both with and without Ritalin and the introverts brains were excited in neither case – the introverts did not associate the reward centre of their brains as strongly with the environment as their dopamine reward network was less active. Also, it is thought that the parasympathetic side of the nervous system (rest and digest) is dominant in introverts whereas extroverts favour the sympathetic side (fight or flight) which makes us want to explore and interact with our external environment . Even the sizes of certain areas of the brain are correlated with introversion such as the presence of thicker grey matter in the prefrontal cortex. You can read more about these intriguing studies here and here.
Another difference observed is that introverts like to develop an understanding of specific areas of interest in great depth whereas extroverts tend to be keen to broaden their knowledge more than zooming in on a specific topic and will often change the subject in conversation more than introverts. Introverts don’t really enjoy small talk, but if you stumble upon the right topic they can talk about it in great depth. They tend to prefer to have meaningful connections with fewer individuals rather than a giant network of acquaintances. This can go against the style of interaction we are raised with in western culture – for example in Susan Cain’s Quiet, she interviews students at Harvard Business School who listed amongst the advice given to them on their course ‘If you’re preparing alone for class then you’re doing it wrong. Nothing at HBS is intended to be done alone.’ Many traits of being an introvert can be seen as less desirable as in many modern settings the insights born of careful contemplation that many introverts achieve in their preferred solitude are shunned for an assertive, dominant personality type that favours swift action over thoughtful consideration and analysis, leaving a lot of introverts feeling out of place in work, school or social environments where their gifts are not understood or appreciated.
If you’re an introvert in this position you might find some comfort that you are in company by checking out Huff Post’s List of 16 Super Successful Introverts – amongst them are names such as J. K. Rowling, Emma Watson and even Einstein!
As a result of either adapting to social norms or finding a way to harness their unique gifts, many introverts can work the room like an extrovert – but after a party they are more likely to want to take time afterwards to recover with solitary activities – perhaps to curl up in bed with a movie, play an instrument or read.