Your Brain on Introversion and Extroversion

A few months back, I shared a deliciously unscientific viral article “10 Things You Need to Know Before Dating the Outgoing Introvert.” Social media consumed it, exclaiming, “Oh my god! That is like, so totally me.”

The tongue-in-cheek article gave a spot on description of the elusive but relatable “outgoing introvert,” a camp which intimately resonates with me. As the article cautions, when I see you after a long day, I might “be all irritable and not want to talk.” And yes, “we’re charming creatures and can be the life of the party, but you’ll be surprised how much we actually live in our heads.” And hell yeah, “we have times when we’re weird with our phones.” Ask any of my friends. Or exes.

Branding myself an introvert may raise some eyebrows — coordinating social calendars, an unusual taste for public speaking, and the occasional dancing on tables are odd manifestations of introversion. I’m not shy. I’m not quiet. I’m not awkward. Most of the time. But if you look closely, you can see the signs. Always the ballerina and yogi, I never understood team sports. To me, group projects are a unique form of torture. Sometimes I’ll just go off the radar for an entire weekend. And I kind of get Satre’s quote, “Hell is other people at breakfast.” Although this often improves after a cup of coffee.

But what does it really mean to be an introvert or extrovert? From a neuropsychological perspective, is there a distinction? Are there really wallflowers on one side of the dance floor and butterflies on the other? And if so, where the hell does that put me?

Easily Hot and Bothered | Arousal & Over-Stimulation

I recently disclosed one of my secret introvert behaviors to a friend. While the behavior seems perfectly normal to me, it was met by surprise, horror, and a near pathological diagnosis by my mate. So here it is: At large events, sometimes I’ll disappear for five minutes. I find a quiet room, recalibrate and find my baseline, and return to the party with a fresh pair of eyes, enthusiastic about my environment. And I’m not alone — many celebrities, CEOs, and socialites do the same. Not that I count myself as one of the above, but it’s comforting to know I’m in good (good?) company. I was intrigued to read that Diane Von Furstenberg performs such escapes at her parties and fashion shows, finding herself reenergized following a few private minutes. It’s not running away. It’s a conscious decision to give yourself a moment to find the ground. And there’s a reason some of us do this…

A simple way to sort piles of introverts versus extroverts is to determine their preference for less stimulating or more stimulating environments, respectively. German psychologist Hans Eysenck proposed that extroverts have a low baseline level of arousal, causing them to seek stimulating situations and experiences to feel “normal.” They need more of the drug to feel the same high. On the other hand, introverts are over-stimulated at baseline, prompting them to seek alone time, contemplative environments, and reprieve from a party in the USA.

It all boils down to brain activity. Introverts have naturally high levels of cortical arousal, which means they process more information per second than their extroverted peers. A blessing and a curse, introverts are most likely to be scientists, philosophers, authors, and “intellects,” but also more likely to be easily overwhelmed. The brain’s reticular activating system, which regulates arousal, has a higher baseline of activity in introverts than extroverts, and is responsive to a range of arousing stimuli, including food. In fact, scientists can accurately identify the brain of an introvert by seeing how their reticular activating system reacts to lemon juice — introverts are quite literally more sensitive to everything. Pucker up.

Have you ever been at a loud concert, restaurant, or social gathering, and felt the need to shut off? To disengage from whatever shouting match you’re a part of and take a breather? If so, this is your brain telling you to reduce the amount of information you’re asking it to process, find a quiet environment, and give your cortex a freaking break. You’ve overwhelmed the poor thing. An introvert’s tendency to feel temporarily overwhelmed isn’t weird or abnormal. Think of it as a unique compliment. Your brain is such a fast and all-absorbing processor that you need to cool your modem before you can boot up again.

Risky Business | Reward Processing & Dopamine

Think of your most classically defined extrovert friend. My crystal ball of neuropsychology tells me they’re the same friend who gambles, drinks, makes somewhat impulsive sexual decisions, craves adventure, and jumps out of airplanes. Am I right? I’m probably right.

Extroversion is strongly tied to dopamine, our reward-pathway neurotransmitter. A topic frequently discussed on this blog, dopamine is tied to our desire for sex, drugs, peer approval, Netflix binging, and other rewarding activities. Brain scans show that extroverts respond more strongly to success in gambling tasks than introverts, with their amygdala (emotional reactions), and nucleus accumbens (motivation, reward, and pleasure) lighting up like fireworks. The brains of extroverts are much more sensitive to positive rewards, social reinforcement, and associative conditioning —  If I dance on the bar, people will swoon, I will feel good, must repeat — than introverts, causing them to seek more stimulating environments and social opportunities. One shot makes me feel good, two shots will make me feel better.

A Rush of Blood to the Head | Inward Vs. Outward Attention

Head rush. Fact: Introverts have greater and more complex blood flow in the brain than extroverts. But before we make a sweeping judgement about intelligence, with my self-admitted introvert-ish status creating a bit of a bias, let me begin by saying these patterns of blood flow are not better, just different.

Introverts are classically defined as reflective, contemplative, and internally-focused. They’re the cats. Extroverts are highly sociable, easily excited, and outwardly-focused. They’re the labrador retrievers. Whereas introverts are more focused on internal motivation and intrinsic rewards like reading a book for personal growth, extroverts are biologically attached to their external environment and extrinsic rewards like singing karaoke for social attention. Which I also totally get.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a neurological basis for this distinction. When scientists ask introverts and extroverts to think freely, positron emission tomography (PET) scans show significant differences in blood flow and route. For introverts, blood flow is routed to the frontal lobes and anterior thalamus responsible for event recall, planning, problem solving, and inward attention. For extroverts, blood is primarily directed to the anterior cingulate gyrus, temporal lobes, posterior thalamus, and premotor cortex responsible for sensation, immediate experience and outward attention.

From a neurological perspective, extroverts get off from sensation seeking, both psychologically and physically. Their brains actually reward them more for this type of stimulation. Conversely, introverts get all juiced up from a good self-reflection session, which becomes just as intrinsically rewarding as the extrovert’s homecoming crown. No wonder we have the pervasive stereotype of the cool and social jock versus the quiet and brainy science nerd. Neuroscience says it’s a thing, #sciencesaysyes

Bigger, Thicker — Gray Matter | Brain Anatomy

So why are extroverts all YOLO while introverts are all, Let’s thought-experiment this out? Turns out, size matters. That’s a big cortex, all the better to ruminate with my dear.

Harvard researcher Randy Bucker found that introverts have thicker and larger gray matter in their prefrontal cortex, a region responsible for higher judgement, decision making, and abstraction. Think about it: Most artists, poets, philosophers, scientists, and other “thoughtful” professions requiring foresight, solitude, contemplation, and more prominent use of the prefrontal cortex are  introverts. They almost can’t help but overthink, ruminate, and ponder. They’re built that way.

On the flip-side, we have our impulsive, act-now-and-think-later extrovert friends. Comparatively less gray matter, naturally leading to fewer connections to the brain’s decision making centers, allows our extrovert companions to more easily declare, “I don’t careee, I love it!” while we cling to the safety belt.

I Swing Both Ways | The Ambivert

Now that we’ve spent all this time dichotomizing introverts and extroverts, I will irritatingly announce my disbelief in the dyadic, binary diagnosis of psychological states, traits, and disorders. I believe you can have some anxiety without an anxiety disorder, traits of autism without being autistic, genuine sexual preference for both males and females, and genius without a high IQ. Life is about spectrums, not boxes. Similarly, I don’t believe you can fully, concretely classify anyone as an introvert or an extrovert. As Jung says, “There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.”

So here it is: The label for my hugely contradictory personality is ambivert. In this camp, we have the celebrities who are cool, but almost by accident or despite their own efforts. The artists who spend months hulled up and isolated in their studios, but emerge to a vibrant social life of parties and gallery openings. The CEOs and entrepreneurs who need little to no social stimulation when engaged in their work, but can fearlessly lead a team and pitch an investor when necessary.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed that his most artistic patients habitually swung between intense introversion and extroversion, “They’re usually one or the other. Either preferring to be in the thick of crowds or sitting on the sidelines and observing the passing show.” In the face of conventional wisdom, ambiversion is also a huge asset in the business. A study by Adam Grant at The Wharton School found that ambiverts actually make the best sales people. While recruiters have long believed that extroverts, with their gregarious and high energy personalities, are best at sales, Grant found they run the risk of “laying it on too thick.” Ambiverts, on the other hand, are able to chameleon their persona to fit the buyer and adjust their psychological tactics as necessary.

Unfortunately, while there are a handful of behavioral studies on the “lost personality type” of ambivert, neuroscience has yet to catch up. But the incredible reactivity and responsiveness to articles like 10 Things You Need to Know Before Dating the Outgoing Introvert speak to the masses’ confusion and desire to accurately label themselves. For all you who have never been able to answer the question “Do you get energy from being around other people?” with anything other than, “Well, it depends,” I feel you. You’re not a freak of nature. You’re an ambivert.

Company is Nice, But Sometimes I Do It Alone | Final Thoughts

So sometimes I’m the life of the party, and sometimes “I grudgingly show up to plans I set in the first place.” Sometimes I’ll throw myself into the epicenter of activity, and sometimes I’ll disappear for a weekend-long yoga and writing sabbatical in my apartment. Sometimes I feel like a golden retriever when I see a someone I know, and sometimes I feel like “the only problem with seeing people you know is that they know you.”

And you know what? This is okay. And perhaps the most balanced way to be. I can relate to my extrovert friends — the ones with no personal bubble, who will habitually text just an emoticon to feel connected, who can’t understand why I want to head home at 3AM after a night out. I can also relate to my deeply introverted friends — the ones with a backlog of reading material from Amazon, who can’t come out for drinks because they’re taking an online course in the anatomy of the hand for fun, who need to be reminded that social media is a way to prove to your friends you haven’t died.

Whether an introvert, an extrovert, or something in between, the only consistent finding from these studies is that you’ll be happiest when engaged in activities deemed rewarding by your neurological predisposition. Try to figure out what social tolerance or allergy you might have, craft a life around those preferences, and run with it. Whereever you fall on the spectrum, find a way to make it work. Don’t fight it. You’re just wired that way.

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