Saturday, December 03, 2005

Introvert / Extrovert: the difference is in your brain

Some time ago, I posted my thoughts on the misunderstood introvert. It seems to be a topic of widespread interest, since that post frequently shows up in my tracker stats.

This week I got a belated comment on the post from Nicole, who is studying clinical psychology at the graduate level in the midwestern USA. She added this insight to our earlier dialogue:
There is a theory that introversion/extroversion can be detected even before birth. Introverts tend to have a higher baseline state of arousal, therefore, it takes less to stimulate them.

Extroverts, conversely, have a lower baseline rate of arousal. Therefore, it takes more interaction to receive the same chemical/emotional feedback.

So, babies that are more active in the womb are correlated to extroversion.
And then Nicole returned with an update. Coincidentally, she had just discovered a newspaper article on this very topic. ("We all control the news, evidently", she commented.)

The article was originally published in USA Today. Here's an excerpt:
The attitude that there's something wrong with introverted people is widely shared in society, where fast talk and snap decisions are often valued over listening, deliberation and careful planning. Extroverts seem to rule the world or, at least, the USA, which hasn't elected an introverted president for three decades, since Jimmy Carter.

"The signals we get from the world agree that extroversion is valued," says Sanford Cohn, an associate professor in curriculum and instruction at Arizona State University.
I note, in passing, that I took the same position in my post: Western society rewards extroverts over introverts virtually every time. People respond to extroversion as a great virtue even if they haven't explicitly thought of it in those terms.

But let's move on and explore the new insight. It turns out that the distinction between introversion and extroversion is all in your head — but I mean this quite literally!
Introverted children enjoy the internal world of thoughts, feelings and fantasies, and there's a physiological reason for this. Researchers using brain scans have found introverts have more brain activity in general, and specifically in the frontal lobes. When these areas are activated, introverts are energized by retrieving long-term memories, problem solving, introspection, complex thinking and planning.

Extroverts enjoy the external world of things, people and activities. They have more activity in brain areas involved in processing the sensory information we're bombarded with daily. Because extroverts have less internally generated brain activity, they search for more external stimuli to energize them. [emphasis added]
How counterintuitive:  the flamboyant extrovert has lower levels of electrical activity in the brain; the quiet introvert has more!

The information explains why it is so difficult simply to will yourself to behave more like an extrovert (or more like an introvert), contrary to your innate tendency. It also confirms Nicole's observation: if the distinction is rooted in electrical activity in the brain, you are an introvert (or an extrovert) even while you are still in utero.



At 8:04 AM, December 05, 2005, Blogger Mary P. said...

I like the idea that introverts are more autonomous, that they have more of what they need internally. Introverts are commonly seen as not needing stimulation, globally, as shying away from it altogether - which is, as it turns out, an extroverted perspective on it.

The factor missed in that perspective is that there are TWO forms of stimulation: internal and external. The fact seems to be that, having a high baseline of internal stimulation, introverts need less external; it is not true that they avoid stimulation: they have lots - you just can't see it from the outside!

Thus, what is moderate stimulation to an extrovert is excessive to an introvert - but NOT because introverts don't like/need stimulation.

I love the way this idea loops around itself!

At 9:22 AM, December 05, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

It's paradoxical, but it makes a lot of sense. I don't know anything about the science here, but the explanation seems right to me.

At 2:33 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Sadie Lou said...

I wouldn't label my daughter as an introvert but she definately is able to entertain herself better independently.
My son, who I would say is "shy" around people, has a hard time excersising his imagination by himself. He relies, heavily, on me and my husband to entertain him. My third child who is 3 months old was extremely active in the womb and I wonder which of his siblings he's going to take after...
I would say I'm an extrovert and my husband is an introvert.
Interesting read.

At 3:13 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

I'd assume your daughter is older because you mention her first. But it was my younger children who were better at amusing themselves. Their siblings functioned as built-in entertainment centres, so they were much less dependent on parental stimulation.

I like to make a distinction between "introverted" and "shy". I can talk about my innermost feelings without feeling a need to cover-up, and I am also effective as a public speaker. In other words, though I am quite introverted, I am not shy.

At 3:18 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Sadie Lou said...

I don't think the general poulation has a good understanding of the terms. I certainly don't. My daughter is actually the middle child; it's my son, the oldest, that is so high maitinence.
Can you define the two terms for me? Maybe some characteristics of both?

At 3:39 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

I posted my thoughts on the subject earlier: misunderstood introvert. One of the headings was, The defining characteristic of an introvert:

'According to Myers-Briggs, introverts direct their energy to the inner world of thoughts and emotions and derive energy back from that inner world of thoughts and emotions. Extroverts, on the other hand, direct their energy to the outer world of people and things and receive energy back from that source.

'I would emphasize the second half of the definition and ask, Where do you get your energy from? In my view, this is the best way to distinguish an introvert from an extrovert. …

'Since I am an introvert, I get energy from turning inward. Long before I encountered Myers-Briggs, I said that I needed to be "alone in my own head".'

I hope this is helpful! The subject has always interested me.

At 3:46 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Sadie Lou said...

That was helpful. I wonder how one is labeled if they get their energy from both?
I don't think, by your comments, that I am either, or.

At 4:50 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

That's likely true. It's better to think in terms of a spectrum; some people are extremely introverted; some are a little introverted; some straddle the divide in the middle; some are a little extroverted; and some are extremely extroverted.

I am definitely in the introvert camp. It sounds like you're closer to the middle, but on the extroverted side of the continuum.

Myers-Briggs is an organization which tests people to determine where they fit on four scales, including introversion/extroversion. You may be able to find a version of the test on line.

At 5:12 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Sadie Lou said...

Thanks. I let you know if I find something.


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