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The perks of being an introvert

Introverts are clever and deep; extroverts are crass and self-absorbed – or so the new thinking suggests. But is it really that simple?

With middle-finger-up sayings like “Quiet people have the loudest minds” and “Beware of those who seek constant crowds – they are nothing alone”, introverts seem to have become uncharacteristically loud of late.

The introvert-pride movement was set off by Susan Cain’s 2012 bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and her hit TED talk. (She says she trained for six full days with an acting coach to give her the confidence to give the talk.) She set up the community Quiet Revolution and stepped forward to become the out-there poster-girl for staying-in.

Since then, the concept of introversion and extroversion has become a mainstream obsession and spawned an entire genre aiming to normalise being an introvert. All power to ya, shy people! But the tables have truly turned, and then some.

Introversion isn’t so much normalised as idealised. Introverts are purportedly clever and empathetic, mysterious and moody - like Hitchcock heroines. Extroverts are boorish and loud and self-obsessed, like reality TV stars. Introverts prefer solitary mountains; extroverts prefer populist beaches.

According to one article I read, ‘Dress like an introvert’, introverts wear chic sun-glasses, earthy colours and headphones; extroverts wear trashy sequins and Hawaiian shirts.

Introvert envy
So, who wouldn’t want to be an introvert? I desperately want to be, even though I confess that I sometimes talk to people in lifts – “I bet you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you all here today” – have 2000 Facebook friends, and when nervous, babble. Is there any hope for me?

Probably not, at least not according to the dictionary definition of an introvert, which is “a shy, reticent person”. And scientists are going deeper to study what makes an introvert. There now seems to be a bit of a scholarly introvert industry that claims to show how introverts are exceptional, make the best leaders and all-round more interesting, deeper and worthy people.

According to The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney, introverts have a “longer neural pathway for processing stimuli”, meaning they think more carefully as they process interactions and events. As they do this, they’re carefully attending to their thoughts and feelings, unlike extroverts, presumably, who jump to conclusions, lips flapping, without any synapses firing.

The brains behind it
A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that introverts have larger, thicker grey matter in their prefrontal cortex. This is the place in the brain that’s linked to abstract thought and decision-making, so you want lots of this. Extroverts, on the other hand, have thinner grey matter in this area. This means that introverts devote more of their energy and resources to abstract thought, whereas extroverts have the propensity to live in the moment.

Get the feeling extroverts are typecast as Dory from Finding Nemo? Me too.

Neuroscientists also say that a major difference between the brains of introverts and extroverts is the way they react to the neurotransmitter dopamine. When dopamine is released, all of us become more alert to our surroundings, more talkative and more motivated to undertake activities that may be perceived as risky. Introverts and extroverts have equal amounts of dopamine in their brains, but the difference between these two types of people is how the dopamine reward network functions.

Christine Fonseca writes in her book Quiet Kids: Help Your Introverted Child Succeed in an Extroverted World that introverts rely on a different, more calming, neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Like dopamine, acetylcholine is related to pleasure, however, it makes a person feel good when they turn inward. It gives a person the skill to reflect and focus solely on an individual task for an extended period of time.

A bit of everything
As it’s simpler to turn inward when there’s limited external stimulation, introverts opt for a calm environment. This is all grand – love a bit of geeky neuroscience, me. But it may not be that simple.

According to a psychological definition of introversion, based on Carl Jung’s thinking, an introvert is not necessarily shy. Instead, they feel more energised by time on their own, while an extrovert finds their energy boosted by interactions with others. So you can be an introvert who has no problem talking to people, but you just need time on your own afterwards to get your juju back.

Hey, this is me! There is hope for me after all. My husband and I always ate dinner in silence while reading our books. (Well, yes, we are now divorced.) I walked out of three stadium concerts before realising I can’t stand crowds. I was a socially awkward child and teenager, but due to this, I think I studied social norms and observed how to fit in. That means I now can make chit-chat – “Tarquin! You must meet Pepper! She crochets tea cosies, and you collect teapots!” – but I still need to go home and collapse afterwards.

It’s my non-scientific view that many people who are seemingly outgoing have put on one of many masks at cocktail parties, and this is no more their ‘true’ self than the self who wants to run away on the evening of their 40th birthday party. Sorry, esteemed neuroscientists, but I subscribe to a multiple-self paradigm, where we’re all introverted sometimes and extroverted at others.

Incidentally, if you want to call yourself an alluring introvert, you easily can, with the help of the internet. I did four online tests. Two said I was clearly an introvert; one said I was a public introvert and a private extrovert, whatever that means; and in a Psychology Today one, I flunked sociability, with 35 per cent. This doesn’t make me a second-class citizen or a special butterfly.

But I’m just whispering that, quietly.

Words: Deborah Hill Cone

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