Wait...Am I Really An Introvert?
Updated: Oct 23, 2021
Take the test! Learn where you sit on the introvert-extrovert spectrum (test below).
Ever since Carl Jung coined the terms introvert and extrovert in the 1920's, people have been both curious about, and sometimes reluctant to identify with, the different personality types. Jung proposed that extroverts gain their energy from socialising with others and other external stimuli while introverts find busy environments overstimulating and need time by themselves in a quiet setting to replenish their energy.
The best analogy I have heard used to explain this difference is likening introverts to electric-powered cars. Us Telsas need to return home often to recharge because there are comparatively few charging stations available while gas-powered vehicles can freely motor about and fill up at any number of locations.
Jung explained that these traits exist on a spectrum. Everyone acts introverted at times and extroverted at others - it's about your usual MO. As Jung rightly points out, there no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. “Such a (person) would be in the lunatic asylum.”
Here are the personality traits typically associated with introversion:
Drained by socialising and recharge alone
Prefer calm, minimally stimulating environments
Quiet in social situations and dislike small talk/networking
Keep a close circle of friends with an emphasis on deep connections
Enjoy solitary activities like reading, gaming, gardening, cycling, etc
Highly self-aware with a rich inner world and active imagination
Like to plan and make decisions with their head over their heart
Prefer writing to talking, listen closely and think before speaking
Work best alone and often step back in a team setting
Learn by observing and practice in private rather than by hands-on experience
Heavy importance on the pursuit meaning in life and sticking to their core values
Famous introverts include Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steven Spielberg, Dr.Seuss, JK Rowling, Meryl Streep, Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi and Steffi Graf.
If you are curious about where you sit on the spectrum, here is a quick and accurate test. Estimates of the percentage of introverts in the overall population range from 30-50% (depending on the definition used) so there are plenty of us around. Even the low end of this range may seem high to you. Our perceptual biases can lead us to overestimate the number of extroverts among us (since they are noisier and hog the spotlight), exacerbated by society's preference for the outgoing, assertive personality type - the 'extrovert ideal'. But trust me, you are not alone.
Once you have a fair idea where you sit on the spectrum, the next question (especially for us self-reflecting introverts!) is how you became that way - nature vs nurture. While it is certainly true life experiences (especially in early life) can have a significant impact on your personality, there have been some interesting biological differences noted between introverts and extroverts.
It seems that our brains are wired differently. Neuroimaging studies measuring cerebral blood flow reveal that among introverts, the activation is centered in the frontal cortex, responsible for remembering, planning, decision making and problem solving - the kinds of activities that require inward focus and attention. Introverts' brains also show increased blood flow in Broca's area, a region associated with speech production - likely reflecting our penchant for internal dialogue. This means that introverts take longer to process information, which is why it takes more time for us to make decisions. This may be infuriating for extroverts in some situations but the upside is that our judgements tend to be more considered and thorough.
Introverts also show a strong bias toward the parasympathetic side of our nervous system. To explain, the nervous system is divided into two distinct parts:
the sympathetic side which is related to the 'fight, fright, or flight' response (the accelerator - another car analogy)
the parasympathetic side allows us to 'rest and digest' (the brakes)
When the sympathetic side is stimulated, the body prepares for action; adrenaline is released, glucose energises the muscles and the amount of oxygen in the body increases. Areas of your brain that control careful, measured thinking are turned off while dopamine increases alertness in the rear of the brain in readiness for immediate action.
When the parasympathetic side of the brain is in gear; muscles relax, energy is conserved and food is metabolised. Blood flow and alertness in the front of the brain increases as acetylcholine is released. Although extroverts and introverts use both sides of the nervous system at various times, introverts tend to prefer to use the parasympathetic side which allows us to be calm and measured.
The roles of the neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine are critical to understanding the differences between introvert and extrovert brains. Dopamine is the reward chemical that motivates us to take action toward goals and gives us a surge of reinforcing pleasure when they are achieved. It turns out that extroverts have more dopamine receptors in their brains than introverts. This means that extroverts need more dopamine to feel happy because they are less sensitive to it. The more they commune with others and engage in stimulating activities, the greater the dopamine hit. By contrast, introverts are sensitive to dopamine, so all of that stimulation makes us feel overwhelmed and anxious.
The introvert's brain is more responsive to the acetylcholine (you will hearing a lot more about acetylcholine so really should learn to pronounce it - see video below):
Acetylcholine (say it after me!) makes us feel relaxed and content. It also fuels our ability to think deeply and focus for long periods of time on one thing. When we engage in activities that are calming and mentally engaging, we activate the release of acetylcholine. For extroverts, the pleasurable effects of acetylcholine pales in comparison to the flood of pleasure they experience from dopamine. But for introverts, its more subtle influence is exactly what we need to energise and perform at our peak.
By now you should (a) be in a better position to determine whether you are an introvert or extrovert (to make the distinction clearer, I deliberately haven't even mentioned the hybrid sub-population 'ambivert'; which is the most common personality type), and (b) appreciate that neither type is better or worse that the other - we are all different and unique. With greater understanding and appreciation of each others' strengths and limitations we are in a better position to achieve our potential as individuals and as a society.