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  • Writer's pictureCécile Hemery

How is the introvert brain wired?

Updated: Oct 2, 2023


Picture of a woman's profile with a drawing representing her brain colorfully drawn on her head

Introvert is a bit of a weird word that doesn’t mean what most believe it does.

When I share I am an introvert, and I often get surprised reactions. And people telling me, no, you’re not an introvert. “Why do you say so?”, I ask, I often get “you’re not shy”.


For many people, being introverted meant that you were shy, socially awkward or afraid to speak. Something that’s not really considered attractive or associated with success. But this isn’t what it means at all.


Being introverted is simply a personality trait, which is neither good nor bad.

Scientists have found that introverts and extroverts have different brain chemistry. It basically has to do with three chemicals in our brains: dopamine, adrenaline and acetylcholine.


External stimulation overwhelms the introverted brain


Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that rewards us with “good feelings” when engaging in some activities/behaviours and generates feelings of happiness. The more of these we do, the more dopamine, the happier.


Adrenaline is triggered by new things, taking risks and external stimulation. When you add adrenaline to these behaviours, even more dopamine is released and you get a very happy brain.


And that is our first difference: extraverts have more dopamine receptors in their brains than introverts. This means the more they engage in dopamine-creating behaviours, the happier they get.


On the other end, having fewer receptors means that introverts are more sensitive to dopamine. If they receive too much, they will feel overwhelmed and anxious, and they will empty their energy resources quickly to deal with it.


This is the reason why extroverts thrive with external stimulation and introverts struggle with great amounts of it. Note that there isn’t a proper definition of what exactly this stimulation is, it depends on the individuals too. Things like noise, space, and speed play a part.


It’s a different chemical that provides feelings of happiness for introverts and extroverts


Illustration representing activities such as social interactions generating dopamine and riding in a rollercoaster generating adrenaline to represent what makes an extrovert happy, and quietly reading or relaxing on your own with a hot drink generating acetylcholine to represent what makes an introvert happy.

Acetylcholine is another chemical that creates pleasure and feelings of happiness but in a different way: when focused on the inside and triggered by activities such as relaxing and thinking deeply. For the extroverts, acetylcholine doesn’t compare to the rush of dopamine and they might find it boring, but introverts crave it.


To summarise, the brains of introverts and extroverts are designed to get feelings of happiness from different types of activities. For extroverts, external stimulation is pleasurable, but too much for introverts will create an overwhelming energy drain. For introverts, internal stimulation is pleasurable, but extroverts don’t get enough “kick” from it to appreciate it in the same way.


Introverts take longer to come up with an answer to questions because of how much information processing their brain is doing


Illustration representing a fairly straightforward line representing the path information takes in an extrovert brain, and a long and very wiggly line with lots of detours which represents the path information takes in an introvert brain.

Introverts' brains rely on long-term memory. They notice all sorts of details and store them away. A side-effect of this is that it makes them very conscious about the mistakes (or possible mistakes) they are making. They end up with busy minds worrying about what’s going to happen and coming up with plenty of potential scenarios through recollection of similar scenarios. This takes some time for the brain to process and that’s why it might be complex for an introvert to come up with an answer quickly when unprepared.


On the contrary, because of the shorter path in their brains, extroverts are able to immediately respond and react to their environment.


Because of this, introverts tend to be more deep thinkers. They like to think and reflect before they make up their mind, come up with a solution and share it with others, this value can get lost within a mixed group.


This is also why they are less prone to take risks.


It’s two entirely different styles. One is quicker, one is deeper - doesn’t that sound complementary?


 

Can introverts have fun in social situations? Absolutely they can. It’s not a question of whether or not they have fun. It’s a question of how much stimulation is enough and how much is “too much”. If they have the opportunity to have meaningful conversations rather than only small talk, and moments of quiet (think music not too loud, room not too crowded), that will help make it more enjoyable for them.


Can introverts think quickly on their feet? Well, they need to have done their processing. So if you’ve given them time to do their processing, then yes they can. That’s why sharing the agenda, or material before a meeting is helpful. Or if you share something important, share the information and then offer to give them some time to process and offer to meet again the next day.


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