It’s been a while. Funny how droughts happen like that. There’s never any rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes I feel compelled to write even though I don’t have much of anything in particular to say.
On other occasions, even though I have a lot on my mind, I just don’t feel like blogging. During those times, I tend to write elsewhere instead.
And of course there are times in between, like now, when I have a few thoughts going on, and I sort of feel writing here and sort of don’t. But since it’s been a while, I will.
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More on introversion and extroversion. Extroverts don’t understand introverts at all. Even when trying to understand, they tend to say things like, “Well what we need to do is get you a bunch of introvert friends and get you to some introvert parties! No need to be alone, just be with your own kind and you’ll feel great!”
They really don’t get that we actually enjoy thought, reflection, deliberation, and other things that must be done in solitude. We enjoy them an awful lot, in fact. It’s not that we don’t like other people (certainly I like people well enough), but that we don’t enjoy active social engagement with other people—even other introverts—as much as we like various forms of cognition. And it’s not that we just need other introverts nearby to suddenly be interested in joining a circle of ten chatting partygoers. It’s that those various forms of cognition are engaging enough and important enough to us that very few others are able to support us or engage with us on that level as individuals.
Any two extroverts that can say the word “hi” and crack a smile can become besties. In fact, they do, if you put them in the same box for five minutes.
This is absolutely not true of any two introverts. Any particular introvert is highly unlikely to hit it off with any one given other person, introvert or extrovert, because we require a high degree of cognitive compatibility and similarity to find the interaction pleasurable, rather than necessary social “work” to get on in the world, and that high degree of cognitive compatibility and similarity is just plain rare, given how variable human beings are.
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I’d almost make claims like these:
Extroverts are embarrassed if they don’t have a large number of friends. To them, it means that they are not liked, and publicly so.
Introverts are embarrassed if they do have a large number of friends. To introverts, a large number of friends tends to suggest they have become so desperately lonely as to sacrifice their selves for any chance at superficial interactions.
When extroverts are in solitude, they tend to want to find someone, anyone to be around. They believe that everyone feels this way, and thus when they see other people in solitude, they try to find someone, anyone to visit and/or befriend them.
When introverts are in solitude, they tend to be more than happy to stay that way, and will only invite the rare forms of company that they are sure are cognitively compatible with them. They do not care at all how everyone else feels, as everyone else is everyone else, and not them.
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I appreciate the impulse, but as an introvert it feels almost laugh-out-loud hilarious to her an extrovert say, “Oh, you can’t spend this much time alone, all we need to do is find you a nice introvert girl and then all will be well!”
As if anything is wrong at the moment, or just tossing two random introverts into the same box will result in anything other than both knowingly smiling at each other about the naiveté of the extroverts as they each climb back out of the box, on oppsite sides, of course, while sharing a collegial good-bye wave.
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On the other hand, introverts understand extroverts pretty well. The principle is simple: they like being with people. A lot. They’re not too interested in what’s going on inside anyone’s head—at least not nearly as interested as they are in ensuring that whatever is going on inside everyone’s head come out into a shared space, as being in that shared space with others is a joy.
That’s simple enough. It’s not that introverts reject this. It’s not even that we can’t participate. We totally can. Many of us totally do, in consideration of the extroverts in our lives who can’t imagine it any other way.
But it’s equally and simply true that we just don’t derive the same pleasure from it. It’s a neutral thing—that requires some amount of effort. Given that we have to expand the same effort while reaping very little (in comparison) of the emotional reward, we’re far less likely to want to do it all the time.
Every now and then is fine, for variety and general social membership. But are we highly motivated to find general social interaction in the way that extroverts are? Certainly not. Because in the cost-benefit, it just doesn’t work for us.
Most of us are highly motivated to do some things. Just not social things, unless they are in the service of those things that do highly motivate us.
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I am particularly enjoying reading the last decade of science on the biological differences at work.
Particularly interesting are the dopamine vs. acetylcholine responses of introverts and extroverts. Basically, extroverts are highly sensitive to rewards in the external environment, and see dopamine spikes with commonplace “goods” like friendly faces, money, food, sex, and so on. In short, their brains “fire” strongly when external positives are present. Introvert brains… just plain don’t do this. There is far less reward activity in the introvert brain in response to external stimuli. It just doesn’t happen. On the other hand, introvert brains see far more acetylcholine activity as the result of various kinds of cognitive activity. So our brains “fire” and we feel rewarded and ecstatic when we are thinking hard and focused—i.e. not having to process external stimuli, including those provided by other people.
Also interesting are the anatomical differences, with introverts having more tissue in the prefrontal cortex areas associated with abstract thought, high-order reasoning, and impulse restraint, and extroverts having more tissue in rear and central areas like the amygdala, which is much more associated with sensation processing and physical and emotional arousal.
This all rings true to me and seems to neatly underscore the differences.
As an introvert, there are a lot of things that extroverts often encourage me to do that just don’t seem all that fun. When the extroverts do them, they are flooding their brains with dopamine. Hence the “IT’S SO FUN OMG YOU HAVE TO TRY IT YOU WILL NEVER BE THE SAME” enthusiasm—and their disappointment whenever I take them up on it and say, “It was interesting. Facets A, B, and C of this experience were unique and I’m glad to have had the experience, though facets X, Y, and Z were somewhat lacking, I thought, and reminded me of…”
They of course take this as my conscious effort to deny a transcendentally joyous experience, which can only be read as seeking to invalidate and embarrass them. They don’t get that as an introvert, I just didn’t experience the same dopamine flood. That external stimulus just didn’t actually produce much pleasure in my brain, nor is my mind particularly “switched on” by any of it, nor would this be the case in response to the the smile that they’d produce if I did validate their experience and share in a mutual but relatively unreflective “bubbling about it” session. On the other hand, I do get a ton of pleasure from analyzing it, and would get even more if they were to engage me on that level with a well-reasoned counter-analysis or a deep and extended reflection on what it means to them, in detail, either of which is what I’m probably unconsciously seeking.
Meanwhile, on the days when I’m sitting at home reading Wikipedia articles on theoretical physics that go well beyond my understanding, and trying for hours to make sense of them, reading more and more through the labyrinthine network of essays, the extroverts come and say “OMG YOU HAVE TO STOP THIS YOU ARE GOING INSANE YOU ARE SO LONELY LET’S GET YOU A FRIEND AND GO OUT!” They don’t get that I really don’t want to leave—because at that moment a different reward pathway in my brain is firing like mad and I’m filled with a distinct sense of intense, albeit qualitatively different, pleasure. (N.B. this also explains why I am addicted to blogging, especially unreadable, highly reflective blogging in abstract concepts—it causes the reward centers of my brain to fire.)
In very crass terms, when extroverts yell the single word “FUUUUUN!” at each other, they probably get a dopamine spike. To scream the word “fun” loudly intensely together—is likely quite fun for them! But it does nothing for introverts. Instead, we get the neurotransmitter increase with low-key, extended, involved depth. Which to an extrovert is as boring as sin and does nothing to stimulate their brains. Quite the opposite, they probably feel as though they’re going to fall into a coma.
On that point, anatomically speaking, I have just plain more brain in the reasoning, high-order processing, and impulse control areas, and these operate faster in an introvert brain, so it makes sense that these would be the things that I am both most competent at and feel most comfortable habitually engaging in. Meanwhile, I have relatively less brain for translating emotional response into physical activity, and relatively less brain for moment-by-moment initiative. So I’m basically built to think hard and and resist external forms of suggestion, while extroverts are best built to feel a lot in response to external forms of suggestion and to act on those feelings very quickly and decisively to seize advantage while it’s hot, without so many resources to mull over all possible future consequences and meanings of those actions, much less to do so quickly enough that the processing is concluded before their comparatively more developed rear and central brain anatomy rapidly reacts and acts.
This all would seem to explain why so many introverts (myself included) often find extroverts to be strangely automatic thinkers (“they believe whatever they’ve been told”) with an unacceptable attachment to what we experience as rapid impulsivity, while so many extroverts find introverts to be unintelligibly abstract and long-winded and also irritatingly slow to take apparently obvious courses action. It’s “OMG why aren’t you thinking more carefully before you act?!” vs. “OMG why are you sitting here chasing your tail in your brain instead of ACTING?!”
It also explains why introverts tend to be able to conceptualize extroverts more completely than is true the other way around. We’re wired for understanding concepts and their consequences in detail, despite the temptations of external stimuli. They’re wired for responding rapidly to stimulus in pursuit of immediate advantage. We don’t really provide them with much stimulus to respond to, and they’re not particularly attuned to or rewarded by abstract systemic understanding and conceptualization. To extroverts, we seem almost literally like blank slates: completely nondescript and inert, and characterized by a general chalky haze built up of layers and layers of highly erase-worthy classroom blather with little application to the immediate situation that they perceive. And they don’t think much more about it, because, well, that would be wasting everyone’s time. And yet their brains go into dopamine overdrive at the sight of human faces in a way that they don’t for almost anything else, so they desperately want more from introverts when they engage with us, to deliver on that promise of neurobiological reward. Hence—frustration! Damned self-absorbed, all-in-their-heads introverts!
Meanwhile, our introvert brains show the same comparatively low level of dopamine response to extroverts’ human faces that they do to any one particular flower or unfamiliar cat (both of which do something big for extroverts, but rather little for introverts at the neurotransmitter level), so we engage them but struggle to care and feel bewildered that they’re so frustrated with us yet refuse to listen to our explanation—and ultimately we find it all to be pretty lacking in depth and purpose and generally a dull and regrettable form of conflict anyway, when compared to the temptation that the out-of-our-league physics entry on Wikipedia (or, say, the process of disassembling and then reassembling a machine, or the work of Proust, etc.) offers to us.
Even this post is exemplary. I can’t imagine an extrovert reading it. We present them with detailed, long-winded reflections and they don’t care. All this long-winded navel-gazing! It just doesn’t seem important. (Because they’re not getting any rush out of it, and their brains aren’t really comfortable handling it.) Meanwhile, they present us with stark external stimuli, particularly social ones, and we don’t care. It just doesn’t seem important. (Because we’re not getting any rush out of it, and our brains aren’t really comfortable handling it.)
This also tends to explain why introverts are so focused on the minutiae of the introversion/extroversion discussion, while extroverts tend to respond with “Oh, bullshit, what a bunch of bullshit blather, it’s all an excuse and self-indulgence and nobody fits labels anyway, move on. Get out there and have a life!” Both are playing according to type.
Can introverts and extroverts ever really be besties? Hard to say. Certainly it’s hard to connect at a visceral level across the gulf, and the biology seems to support that claim.
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One of the most resonant problems to me is the problem of the “inner circle.” Extroverts also don’t understand that most introverts have an inner circle. These are the people that either share tons of history or tons of cognitive compatibility with any particular introvert. People in the inner circle are stimulating to us, for whatever reason—generally cognitive.
Usually there are only a handful of them in an introvert’s life. Maybe three. Maybe just two. Maybe even only one. These are the people that the introvert actually does enjoy interacting with, when the time is right.
Extroverts often try to break into an introvert’s inner circle through sheer social competence, caring, and desire. This is a fool’s errand. It cannot work. There is no way to break into the inner circle simply by attending to an introvert, no matter how much dedication is involved. It is a matter of reward pathways. When extroverts do this, they are trying to “reach” introverts through extrovert reward pathways. We don’t feel rewarded, we feel interrupted. To get into the inner circle, someone has to consistently stimulate the introvert reward pathways over long periods of time—by providing to the introvert enhanced periods of consistent, low-level focus and the promise of lots of abstract cognitive processing. In short, if you want into the inner circle, you need to be focusing on having low-key, hours-long chats about either life, the universe, and everything or other deep or specialized topics, without the (for an introvert) frustrating prospect of interruption or variability in emotional “keys.”
And if an extrovert wonders whether they are in a particular introvert’s inner circle, then it is almost certain that they are not.
Introverts have no uncertainty about these things. They understand the “inner circle” concept perfectly, and can tell immediately who’s in another introvert’s inner circle and who’s not just by observing ten uninterrupted seconds of interaction. It’s clear as day.
And why do we not “want to share ourselves” with everyone, especially with those that are trying so hard to care about us? Because we know very well, through hard experience, that there is no point in trying to share yourself or your life with those that simply cannot get it—that simply will not understand. That’s a lot of work just to end up at additional headaches and problems due to inevitable misunderstandings, for (in our case) no particular reward in the neurobiological sense. In a way, it is introverts being considerate. We know that we disappoint and even hurt most extroverts repeatedly over time just by being ourselves—neither party will enjoy it. Better to help them out by keeping them at arm’s length, especially if they’re so invested that they’re trying really hard but not having much success.
So we tend to seem like distant ciphers to the bulk of the population we’re trying to be polite with and conscientious about. Those that think in the same way that we do or that can engage in that register—we’ll share ourselves all day and all night with them, and patiently engage as they share themselves in kind. And all joyously, too.