Introversion is a loaded word. Just look it up in the dictionary and here’s what you’ll find:
Introversion: The state or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life
Doesn’t sound so good, does it? Sounds downright narcissistic. And this is no accident. Sigmund Freud coined the term “introvert” to describe one of the traits associated with narcissism. In Freud’s view, introverts were neurotics who had taken “a turn from reality to phantasy [sic].” According to Freud, introversion denoted “the turning away of the libido from the possibilities of real satisfaction.”
In other words, Freud believed that introverts were emotionally stunted. Unable to confront the fearful prospect of sex, the introvert retreated into himself, sublimating all of his libidinal urges into an unhealthy preoccupation with his own delusional inner life.
In retrospect, this theory seems so absurd that it’s hard to believe that it gained any traction. But it did.
For decades, psychologists subscribed to the notion that introversion was a low-grade pathology. Although introverts make up something like a third of the world’s population, it wasn’t uncommon for psychologists to write clinical definitions of introversion that went something like this:
Introversion is normally characterized by a hesitant, reflective, retiring nature that keeps itself to itself, shrinks from objects, is always slightly on the defensive and prefers to hide behind mistrustful scrutiny.
Extroverts, on the other hand, were treated as paragons of mental health:
Extroversion is normally characterized by an outgoing, candid, and accommodating nature that adapts easily to a given situation [and] quickly forms attachments.
(From The Introvert Coach)
Modern definitions aren’t as flagrantly prejudiced, but introversion is still stigmatized. Given the option, most people would prefer to be extroverts. Punch the word “introversion” into Amazon.com and you come up with a list of self-help books like: Introvert to Extrovert and The Highly Sensitive Person. Look up “extroversion” and you get a whole lotta nada.
But all of those self-satisfied extroverts out there might be interested to learn that recent scientific findings suggest that introversion is not a psychological disorder–it’s a physiological trait with some distinct advantages.
Brain scans reveal that introverted children “have more brain activity, in general, [than extroverts] specifically in their frontal lobes.” (Introverts in an Extrovert’s World) Experts have long understood that introverts need solitude to recharge, while extroverts are energized by social interaction. They did not, however, understand why. Scientists now believe they’ve discovered the biological foundation of both temperaments.
Extroverts have a high degree of activity in the back of their brains, particularly in the areas associated with digesting sensory input. They are more attuned to the outside world, according to neurologists, because that’s where most of their stimulus comes from. And brain scans suggest that extroverts seek constant stimulation, because they have “less internally generated brain activity.”
Introverts, on the other hand, have such a surfeit of brain activity that it’s sometimes difficult for them to attend to what’s happening around them. While this might result in some social awkwardness, it has a host of benefits. Introverts have more acetylcholine, a chemical that enhances “long-term memory, the ability to stay calm and alert, and perceptual learning.” They also have increased activity in the frontal lobe, which has been linked to high-level problem solving skills, long-term planning, and a facility with language. Perhaps, it’s no accident that an estimated 60 percent of the world’s best minds have been introverts. (Pop Matters)
As an introvert, I can’t help being a little pleased with findings. It would be nice to see a glut of extroversion self-help books on the market–books like: Mastering the Art of Concentration: The Extroverts Guide to Blocking Out Superfluous Sensory Input or From Small Talk to Real Talk: How Not to Bore Introverts at Parties. But the truth is, you can’t draw a clear line in the sand between introverts and extroverts. Most us fall somewhere along a continuum. It’s just that some land closer to the poles than others.
Want to know your stats? Take the Myers-Briggs Test: Human Metrics.