Embracing the Introverted Brain

Embracing the Introverted Brain

Heather McCulloch

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Introverts are quiet. All they need is to be encouraged to come out of their shells. All you need to do is to tell them to “Speak up.” Right? No. It’s not that simple. Recent research shows there are unique differences between the brains of introverts and extroverts. These differences include how the body reacts to the neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine, where information is stored in the brain, and which side of the nervous system is preferred.

As teachers, we often wonder why some students are quieter than others. Are they lazy or uninterested? By understanding what is going on in the brain, we can have a better understanding of our students’ and even our fellow teachers’ personal needs.

Both introverts and extroverts have exceptional gifts. Unfortunately, introverted gifts are often minimalized or even ignored. Every classroom could certainly benefit from a little more silence, contemplation, preparedness, and focus.

What is an introvert?

There seems to be a lot of confusion about what makes an introvert. Some may mistake it as meaning a person is shy (Aron, Aron, & Davies, 2005). It is true that many introverts are shy, but there is no correlation between shyness and introversion. Surprisingly, there are shy extroverts. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung initially coined the word introvert (Jung, 1923). This word describes where people get their energy from. The prefix “in-” gives the answer. Introverts draw their energy from inside. Their energy comes from large chunks of solitude where they can recharge and reflect. This leads to the question, what is energy and where does it come from? Energy is what makes people feel refreshed and able to face the stresses of the day. It is not always the case, but generally extroverts seek energy from the outside world. This means that after a busy week at work or school they may enjoy a concert, a party, or a fast-paced exchange of ideas with colleagues or classmates. On the other hand, introverts may seek something more low-key, focusing inward. They will most likely feel refreshed from a quiet walk alone, dinner with a small group of friends or a quiet evening in, with a book (Winter, 1996). Laurie Helgoe explains how introverts view solitude, “Solitude is not lack. As understood by Taoist practitioners, solitude is a ‘fertile void,’ an open door to a world overflowing with possibilities” (2013, p.23). Introverts do not see solitude as a time of being lonely, but more of time to be creative and productive.

Depending on where a person lies on the introvert/extrovert continuum, they may need more solitude than others. Introverts seek solitude, are focused, concentrate on goals, are good listeners, are observant, think before they speak, are drained by social gatherings, prefer working alone, prefer writing to speaking, avoid small talk, avoid danger, have conversations in their heads, are independent and a large quantity of so many other qualities.

If introverts are focused inward, extroverts on the opposite side, are focused outward. Wilt and Revelle (2016) explain that this may be seen in behaviors such as being gregarious, talkative, confident, and risk-takers. They enjoy meeting new people and have a large circle of friends. They enjoy a fast-paced life with a lot going on at one time. When coming up with new ideas, they often prefer to talk through the possibilities. 

The introvert/extrovert continuum is shaped like a bell curve. Thus, few lie at the polar opposites. Adam Grant (2013) estimated that between a half to two-thirds of the population are ambiverts. Ambiverts are the lucky majority who are able to feel comfortable in most situations, both stimulating and calming. Ambiverts are comfortable speaking, but also enjoy listening. They are skillful in social settings, but also need alone time. This balanced trait allows ambiverts to be very empathetic, able to understand the feelings of those around them. Few people lie at the extremities of the continuum. Since personality is complex, even the most introverted introvert will not be quiet in every situation. Extreme introverts may enjoy a party or concert and the most extreme of extroverts may enjoy a quiet evening in, with a book. With that in mind, some generalizations can be made. Generalizations are just that, general. Some introverts, even the extreme ones, may identify with the majority of these descriptions, but not all.

One of the most prominent characteristics of introverts is that they need down-time. Without solitude introverts may become physically ill. This is, of course, all in their heads, literally. Scientists have discovered major differences in the brains of introverts, compared to others, that explain why they are quiet, require solitude, and take time to process information.

Dopamine vs. acetylcholine

One of the main differences between introverted and extroverted brains is how they respond to the neurotransmitter dopamine. This is the endogenous (originating from within the body) chemical that gives us pleasure and motivates us to seek rewards. Extroverts have more dopamine receptors and are thus more likely to seek dopamine-releasing stimuli. They learn quickly what kind of activities are likely to result in dopamine activation and the resultant elation and euphoria, so they are more likely to engage in interactive, energetic, and risk-taking activities. In a way, they become addicted to the “high” they get from those situations the same way a drug user gets addicted to the high caused by dopamine-releasing narcotics.

In positive situations, this can cause an extrovert to be the social butterfly that we all know and love. It also drives them to be very successful. On the other hand, this neurotransmitter is what makes extroverts prone to dangerous and risky behavior. Brian Little (2014) claims that extroverts are more likely to be in traffic accidents. Hammer and Copland (1999) explain that novelty-seeking, risk-taking people, such as extroverts, will seek more exciting experiences to give them the rush of dopamine that they need. This could be something as simple as listening to loud music in the car or more daring experiences such as bungee jumping. Hobson and Conlan (1999) describe dopamine as the reward that thrill-seekers want, and thrill-seeking is connected to the DRD4 “novelty seeking gene” and its alleles.

On the other hand, overstimulation is just what introverts try to avoid. Introverts have fewer dopamine receptors than extroverts and are more sensitive to the negative effects of exciting situations. That explains why they may leave parties early or not even attend at all. Introverts, quickly feeling overwhelmed, seek solitude to recover from noise and stimulation.

Introverts seek the comfort provided by a very different neurotransmitter. While dopamine provides excitement and rewards, acetylcholine provides introverts with calm and relaxation. This neurotransmitter, which was discovered in 1914, is also linked to pleasure, but in a very different way. The functions of acetylcholine include slowing the heart rate. It also plays a role in memory and learning. This neurotransmitter aids in problem-solving, reflection and decision making.

Christine Fonseca (2014) explained that acetylcholine works the same for introverts as dopamine does for extroverts. The difference is that introverts feel happiest when focused inside. Acetylcholine allows introverts to relax and think deeply, which is what they need to recharge from overstimulation. In introverts, there is a surge of this organic chemical when they are alone or with a small group of close friends.

If it is true that too much dopamine causes an introvert to become overstimulated and need an escape, one that calming acetylcholine provides, a dopamine-hungry extrovert would react in the opposite way, needing to escape a seemingly boring environment for a more stimulating one, providing them with more up-beat pleasures and rewards. This explains why, surprisingly, extroverts are more likely than introverts to fall asleep in a class or at a conference. Listening passively to a speaker does not provide them with enough stimulation.

Introverts rely more on long-term memory

In The Introvert Advantage (2002), Marti Olsen Laney discusses how introverts rely more heavily than extroverts on long-term memory. When making decisions, introverts are less impulsive. They will weigh experiences both past and present. This is a positive thing because it is assumed that long-term memory can store information indefinitely. On the negative side, it could take introverts more time to answer even simple questions. Introverts also struggle more with word retrieval than do extroverts. This means it is difficult for them to find the right word to express ideas, thoughts, and feelings and results in a longer response time.

It is theorized that extroverts might seem relatively impulsive because they rely more on working memory. A study by Lieberman (2000) found that extroverts had better working memories than introverts, with shorter reaction times. In a much older study, conducted by Thorndike and Stein in 1937 and cited in 1976 by Eysenck, names and faces were used to test recognition speed. It was discovered that extroverts performed much better at this task. These studies explain why extroverts have a faster response time.

How introverts are misunderstood and overlooked in the classroom

Some university students lead busy lives. Many of them still live at home, possibly with chatty families. They leave home early to go to school. While on campus, they walk through busy hallways, eat lunch in noisy cafeterias, and attend lectures. After school, they rush to part-time jobs at convenience stores and coffee shops. They return home to families inquiring about their day. All of this stimulation floods the brain. For many extroverts, this may be exciting, making them feel more alert and motivated. On the other hand, an introvert might feel extremely overwhelmed. They will need a place to rest and refuel or they will not be able to perform at their best. University campuses leave little room for resting and refueling. Students who may already be overwhelmed before they arrive in the classroom will be less eager to race around a classroom interviewing as many people as possible as instructed by the teacher.

One of the most debilitating factors in an introvert’s life is feeling overwhelmed, which comes from their higher sensitivity to dopamine and the noradrenaline released as a result. In such situations, the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system takes over. This emotional reaction leaves them feeling exhausted and this can be seen clearly in the language classroom. Overwhelmed by the surrounding noises and constant conversation, and being pressed to respond quickly, introverted students might be hesitant to speak, appearing quiet or noncompliant. Typical introverts only have so much energy, so when it is drained they will need a quiet place to restore this energy. If they are in a place where solitude is unattainable, like a university campus or school, energy levels will not be replenished.

Many introverted students are also prone to overthink. Students may find it difficult to go for their goals due to worrying too much about worst case scenarios. Comparing them to the go-getter extroverts, teachers are likely to wrongly assume a non-responsive introvert is lazy or uninterested in progress.

Another characteristic of introverts which is often misunderstood in the classroom is their heavier reliance on long-term memories. As we have seen, this is a gift because introverts are good at information recall. On the flip side, however, teachers often complain that students are not able to answer questions as quickly as their extroverted classmates. Introverts may appear as if they do not know the answer, but in reality, they need time to connect information and experiences that reside far back in their long-term memories. It does not help when they are asked to respond instantly while in front of all their classmates.

Survival skills for teaching introverts

Because introverts prefer working alone, if possible, give students the choice to work alone or with a partner. When giving students such a choice, the teacher might be pleasantly surprised when students put more effort into what they are doing. With an activity such as brainstorming, often the ideas of the group are only the ideas of the strongest member of the group. This is fine if all members of the group have strong personalities. But when one member of the group is reserved, their ideas will often go unheard. By giving students a choice to brainstorm in a group or alone, you will be more likely to hear everyone’s ideas and not just those of a dominant member.

Nothing can make an introvert panic more than hearing the teacher say, “Find a partner.” If a student struggles with asking another student to be their partner, it might help to assign groups. This could save them from the embarrassment of not having a partner or being too shy to ask for one. Making the first move can be difficult for many introverts and having a partner assigned to them will provide some relief.

In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain (2013) suggests offering students a “reflective pause” after asking a question. This allows students enough time to think and process before answering. Making teachers wait has a negative connotation, so referring to it as a reflective pause feels more like contemplation and less like waiting uncomfortably. Giving them more processing time could also benefit extroverts as well, as they often answer questions without properly thinking deeply.

"Whenever possible, give questions to students ahead of time, allowing them to properly think about their answers."
Heather McCulloch
TT Author

Think-Pair-Share, created by Frank Lyman at the University of Maryland (1981), is another useful technique. Whenever possible, give questions to students ahead of time, allowing them to properly think about their answers. Introverts appreciate this because the silence allows them to think deeply and feel calm. Next, pair them with one other student to share answers. Introverts are often more comfortable talking one-on-one, so they will typically be more comfortable expressing themselves in this situation. Finally, share with the class. By giving students the chance to share their ideas with one student, they will then be more comfortable sharing with the class, although, in some cases, introverts will still be unable to share with the class if it is large.

Participation scores are often based on how much a student speaks in class. Students who are feeling anxious about this task might be unable to speak up even if their grade depends on it. Basing participation on the quality of what students say, and not on the amount they speak in class, will encourage all students, both introverted and extroverted, to reflect on their ideas and have better-crafted responses. By weighing quality as well as quantity, quieter students can also be successful at participating. Participation scores can also be based on alertness, attendance, and willingness to follow directions.

The most important quality a teacher needs to bring to class when teaching introverts is understanding: the understanding that some students can be overwhelmed by crowded halls and noisy cafeterias, and the understanding that such students may be mentally exhausted and unable to give their best. Introversion is not a choice or an attitude. This is more obvious in extreme introverts. Introverts do not take time away from people because they are antisocial or do not like the people around them. They take time away so that when they return to people they will be more able to give the best of themselves.

Conclusion

For the most part, introverts are not antisocial. They do not hate people. Needing time alone is not a choice. Prone to overstimulation, they are left feeling exhausted and needing a quiet retreat. Since they rely more on long-term memory information, it could take longer to access. This requires a longer response time. All of these aspects of the introverted brain are completely normal and explain why introverts are so quiet. Although introverts do not normally excel at activities that require large amounts of speaking, teachers should not ban groupwork or communicative activities. The most valuable language classroom setting is one where teachers recognize the gifts that each individual brings to the class. If the teacher is able to tap into each of these gifts, having both introverts and extroverts working together, there will be more balance in the classroom. When balance is achieved in the classroom, creativity can grow. Each student, regardless of learning style, should be allowed to learn in their own unique style.

The best way to maximize creativity is by mixing both introverts and extroverts. Introverts are observant and analytical. They are able to find possible flaws in an idea. Extroverts are excited about progress and are eager to reach goals. Combining these gifts in the classroom can bring nothing but magic to any school or university.

References

  • Aron, E. N., Aron, A., & Davies, K. N.  (2005). Adult shyness: The interaction of temperamental sensitivity and an adverse childhood environment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(2), 181-197.

  • Cain, S. (2013). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York, NY: Broadway Paperbacks.

  • Eysenck, M. W. (1976). Extroversion, verbal learning and memory. Psychological Bulletin, 83(1), 75-90.

  • Fonseca, C. (2014). Quiet kids: Help your introverted child succeed in an extroverted world. Wako, TX: Prufrock Press Inc.

  • Grant, A. M. (2013). Rethinking the extroverted sales deal. Psychological Science, 24(6), 1024-1030.

  • Hammer, D. H., & Copland, P. (1999). Living with our genes: The groundbreaking book about the science of personality, behavior, and genetic destiny. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

  • Helgoe, L. A. (2013) Introvert power: Why your inner life is your hidden strength. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.

  • Hobson J. A., & Conlan, R. (1999). States of mind: New discoveries about how our brains make us who we are. New York, NY: J Wiley.

  • Jung, C. G. (1923) Psychological types. London, UK: Paul, Trence, Trubner.

  • Laney, M. O. (2002). The introvert advantage: How to thrive in an extrovert world. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.

  • Lieberman, M. D. (2000). Introversion and working memory: central executive differences. Personality and Individual Differences, 28(3), 479-486.

  • Little, B. R. (2014). Me, myself, and us: The science of personality and the art of well-being. New York, NY: Public Affairs.

  • Lyman, F. (1981). The responsive classroom discussion: The inclusion of all students. Mainstreaming digest. College Park, MD: University of Maryland Press.

  • Wilt, J., & Revelle, W. (2017). Extraversion. In T. A. Widiger (Ed.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of the Five Factor Model (p. 57-81). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

  • Winter, D. G. (1996). Personality: Analysis and interpretation of lives. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Heather McCulloch, a life-long extreme introvert, was born in Crossville, Tennessee, USA. She holds a BA in Spanish Literature and Culture from East Tennessee State University and an MA TESOL from Biola University. She has been teaching both introverts and extroverts in the United States and Japan for almost 20 years. Her favorite foods include anything swimming in Tabasco or cheese, preferably both.

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