The Brain of an Introvertby Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD | August 24, 2018
In the age of social media, networking and global never-ending communication, introverts are often viewed as rather inefficient. They are considered as people who would not happily express their opinion during the staff meetings or actively participate in brainstorming sessions. They are often considered to not be good at multitasking or be particularly charismatic. They are rarely at the center of attention at a party, and they often ignore their smartphones for hours in a row. These days, when we believe that big tasks require the active participation of large groups of people working together, being an introvert could come as a disadvantage.
But don’t discard introverts altogether: some of the most successful people in the world are introverts. Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and even social media inventor Mark Zuckerberg are all self-confessed introverts. So how do these people who apparently lack some of the basic skills needed for a successful career manage to achieve so much? What makes the brain of an introvert so different and so special?
Being a loner has its upsides and downsides when it comes to health and success
It is well known that personality traits are not just the result of social conditioning – they have more to do with the genetics and brain structure. People are born or inherit specific personality traits quite like they inherit any particular physical parameters and characteristics. These personality traits bring their advantages and disadvantages. Studies have also demonstrated the anatomical difference between the introvert and extrovert brain. Imaging studies have shown the differences in both the grey matter and the white matter volumes in the various parts of the brain, thus confirming that personality traits are hard-wired into the brain.
Introverts do not like prolonged social interactions, and they feel uncomfortable in large social gatherings. Introverts don’t mind remaining isolated for extended periods. They love to think and dream. However, this self-imposed social isolation comes at a price. Lower social interaction increases the risk of certain disorders; it may negatively affect cognitive functioning, increase the risk of metabolic disorders, and negatively impact the immune system.
Extreme social isolation and its negative consequences are well studied. People living in orphanages or imprisoned for prolonged periods may go through periods of mental instability, and some may even experience hallucinations. However, being introverts is different, and self-imposed social isolation may not necessarily indicate idle brain or lack of resilience towards these health issues. The latest research studies show that these periods of being alone may have positive impacts on emotional and work life.
Focus on creativity
One of the benefits of being more focused on own thoughts is the improved creativity. Introverts are more open to different ideas; they may have a higher level of confidence and independence. Introverts are less concerned about what others may think. Studies have shown that prominent feature of both scientists and artists is the dislike for too much of social interaction: avoiding it leaves them with more time to focus on their ideas.
Introverts have more time to perfect their crafts than those who spend most of the time socializing. They have time to make sense of their thoughts and experiences. All this means that they have higher chances of achieving a eureka moment.
However, it should be understood that not every kind of social withdrawal is the same. Some type of non-socializing is an indicator of psychological and physical health issues. Social withdrawal may be due to shyness and anxiety, or it may be due to a dislike of socializing. Both may have a negative impact on health and would not necessarily better the creativity. On the other hand, those who socialize less just by choice (rather than due to anxiety or dislike) are more probable to be healthy and creative.
These findings are important, as earlier it was believed that unsociability can be harmful. Now the researchers demonstrated that unsociability might be even beneficial. Healthy introverts prefer to spend more time alone, but this does not mean a complete social withdrawal. They would usually have just enough of social interaction. Creative people prefer being alone, and at the same time, they spend enough time in the company of others.
The researchers also noticed that cultural differences may play an important role too. For instance, unsociable children in China had more academic problems in comparison to their Western counterparts. However, this difference is becoming less visible due to globalization.
There is a general belief that specific profession demand more sociable personality and extroverts are better in the leadership roles. However, this is not always accurate, and research shows that a lot depends on the collective nature of the employees. Introvert bosses are more successful if the employees are more sociable. On the other hand, extrovert bosses are better in a leadership role if the employees are less proactive.
Meditation, hermits, and health
If we look back into the human history, we understand that self-imposed isolation was commonly practiced by individual members of society. Hermits would practice solitude to achieve nirvana. Daydreaming in the absence of social interactions activates the so-called default mode of the brain. Thus, isolation helps in consolidating the memories and emotions, at least to a certain extent. Isolation helps a person in re-organizing thoughts. Interestingly, when people come out of self-imposed isolation, they are likely to socialize better and more effectively.
Researchers also warn that the boundary between the dangerous isolation and useful solitude is quite blurry. Extreme loneliness could be somewhat harmful or indicative of poor health. Practicing solitude to stay productive and creative does not mean being completely unsocial. On the other hand, there is a real danger for the physical and mental health of those who are never alone. Furthermore, research indicates that introverts have fewer but stronger bonds with others that lead to better satisfaction in life and greater happiness.
If a person does not like to socialize too much, there is nothing wrong with him or her. It is important that the solitude is a person’s choice and not forced upon him/her: even the classical introverts need few good friends.
Bowker, J. C., Stotsky, M. T., & Etkin, R. G. (2017). How BIS/BAS and psycho-behavioral variables distinguish between social withdrawal subtypes during emerging adulthood. Personality and Individual Differences, 119, 283–288. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2017.07.043
Forsman, L. J., de Manzano, Ö., Karabanov, A., Madison, G., & Ullén, F. (2012). Differences in regional brain volume related to the extraversion–introversion dimension—A voxel based morphometry study. Neuroscience Research, 72(1), 59–67. doi: 10.1016/j.neures.2011.10.001
Grant, A., Gino, F., & Hofmann, D. A. (2010). The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses. Harvard Business Review, (DECEMBER 2010 ISSUE). Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2010/12/the-hidden-advantages-of-quiet-bosses
Hatemi, P. K., & McDermott, R. (2012). The genetics of politics: discovery, challenges, and progress. Trends in Genetics, 28(10), 525–533. doi: 10.1016/j.tig.2012.07.004
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