The science behind why introverts struggle to speak

Ezgi Polat

A co-worker appears out of the blue and asks me a question. Her eyes and tone of voice say she wants an answer now. Her request is easy, but my mind is momentarily paralyzed.

I start sentences then stop them. I hesitate. I say words that are close to what I mean, but not exactly. I backtrack.

My co-worker — an extrovert who always seems to express herself effortlessly — looks at me like, come on, spit it out. I think, if only my brain would cooperate.

Why introverts struggle with word retrieval

When we’re speaking out loud, we introverts may have trouble with word retrieval, meaning, we struggle to find just the right word we want. We may come off sounding like we don’t know what we’re talking about, even though we do. In social situations, we may have trouble keeping up with fast-talking extroverts.

Our brains use many different areas for speaking and writing, writes Dr. Marti Olsen Laney in her book, The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World, and when talking out loud, information needs to flow between the separate regions. One reason why introverts struggle with speaking is that we process information deeply, which means information moves slowly between areas of our brain.

Another reason has to do with introverts relying more on long-term memory than working memory. Information stored in long-term memory is mostly outside of our conscious awareness. Like the name sounds, long-term memory contains information that is retained for long periods of time — in theory, information is saved indefinitely. Some of this information is fairly easy to access, while other memories are more difficult to recall. Contrast this with working memory (sometimes referred to as short-term or active memory), which is limited and retains information for mere seconds.

It takes longer to reach into long-term memory and pull out just the right word or piece of information. The right association is needed, which is something that is related to what we’re trying to recall. This, of course, slows us down when we’re speaking.

If we’re anxious — like how I felt when my intimidating co-worker approached me — it may be even more difficult to locate and articulate the right words.

Why it’s easier to express ourselves in writing

Introverts “often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation,” writes Susan Cain in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Introverts may prefer text messages and emails to phone calls. Many of us keep journals or compose lyrics, poems, or stories, and some of us make careers out of writing.


The reason for this preference once again has to do with how our brains are wired: written words use different pathways in the brain, which seem to flow fluently for many introverts, writes Laney.

What to do when your mind goes blank

Memory is complex, and it uses many different areas of the brain. Our brains store memories in several locations and create links between them, called associations.

To yank something out of long-term memory, we need to locate an association. The good thing is, most pieces of information in long-term memory were stored with several associations or keys for unlocking them.

“If we find just one key, we can retrieve the whole memory,” writes Laney.

When you struggle to remember a word, a piece of information, or even what you did over the weekend (because that question often comes up in small talk!), try these things:

  • Be still and relax.
  • Give yourself permission to be quiet for a few moments. Don’t let the other person rush you.
  • Buy yourself time to process things by saying something like, “Let me think about that,” or “Hmm, let me see…” Or, give a nonverbal signal that shows you’re thinking, like looking away and furrowing your brow slightly.
  • Let your mind wander for a moment and go where it wants. One thought may lead to another, and one of those thoughts may hold the “key” to unlocking the words you want from your long-term memory.

If all else fails, and words escape you, don’t feel embarrassed — your brain is doing what comes naturally to it, and that is to pause and reflect. If you’re being quiet, you’re in good company with other deep-thinking introverts: Stephen Hawking once said, “Quiet people have the loudest minds.”

Then, try breezing over any awkwardness in the conversation by using humor to make light of your tongue-tied state, or say you’re a little distracted right now, and you’ll get back to the other person later — by sending an email or text.

“When an introvert is quiet, don’t assume he is depressed, snobbish or socially deficient.” Laurie Helgoe, Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength

Image credit: Deviant Art (Ezgi Polat)

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Read this: Introverts’ and extroverts’ brains really are different, according to science


  • Dave Mackey says:

    Hmm…Maybe we should just wear shirts that say, “Warning: Introvert – Please wait.”

  • It’s just the human version of seeing a little hourglass on the computer screen. We have a lot going on inside and have to sift through data to find the right file.

  • I cannot tell you how happy I was to read this. I have struggled with this issue my whole life despite having been a TV news reporter who spoke for a living. I really do feel like I live best on paper. Thank you for printing it.

  • edem Robby says:

    Oh how I love this ! I finally do not have to explain myself to friends. I just have to share this on my wall. Thank you.

  • Shelly says:

    Before I understood totally how I operated in this world, I would struggle to say something and then I ended up saying all the wrong things – only to go back a few days later and try to re-say what I said. This led to back tracking and others seeing me as flaky or worse. I would tell people I was a slow processor and needed time. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work well in all situations.

  • Cindy says:

    This explains so much to me!!! I have often used the phrase, “I pray best at the end of my pen.” I can write somewhat eloquently, but I can’t speak to save my life!

  • zzzxtreme says:

    im an introvert, and interviews have always been a struggle. the hardest question is “Tell us about yourself”

    chatting on the internet feels liberating (started with mIRC)

  • […] The Science Behind Why Introverts Struggle to Speak really “spoke” to me. Hahaha I’m hilarious. But really. I encourage people to […]

  • […] And a short but interesting piece on different speech patterns between introverts and extroverts. […]

  • The only time this doesn’t happen to me is when I’m furious. Then I’m very arti8culate. The worst times are when I meet someone new. Blurgh!

  • Kyler says:

    I was on a Knowledge Bowl team in high school for all of one year and quit because my teammates wanted to kill me (metaphorically speaking). I would always remember and say the answer just after the buzzer rang but just before the adjudicator would say it.

  • jennysnook says:

    This article gripped me so tightly! Thank you for putting this on the internet for me to find! I feel I can finally stop feeling so bad about the massive differences between how articulate I can be on paper/screen vs. how clumsy I can be when engaged in verbal communication. Thank you!

  • Margaret says:

    I had been taught that introversion and extraversion weren’t so much about how talkative we are, but rather about where we get our energy, that extraverts get energy from interaction with others, whereas introverts get tired and circuit-overloaded from interaction, thus needing downtime to rest and sort things out. This info about the brain wiring may help to explain that energy angle. However, it also seems to point back to talkativeness as an indicator of introversion vs. extraversion. Can you clarify for me about talkativeness?

    • Kayla Svedin says:

      You’re right, Margaret. Introversion and extroversion are about how we are energized by our surroundings, not necessarily how we express ourselves. I’m an introvert, but I’m also very articulate, fast thinking on my feet, and can engage in a discussion with one (sometimes two) other people and do just fine. When the number of people increase I tend to play more of an observer role, to maintain my energy. I’ve always been good “in front of” people, but have never enjoyed being “in the middle of” people. Being in a group of people is draining unless I can find some way to separate myself, but I’ve never had an issue why public speaking or performance because it does give that separation.

      • As an extrovert with mild social anxiety, I can relate to a lot of introvert posts. What you commented it the exact opposite of how I work. I am terrified “in front of” people, but love being right in the middle of things. People often assume I’m introverted because of my shyness when they don’t understand it’s all about the energy.

  • This certainly explains why I can ramble on and on in digital form but not in verbal form (unless you get me on a topic I know all about). I always have the angry scowl when people catch me thinking of what I’m trying to say or do.

    • Rose says:

      Angry scowl….yep, been there. When I was growing up, I can’t tell you how often people told me to smile or asked if something was wrong.

  • Lucy says:

    I have just discovered this website and I feel like a light has been switched on! As a child I was always deemed aloof and shy, although I never really felt that that was the case, it was just that I preferred to be alone a lot of the time. I have gone through my adult life, until very recently, forcing myself to be what other people want me to be and feeling really drained and awkward in many social situations. My husband in particular gets really frustrated with me and assumes my reluctance to attend social gatherings and my preference to be alone is down to being anti-social and rude.
    The truth is that time on my own is a necessity for me and the only time I can truly relax.. I am so happy to have stumbled upon this website.. Turns out that their is nothing wrong with me. I am an introvert and that, for me, is completely normal! What a revelation

  • ladygray4 says:

    I even wondered if I was a borderline stutterer because of this problem – what a relief!

  • ND says:

    Being an introvert makes it so hard to find a decent job, I hate going to an interview only to have the interviewer ask questions that I have to answer on the spot. I get even more nervous and that complicates trying to remember what the answer is…..

    • Timmins C. says:

      I hear your pain! I got a successful job in one to one sales of cars. I ask the customers questions and then just let them talk until they trust me. I’m successful because I let the customer sell themselves. When they ask me a question I respond, “Hmmm, that’s a good question.” And then I think about before answering. The customer knows I’m really listening to them…Good luck

    • Rose says:

      I can relate to this sooo much! I dread asking questions about myself on the spot.

  • […] Introverts may often make a living with theirr words, but they have trouble talking: […]

  • BGS says:

    I’m an introvert. I’ve probably always been, but one who loves company. Never really talked that much, though, but when I’ve talked, I’ve often come across words I had to look for. Pictures of what I wanted to say was clear in my mind, just the word for it was gone. This explains it very well. Also the fact, that after discovering the internet my talking has become even less, because I feel like I express myself so much better on “paper”… Except, when I have to write a job-application :-/ But that’s a different thing that stops me(low self-esteem for one thing). This Monday, I was called in for a job-interview(first one in almost a year), got the call Friday, and was preparing myself all weekend. Thank God I had that weekend, or I might have completely ruined it. And of cause the open question “Tell something about yourself” came, and I started something, felt like babbling. Stopped, because I had to think. I never know what to tell on that question. When I think I most often close my eyes and look down as that’s one of the ways I focus. I hate that question, because no matter how much I practice, it just comes out wrong. But at least I left the interview with a good feeling.
    I think a lot about things, and before I can finish my thoughts the topic has moved on to something completely different, which makes it difficult to actually participate in a conversation. Finally something that gives me a reason why it is like that. I feel like I’m surrounded with extroverts.

  • Beverly Brown says:

    I often don’t know what I think until I’ve written it down!

  • […] The science behind why introverts struggle to speak by Jenn Granneman as originally seen on Introvert, Dear. […]

  • Johanna Liscum says:

    Meetings, doctor appointments, performance reviews… “Do you have any questions?” “Uh, not that I can think of,” but give me an hour and I’ll have a long list. Arg.

  • Alice says:

    I spent the first 19 years of my life never talking because my words wouldn’t “load” fast enough. This created social anxiety and fear. Finally, I realized that I could talk, if I wrote down what I was thinking first.
    So, if I think I will need to speak on something, I go into my room, alone, and write out my thoughts on the matter. This has helped a lot, because I can recall the words that are already there. When I was learning how to speak, I even did this with rote conversation. It still doesn’t work in every situation though. There are certain people who take the words out of my mouth, no matter what I do.

  • SocialSquirrelOnline says:

    Yes! Thank you!

  • Lyd says:

    So am I I am trapped inside the faulty genetic prison of introversion from which DNA alone forever bars my escape (that’s a good sentence I wrote, indeed, haha whaha! hahaHaha) .

  • […] to share it. It’s something I deeply relate to; some of you may too. The original post is here. What do you […]

  • Justin says:

    I can relate to this article on so many levels. Wow.

  • Angel says:

    This article sums me up to a T.

  • […] It takes longer to reach into long-term memory and pull out just the right word or piece of information. The right association is needed, which is something that is related to what we’re trying to recall. This, of course, slows us down when we’re speaking.” Read more […]

  • Bridgett says:

    Exactly. I often stuttered and ended up failed to say what I was trying to say. There were time when I was in a particularly on good mood but somehow others thought I was being rude. Why is it so hard to be normal. Probably I should talk less. And currently I’m in a dark tiny corner somewhere in my office typing and sending this message to you. #insertsmileyfacehere

  • Cee Jay Kay says:

    Good grief! This is me to a T! I repeat the same response over and over and over again, hoping it will make sense. And then I ask if it made sense! Gah. I end up sounding like such a fool. My problem is that I have a tendency to hyper focus when I’m on a task. So when someone pulls me from my hyper-focus state, it takes several seconds for my brain to go another direction. Also, I absolutely, no questions asked communicate better in writing.

  • Kurtis says:

    You could just say; ‘hold on a minute will you? I’m thinking!’

  • […] ‘The Quiet Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’ describes how the introvert’s brain is different. Introverts choose to write for good […]

  • Diana Comeau says:

    Couple all that with a hearing impairment and you have extreme frustration and severe anxiety! Boy, do I understand!

  • LadyVamp6669 says:

    thank god it’s not just me. I thought there was something wrong with me. I’m like a rabbit caught in the headlights when someone tries to have a conversation with me. I hate it. And like someone said above, about being hyper focused, I’m exactly the same and then I feel like I come across as being slow and a little stupid when it takes me a little while to process what they are saying. Not sure what I can do though to be able to hold a conversation with people easily without this constant struggle going on in my brain. It’s making me very anxious and then making speech harder and it turns into a vicious cycle

  • Nicholas says:

    wow! I’m impressed, that’s exactly how I feel and it always seems to occur in important situations when I need to express myself the most.

  • thinkraven says:

    Nice article, but my antennae go up when anyone mentions “Highly Sensitive Person” without the caveat that this is a self-described identity, like Aspie (Aspergers) that does not have an official diagnosis and has not been in any way shape or form delineated from the Autism Spectrum. Anyone interested in sensitivity might find it useful to check out Intense World Theory,

  • […] Think texting instead of a phone call, and journaling instead of explaining. There’s a scientific explanation for this: introverts rely more on long-term memory than short-term memory (whereas extroverts use […]

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