We hear it all the time: introverts get their energy from being alone, extroverts get it from people. But it turns out alone time does more than just help you recharge. It actually makes you better at certain things, and that’s just as true for extroverts as it is for us introverts.
That’s the moral of an impressive body of research on alone time. The research suggests that simply being around another person sucks up a certain amount of the brain’s attention, making some tasks harder. And alone time helps you out in at least three ways:
- You form more accurate memories when you’re alone, and those memories last longer. (I assume this means you learn better, as any introvert who’s suffered through a “study group” could tell you.)
- If you have regular alone time you develop more empathy, especially for people outside your social group. This is probably because you spend more time on inner reflection. So solitude makes you more connected to others.
- Alone time is a key ingredient for “meta-cognition,” one of the most powerful abilities the human brain has. When people are good at meta-cognition, we call them things like “visionary,” “innovator” and “genius.”
And that’s not even counting the special benefits alone time has for teenagers—things like improved mood, less self-consciousness, and a stronger sense of identity.
Other People Steal Your Brain Power
Why does alone time do so much? One of the researchers, Bethany Burum, sums it up nicely:
“We’re multitasking when we’re with other people in a way that we’re not when we just have an experience by ourselves.”
I love this comparison because actual multitasking is bad for you. Or rather, it’s bad for whatever you’re working on. Your brain literally cannot focus on two tasks at once, so it has to hop back and forth. That makes you worse at both activities, plus pretty much everything else.
(This is true even if you feel like a great multitasker, by the way.)
According to Burum, other people automatically occupy part of your attention. That’s why it’s harder to do a job with someone looking over your shoulder—you have less brainpower to spend on it. Even extroverts, who may not get as self-conscious, still have to divide their attention to be around people.
So you don’t really function better alone. Rather, you function normally when alone, and worse when around others. At least if you’re doing anything besides chatting.
This gives introverts a huge advantage. Everyone suffers from this “brain drain” effect, but introverts are keenly aware of it. We know we work better alone. Extroverts take so much emotional satisfaction from being around others that they don’t always feel the drain, or notice that their work suffers. They will tell you they work better in a group, and they honestly mean it—but for many tasks, they’re wrong.
The Meta-Cognition Switch
The most powerful benefit of solitude, for my money, is meta-cognition. This is your brain’s ability to step back and examine its own thoughts. It’s linked to creativity, self-reflection and critical thinking, and the research suggests it’s easiest alone.
This hits close to home, because introverts can develop meta-cognition to a high degree. According to personality type theory, there are 16 personality types, each favoring a different mental process. Only two of the 16 lead with meta-cognition, and both are introverts.
(Technically they lead with a process called “introverted intuition,” sometimes nicknamed Perspectives. It’s the ability to step back, change perspectives and see hidden connections between ideas. I’d say that’s meta-cognition by a different name.)
What’s your personality type? Knowing your type can help you leverage your natural strengths. Take the free test from our partner Personality Hacker.
I’m an INTJ personality type, one of those two types (the other is INFJ). Everyone can use Perspectives, but for us it’s the first tool in our toolkit. That makes us kind of weird. For example, I find ideas more interesting than people, and I get so lost in thought I could easily walk off a cliff. But that weirdness is worth it, because Perspectives lets me build vast plans and visions in my head, and then move my life toward them the way others follow GPS. It’s something I can’t turn off, but most of the time, I don’t really want to.
Here’s the rub: one distraction and the whole thing will crash. Just as the research suggests, to do meta-cognition I need to be left alone. Using Perspectives is like building a mental spider web, and each interruption is a puppy running through the web. The spider cannot just pick up where it left off; it has to start all over.
So INTJs and INFJs demand huge amounts of alone time, especially while we work. The solitude gives us the mental space to do our meta-cognition, to build our inner webs. I believe INFJ’s have it even tougher, because they constantly think about the feelings of those around them. Alone time gives them a buffer against the feels.
But I think this research offers a little hope. For one thing, it says we’re normal. We’re not weirdoes programmed to reject humanity; we’re just specialists in a mental process that everyone, no matter what their personality type, does better alone. For another thing, it suggests that people can improve their ability to do Perspectives/meta-cognition. Taking alone time to reflect on your thoughts is a startlingly simple way to build up such a powerful ability. The benefit? Better self-knowledge, more empathy and more big ideas.
Did you enjoy this article? Sign up for our newsletters to get more stories like this.