My Introverted Brain Takes Longer to Process Things, and That’s Okay

IntrovertDear.com introvert brain process

You know that student in class who only makes a comment every now and then, but when she speaks, the rest of the room falls into a thoughtful silence? I’m that student. My name is Bria, and I’m an introvert. It’s hard for me to respond quickly, but I’m a master at peeling back the layers of an idea until I understand it completely. That’s why I’m also the girl other students come to when they’re having a hard time understanding things. I love being the go-to girl, but this wasn’t always my reality.

In my first year of college, I had a hard time making friends or even talking in class. It’s not because I’m shy, or because people scare me. It’s because my thoughts wander along their own path, and it takes some time to reach the end of that path. Introvert personalities are not slow, shy, reserved, or incapable of being social. We just may take a little longer to arrive at a conclusion than others.

The Introvert Brain Processes Information Differently

For the majority of people, your brain simply processes information. For many introverts, it’s kind of like our thoughts have to walk around a bit before they’re processed. Our thoughts meander through our long-term memories, combining with strategizing and deep-thought processes. Then they arrive at the point of conclusion. That’s why an introvert can stop the show with one comment in class: that comment is the culmination of a deep thought process that pulls from every part of the introvert’s knowledge and understanding. That’s also why these comments don’t happen often.

Think of it in terms of a class going to a museum. In general, extroverted personalities will move from one exhibit to the next, making quick connections but possibly skipping over areas that don’t interest them. For a deep-thinking introvert, there’s no such thing as not being interested. The introvert may wander around the entire museum, seemingly at random, spending time absorbing each exhibit fully before moving on to the next. The introvert brain is quietly making connections too, possibly more than anyone could imagine.

Introverts Miss Very Little

Many introverts are highly attuned to their environment and/or other people. We take in everything, and I mean everything. We may notice what you’re wearing, if you seem tired, and what that squirrel behind you is doing. Sometimes it seems like we’re not hearing you, and sometimes we aren’t — we’re daydreaming instead. It took me a long time to master the art of listening and processing at the same time. It can be done, but it takes patience. The main thing is understanding yourself and how your brain works. Don’t worry so much about other people “getting” you — as long as you understand yourself. I know what it’s like to go down that road. That neural pathway has no end!

It’s easy to go down that road because one of the hardest things about being an introvert is that people don’t seem to understand you. Extroverts often wonder why introverts:

  • Have less fun as the party goes on
  • Watch the clouds while they’re talking
  • Can’t answer their questions right away
  • Are entertained by staring at our feet and daydreaming

Trust me, if you knew what was going on in our heads, you’d get it. So let’s take a look at what’s going on in that mind of ours.

Introverts Respond Differently to Rewards

According to research, there’s a key difference between the way extroverts and introverts process rewards. Rewards are things like social attention, social status, money, and even food. When you get promoted at work or eat a delicious meal, you’re gaining a reward.

Introverts care about earning money, eating, and having relationships, too. The difference is, compared to extroverts, introverts are less energized by the possibilities for rewards around them. In fact, they may find levels of stimulation that are rewarding and energizing for extroverts to be simply tiring or annoying. Think: a big party with lots of people, a loud rock concert, or a crowded bar. If you’re an introvert, you may be able to put up with these environments for a time. You may even have fun while you’re there. But after a while, you want to head home where it’s calmer and quieter.

Why do introverts care less about the things that excite extroverts? It was to do with a neurotransmitter found in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine plays a role in the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. It enables us to notice rewards and take action to move toward them. It also reduces the “cost of effort” of obtaining something.

According to Colin DeYoung, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who recently published a paper on introversion, extroverts appear to have a more active dopamine reward system than introverts. This means that extroverts’ brains get more active at the sight of a possible reward, and dopamine energizes them to pursue it. This allows them to do things that are tiring — like partying or chatting up strangers — without getting as worn out as introverts.

College Is Easier When You Own Being an Introvert

The way my brain processes rewards is why an introvert can be the life of the library study group but have a hard time being the life of the party. My first year of college was really hard for me until I began to honor who I am instead of trying to be what I am not. That’s the big secret, dear introverts: you can have a fantastic social life just by being you.

That’s the advice I want to leave you with. Stop thinking something is wrong with you or feeling as though you’re missing out on the college experience. You get to decide what your experience will be, so make it a happy one. Don’t try to be the life of the party. Instead, be the go-to person that others seek out when they need academic help, a listening ear, or an insightful perspective. You will never run out of friends, I promise you that.

Instead of forcing yourself to participate in large group activities, give yourself permission to meet in small groups. Join a club that attracts other introverts, and play to your strengths when you’re interacting with extroverts. Maybe you can’t pop out a funny quip every couple of minutes, but chances are you can stop the show with one hilarious comment that captures the nature of the entire conversation or classroom lecture.

Don’t look at being an introvert as a drawback because it’s not. It just has a different set of strengths and weaknesses than being an extrovert. Accept who you are and you will find that everything becomes easier.

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Read this: This Is the Scientific Explanation for Why Introverts Like Being Alone


  • Ron Wood

    Great article. Good for you figuring this out early in life. I’m mid-life and only recently figured this stuff out.

    Different things process at different speeds, and for me relationship issues are the slowest. After 25 years of marriage, I (and my wife to some degree) realize that when issues come up I just can’t speak to them on the spot. I need time, sometime days, to process before I can have a good discussion on thorny relationship issues. If I’m forced to speak on the spot is usually doesn’t go well.

    Just an fyi for others that clam up (as I do) when a difficult relationship issue arises and then beats themselves up for not being able to relate their thoughts on the spot.

    Peace

  • Thanks Ron, love to hear that! And thank you for sharing your experience.

  • JuliaR

    Strong INFP here. This is stuff I wish I had known before I completed school. I have a master’s degree and I still feel like I’m not smart or even deserving. I always wondered what was wrong with me, and why I couldn’t give coherent answers in class. When I’m rewarded for apparent good work, I still feel like a fraud because I don’t actively participate and it takes a long time for me to come around to an answer. At work meetings I’m always silent in fear of a) an incoherent reply when I’m put on the spot or b) a half baked idea that is laughed at. When I’m required to run a meeting, well, that’s when the “fun” begins. I still don’t know how to own these insecurities and struggle in these situations.

  • Mythili Venugopal

    Thank you so much. This article really helped me feel good about myself as I always loathed the fact that I couldn’t flawlessly carry a conversation

  • Such words are the best compliment for me! Love yourself just the way you are.

  • OMG this is me at work – well, me everywhere, but especially at work. My extremely extroverted peers get extremely excited when an idea comes to them on the spot, and I may come off as a bit disengaged, because I have to process all angles of the idea before I declare its merits. I think they value my criticality… usually!

  • Matthew

    I’m definitely an introvert, and I find I actually miss a lot of detail of what’s going on around me, and remember even less of it. I’ll remember the general impression something left on me or how it made me feel, but I tend not to remember the details unless it’s something that I really care about.

    I’m an INFJ, so sensing is supposed to be my inferior function, and that sure seems true of me. Instead of noticing all the little details, I tend to be inside my own head taking whatever input I let in, whether someone’s talking to me or if it’s something I’m looking at, and bounce it around in my mind to look at it from every angle. So while I’m busy doing that, a lot goes by me unnoticed. That’s also why I might look like I’m spaced out when someone’s talking to me, but I’m really listening very intently and thinking about what they’re saying. I just might not be as present in the moment as I could be.

  • Wow, you just described me very accurately. It’s great to hear I’m not alone! I never notice clothes or even surroundings, but when I see someone again, I can remember the feelings I had the last time we met. When my intuition is at work while I’m listening to someone, it usually leads to being able to spot issues, even when people didn’t realise themselves they are the reason a situation bothers them or got them all excited. Even when I can only spot them hours after they’ve left…

  • Lauren

    Oh man, thank you so much for this comment. I have been a clammer all my life and it’s usually just shut up and let someone else beat me up because I can’t answer for whatever it is that’s causing the problem when put on the spot. At least now I know this happens to other people, maybe I can at least give a heads up that I need some time to process so I can give a thoughtful answer.

    I know I have had issues in workplaces where I have great success in the training or classroom environment, but if pressed for an answer in the real work environment (a lot of my jobs recently have been call centers), suddenly I’m not the know-it-all wunderkind everyone expected, It’s frustrating 🙁