There’s a good reason we introverts enjoy alone time, and it has to do with how our brains are wired.
As an introvert, I prefer books to parties and meaningful conversation to small talk. It also means, by definition, that I love spending time alone. Often, when I find myself unexpectedly alone — like when my significant other has plans with his buddies — I feel giddy. Like, really giddy. If you’re an introvert, is there anything better than time to yourself to relax and recharge?
And, like many introverts, when I don’t get healthy solitude, I feel stressed and tired. Every little annoyance becomes magnified, and I get frustrated with the people around me for no good reason. Sometimes I mentally spiral downward, becoming anxious and depressed. Or, if it’s really bad, my brain turns into a slow-loading computer, and I feel like I can’t even think or make decisions. Yes, the introvert hangover is real.
Why do introverts love being alone? And why does socializing so easily exhaust our energy? Research has some interesting answers.
The Introvert-Reward Connection
When writing my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, I spoke with Colin DeYoung, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who had recently published a paper on introversion. He explained that one of the reasons introverts love alone time has to do with how we respond to rewards.
No, I’m not talking about the gold foil stars you earned in grade school (although it could be argued that stickers are indeed a reward for kids). For adults, rewards are things like money, social status, social affiliation, and even sex and food. When you get promoted at work or convince an attractive stranger to give you his or her phone number, you’re earning a reward. Hurray!
Of course, introverts care about things like money, relationships, and food, too. However, researchers believe that introverts are wired to respond differently to rewards than extroverts do. Compared to the more outgoing among us, we “quiet ones” are simply less motivated and energized by these same rewards. It’s like extroverts see big, juicy steaks everywhere, while introverts mostly see overcooked hamburgers.
In fact, as any introvert can tell you, sometimes those “rewards” aren’t just less tantalizing — they’re actually tiring and annoying. And that brings me to another reason why introverts love alone time: They react differently to stimulation.
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Introverts Require Less Stimulation
Take, for example, two friends — one an extrovert, the other an introvert — at a house party. They’re crammed into a room with lots of people, and loud music blasts from huge speakers. Everyone is practically shouting to make their voice heard over the din. A dozen conversations are going on at once, along with a dozen things to pay attention to.
For the extrovert, this level of stimulation may feel just right. He sees potential rewards everywhere — an attractive woman across the room, old relationships to be deepened, and new friends to be made. Most important, tonight is a chance to elevate his social status within his group, that is, if he makes all the right moves.
So, the extrovert feels energized and excited to be at the party. He feels so motivated, in fact, that he parties late into the night. He’s worn out the next day and needs some time to recover (partying is hard work, after all), but to him, the energy spent was well worth it.
Now back to our introvert — see him over there, hunkered in the corner? For him, this environment simply feels like it’s too much. It’s too loud, there are too many things going on to pay attention to, and all the people in the room create a dizzying buzz of activity. Sure, he wants to make friends, fit in, and to be liked too, but these “rewards” just aren’t as tantalizing to him.
So, the introvert heads home early, where he watches a movie with his roommate. In his own apartment, with just one other person, the level of stimulation feels just right.
The Dopamine Difference
Chemically, there’s a good reason the introvert in the above scenario feels overwhelmed, and it has to do with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Found in the brain, dopamine has been dubbed the “feel good” chemical because it helps control our pleasure and reward centers. One of its jobs is to make us see rewards and to want to get them. For example, dopamine alerts the extrovert to the attractive woman at the party and gives him the motivation and focus to think of a cheesy pick-up line.
Another helpful thing that dopamine does is it reduces our “cost of effort.” Socializing expends energy because it involves paying attention, listening, thinking, talking, and moderating your reactions. Technically, socializing is tiring for everyone, even extroverts. However, dopamine helps make it less tiring.
Extroverts have a more active dopamine reward system, according to DeYoung, and it’s built-in. As a result, they can better tolerate — and often overcome — the tiredness that inevitably accompanies socializing. Most of the time, they just don’t feel the same level of mental and physical fatigue that introverts feel, due to this dopamine “boost.”
Introverts Are Sensitive to Dopamine
Dr. Marti Olsen Laney, in her 2002 book, The Introvert Advantage, explains the difference between introverts and extroverts in a similar way. She writes, simply, that introverts are more sensitive than extroverts to the effects of dopamine, so they need less of it to feel its pleasant effects. Too much dopamine, she writes, and introverts may even feel overstimulated — remember me getting an introvert hangover and becoming irritated with everyone?
Extroverts, on the other hand, may have a low sensitivity to dopamine, so they require more of it to be happy. Social activity and exciting environments and situations increase dopamine production, which explains why extroverts enjoy socializing and “being on the go” more than introverts enjoy these things.
Interestingly, Laney writes, introverts may prefer to use a slightly different brain pathway, one that is activated by acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter tied to long-term memory, perceptual learning, and the ability to stay calm and alert, among other things. Introverts may enjoy spending time alone in part because of acetylcholine. According to Laney, this chemical may produce a happy feeling for introverts when they do an activity that focuses them inward, such as quietly reflecting or enjoying a hobby like reading, painting, or gaming.
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Extroverts Place More Significance on People
Finally, a study found that extroverts may simply find humans, well, more interesting and important than introverts do. This finding makes sense if we think about introversion in terms of being less motivated to obtain social rewards.
In the study, the researchers looked at a group of different people and recorded the electrical activity in their brains using an EEG. As participants were shown pictures of both objects and people, the researchers evaluated their brains’ P300 activity. This activity happens when a person experiences a sudden change in their environment; it gets its name from the fact that the activity happens very quickly, within 300 milliseconds.
Interestingly, researchers found that the extroverts achieved the P300 response from viewing images of faces, while the introverts only had the P300 response after viewing objects. Essentially, extroverts’ brains became more active when looking at people.
No, this doesn’t mean that introverts hate people (although sure, the human race does get on my nerves from time to time). Researchers don’t fully understand introversion yet, but the study findings could mean that extroverts simply place more significance on people than introverts do.
As for me, you can find me at home tonight. Preferably with the place to myself, that is.
Want to better understand the introverts in your life (or your own introversion)? Check out my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts.
You might like:
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