The Science Behind Why Introverts Need Alone Time

an introvert needs alone time

The same things that motivate and energize extroverts can feel tiring and annoying to introverts, such as a big party.

As an introvert, I love spending time alone. There’s almost nothing better than being at home in my comfy clothes, quietly reading a good book, or watching a show while munching on snacks. This doesn’t mean I don’t crave time with “my people” — those I laugh with, learn from, and share my day with. However, without enough alone time, I start to feel tired, irritable, and overstimulated, even when I’ve enjoyed the company of those I love.

I show all the classic signs of being an introvert.

Sometimes, when I need alone time, the people in my life feel hurt. They view it as if I’m rejecting them and our relationship. But it’s not about them. I need time alone to recharge my energy and function well in my daily life.

Why do introverts need alone time? Why does socializing exhaust us, even when we’re having fun? Recent research offers some interesting insights. I delve deeper into these findings in my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts.

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The Curious Connection Between Introverts and Rewards

When writing my book, 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 reason introverts need alone time is related to how we respond to rewards.

No, I’m not referring to the gold foil stars you might have earned in grade school (though it could be argued that stickers are indeed a reward for kids). For adults, rewards can be things like money, social status, social connections, sex, and food. When you get promoted at work or convince an attractive stranger to give you their phone number, you’re receiving a reward. Hurray!

Of course, introverts also value things like money, relationships, and food. However, researchers believe that introverts are wired to respond differently to rewards than extroverts. Compared to our more outgoing counterparts, we “quiet ones” are simply less motivated and energized by these same rewards. It’s as if extroverts see big, juicy steaks everywhere, while introverts often see overcooked hamburgers.

In fact, as any introvert can confirm, sometimes those “rewards” aren’t just less appealing — they can actually be tiring and annoying, like a big party. This brings me to another reason why introverts need alone time: We react differently to stimulation.

An Extrovert and an Introvert Go to a Party

Take, for example, two friends at a house party — one an extrovert, the other an introvert. They’re crammed into a crowded room where loud music blares from huge speakers. Everyone is practically shouting to be heard over the din. There are a dozen conversations happening simultaneously, with just as many things demanding their attention.

For the extrovert, this level of stimulation might feel just right. He sees potential rewards everywhere — an attractive stranger across the room, opportunities to deepen old relationships, and the chance to make new friends. Most importantly, tonight offers a chance to boost his social status within his friend group, especially if he navigates the evening skillfully.

So, the extrovert feels energized and excited to be at the party. In fact, he’s so motivated that he stays late into the night. He’s exhausted the next day and needs time to recover — after all, partying is hard work. But to him, the energy spent was well worth it.

Now, back to our introvert. See him over there, hunkered down in the corner? For him, the environment feels overwhelming. It’s too loud, there are too many things happening at once, and the crowd creates a dizzying buzz of activity. Sure, he wants to make friends, fit in, and be liked, but these rewards just aren’t as tantalizing to him. It feels like he would have to expend a lot of energy for something he’s only mildly interested in to begin with.

So, the introvert heads home early to watch a movie with his roommate. In his own apartment, with just one other person, the level of stimulation feels just right. He exchanges some texts with a woman he met a few weeks ago in one of his classes. Like the extrovert, he too wants friends and a romantic partner. However, he finds it too tiring to deal with the noise and socializing at a big party to make those connections.

The Dopamine Difference

Chemically, there’s a good reason the introvert in the above scenario feels overwhelmed, and it relates to a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This chemical, found in the brain, is often referred to as the “feel good” chemical because it regulates our pleasure and reward centers.

One of its roles is to make us notice potential rewards and motivate us to pursue them. For example, dopamine alerts the extrovert to the attractive stranger at the party and fuels his motivation to come up with a cheesy pick-up line.

Another important function of dopamine is reducing our cost of effort. Socializing requires energy because it involves paying attention, listening, thinking, speaking, and moderating our emotional reactions. Technically, socializing is tiring for everyone, including extroverts. However, dopamine helps make it less exhausting for them.

According to DeYoung, extroverts have a more active dopamine reward system. As a result, they can better tolerate — and often push through — the tiredness that inevitably comes with socializing. Much of the time, they don’t experience the same level of mental and physical fatigue that introverts do, thanks to this dopamine boost.

It’s called the “introvert” hangover, not the “extrovert” hangover for a reason.

Introverts Are Sensitive to Dopamine

Dr. Marti Olsen Laney explains the difference between introverts and extroverts in her 2002 book, The Introvert Advantage. She states that introverts are more sensitive to the effects of dopamine, requiring less of it to feel its pleasant effects. Too much dopamine, she notes, can lead us “quiet ones” to feel overstimulated — another reason why introverts need alone time

Extroverts, in contrast, may have a low sensitivity to dopamine, meaning they need more of it to feel happy. Social activities and stimulating environments increase dopamine production, which helps explain why extroverts relish socializing and “being on the go” more than introverts.

Interestingly, Dr. Laney explains that introverts may prefer to use a different brain pathway, one activated by acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter is linked to long-term memory, perceptual learning, and the ability to stay calm and alert, among other functions.

Introverts might enjoy spending time alone partly because of acetylcholine. According to Laney, this neurotransmitter can produce a sense of happiness for introverts when they engage in inward-focused activities, such as quietly reflecting or enjoying hobbies.

Extroverts Place More Significance on People

Finally, a study found that extroverts might simply find humans more interesting than introverts do. This finding aligns with the idea that introverts are less motivated to seek social rewards.

In this study, researchers observed a diverse group of individuals and recorded their brain’s electrical activity using an EEG. As participants were shown pictures of both objects and people, the researchers measured their brains’ P300 activity. This activity happens quickly in response to sudden changes around us and gets its name because it occurs within 300 milliseconds.

Interestingly, researchers found that extroverts showed the P300 response primarily when viewing images of faces, whereas introverts only exhibited this response after viewing objects. Essentially, extroverts’ brains became more active when looking at people.

This doesn’t mean that introverts hate people (though, admittedly, the human race can get on my nerves occasionally). Researchers still don’t fully understand introversion. However, these findings suggest that extroverts might simply place more importance on social interactions than introverts do.

So, the next time an introvert in your life needs alone time, remember that it’s not personal. Introverts need alone time because their brains are wired that way. It isn’t necessarily a reflection of how they feel about you or your relationship.

As for me, you can find me at home tonight. Preferably with the whole 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. It’s been called a “manifesto for all the quiet ones — and the people who love them.” Click here to buy it on Amazon.

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