A coworker 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 coworker, 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.
Has something like this ever happened to you? If so, you’re not alone. Being unable to translate your thoughts into words, especially under pressure, is a common introvert problem. Here’s the scientific reason why it can be so hard.
Why Introverts Struggle With Word Retrieval
Trying to think of exactly the right words to say is called “word retrieval.” And this can be hard for introverts. In social situations, this may translate to us not being able to keep up with fast-talking extroverts. At work, we may come off sounding like we don’t know what we’re talking about, even when we do. In the classroom, we may shrink from raising our hand, because we know it will be hard to put our thoughts into words while our classmates stare at us.
One reason word retrieval can be difficult for introverts is we process information deeply. We chew on ideas, turning them over and over in our minds, analyzing them from every angle. When you reflect on something, even something as simple as, What should I have for dinner?, it’s hard to talk. Introverts don’t think out loud like many extroverts do. We do our processing inwardly.
Another reason has to do with long-term memory, writes Dr. Marti Olsen Laney in The Introvert Advantage. 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, it’s saved indefinitely. Some of this information is fairly easy to access, while other memories are more difficult to recall. For example, do you remember what your first day of kindergarten was like?
Contrast this with working memory (sometimes referred to as short-term or active memory), which is limited and retains information for mere seconds. Working memory puts information on the tip of your tongue. It’s easy to access, but you don’t retain the information for long, unless you move it to long-term memory.
Interestingly, Laney writes, introverts tend to favor long-term memory over working memory. And, just like the name sounds, it can take more time to reach into long-term memory and access the information stored there. The right association, or key, is needed to “pull up” the information you’re trying to recall — something that reminds you of the stored memory. For example, if you tried to recall your first day of kindergarten, perhaps you looked around the room and noticed a pair of sneakers. This made you remember the sneakers you wore as a kid, which in turn reminded you that someone spilled milk on your shoes the first day of kindergarten. BAM, suddenly you remember more about that day.
Reaching into long-term memory can be a lengthy, complex process. This slows down introverts when we’re speaking.
And, if you happen to be even the slightest bit anxious when you’re trying to speak — like how I felt when my intimidating coworker approached me — it may be even more difficult to locate and articulate the right words. Not all introverts have social anxiety or are shy, but it’s not unusual for an introvert to experience at least some level of anxiety in a social situation. Anxiety is mentally draining, and can make it harder to recall information. That’s because the stress hormone cortisol is released in large amounts during times of anxiety. Cortisol affects the brain, and can lead to memory loss and problems with recall.
Why Writing Is Easier for Introverts
Introverts “often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation,” writes Susan Cain in Quiet. And indeed, many introverts are authors. John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, writes, “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.”
While not all introverts become professional writers, they generally prefer text messages and emails to phone calls and in-person meetings. Likewise, many introverts say journaling helps them understand their thoughts and feelings better. The reason for this preference again has to do with how our brains are wired: written words use different pathways in the brain, which seem to flow more fluently for introverts, writes Laney.
What to Do When Your Mind Goes Blank
Memory is complex. It uses many different areas of the brain. Your brain stores memories in several locations and creates links between them. To yank something out of long-term memory, you need to locate the right association. The good news 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,” explains Laney.
When you struggle to remember a word, a piece of information, or even what you did over the weekend (because that question 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 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 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 need 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; the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking once said, “Quiet people have the loudest minds.”
Try breezing over any awkwardness by using humor to make light of your tongue-tied state. Or say you’re a little distracted right now, but you’ll get back to them later — by sending an email or a text.
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Learn more: The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, by Jenn Granneman