The Science Behind Why It Can Be Hard for Introverts to Put Their Thoughts Into Words introvert struggle to put thoughts into words

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.

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

  • Hmm…Maybe we should just wear shirts that say, “Warning: Introvert – Please wait.”

    • Jodi

      That is perfect, if only extroverts would pause to read it LOL

      • HI, I’m an extrovert and trying to understand my introverted husband. I would stop and read the t-shirt.

      • Randeep singh

        Good one 🙂

      • Julia Majo Checa

        hahaha! I thought exactly the same………

    • That made me laugh out loud. Or maybe a shirt with the little hourglass flipping over, that signifies “processing, please wait”

      • I need this! I actually tell people all the time, “Hang on. It takes me a minute to process stuff.”

    • Edward

      Shirts should read, “When an introvert is quiet, don’t assume he is depressed, snobbish or socially deficient. They are probably just busy contemplating thoughts more profound than anyone has ever uttered”.

    • Heather

      Or like the GPS voice….recalculating!

    • Louise

      You have no idea how many times I’ve thought about this! But it’d say INTROVERT Please be patient.

    • Rose

      I want one!!

    • I love it! 🙂

  • It’s just the human version of seeing a little hourglass on the computer screen. We have a lot going on inside and have to sift through data to find the right file.

  • I cannot tell you how happy I was to read this. I have struggled with this issue my whole life despite having been a TV news reporter who spoke for a living. I really do feel like I live best on paper. Thank you for printing it.

    • duduzile

      that makes the two of us. I always struggle with interviews because of this.

  • edem Robby

    Oh how I love this ! I finally do not have to explain myself to friends. I just have to share this on my wall. Thank you.

  • Before I understood totally how I operated in this world, I would struggle to say something and then I ended up saying all the wrong things – only to go back a few days later and try to re-say what I said. This led to back tracking and others seeing me as flaky or worse. I would tell people I was a slow processor and needed time. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work well in all situations.

  • This explains so much to me!!! I have often used the phrase, “I pray best at the end of my pen.” I can write somewhat eloquently, but I can’t speak to save my life!

  • im an introvert, and interviews have always been a struggle. the hardest question is “Tell us about yourself”

    chatting on the internet feels liberating (started with mIRC)

    • Betania

      OMG! Yes! Why do they always have to ask that?! I never know what to say

    • Annoy Mous

      Man i loved mIRC.. esp, the quiz

    • Rose

      Interviews are my least favorite thing because of this question!! I’m always like “Can I write an essay on that and give it to you tomorrow?”

  • The only time this doesn’t happen to me is when I’m furious. Then I’m very arti8culate. The worst times are when I meet someone new. Blurgh!

  • Kyler

    I was on a Knowledge Bowl team in high school for all of one year and quit because my teammates wanted to kill me (metaphorically speaking). I would always remember and say the answer just after the buzzer rang but just before the adjudicator would say it.

  • jennysnook

    This article gripped me so tightly! Thank you for putting this on the internet for me to find! I feel I can finally stop feeling so bad about the massive differences between how articulate I can be on paper/screen vs. how clumsy I can be when engaged in verbal communication. Thank you!

  • I had been taught that introversion and extraversion weren’t so much about how talkative we are, but rather about where we get our energy, that extraverts get energy from interaction with others, whereas introverts get tired and circuit-overloaded from interaction, thus needing downtime to rest and sort things out. This info about the brain wiring may help to explain that energy angle. However, it also seems to point back to talkativeness as an indicator of introversion vs. extraversion. Can you clarify for me about talkativeness?

    • You’re right, Margaret. Introversion and extroversion are about how we are energized by our surroundings, not necessarily how we express ourselves. I’m an introvert, but I’m also very articulate, fast thinking on my feet, and can engage in a discussion with one (sometimes two) other people and do just fine. When the number of people increase I tend to play more of an observer role, to maintain my energy. I’ve always been good “in front of” people, but have never enjoyed being “in the middle of” people. Being in a group of people is draining unless I can find some way to separate myself, but I’ve never had an issue why public speaking or performance because it does give that separation.

      • As an extrovert with mild social anxiety, I can relate to a lot of introvert posts. What you commented it the exact opposite of how I work. I am terrified “in front of” people, but love being right in the middle of things. People often assume I’m introverted because of my shyness when they don’t understand it’s all about the energy.

      • Robin

        I can so relate to that Kayla!

  • This certainly explains why I can ramble on and on in digital form but not in verbal form (unless you get me on a topic I know all about). I always have the angry scowl when people catch me thinking of what I’m trying to say or do.

    • Rose

      Angry scowl….yep, been there. When I was growing up, I can’t tell you how often people told me to smile or asked if something was wrong.

  • Lucy

    I have just discovered this website and I feel like a light has been switched on! As a child I was always deemed aloof and shy, although I never really felt that that was the case, it was just that I preferred to be alone a lot of the time. I have gone through my adult life, until very recently, forcing myself to be what other people want me to be and feeling really drained and awkward in many social situations. My husband in particular gets really frustrated with me and assumes my reluctance to attend social gatherings and my preference to be alone is down to being anti-social and rude.
    The truth is that time on my own is a necessity for me and the only time I can truly relax.. I am so happy to have stumbled upon this website.. Turns out that their is nothing wrong with me. I am an introvert and that, for me, is completely normal! What a revelation

  • I even wondered if I was a borderline stutterer because of this problem – what a relief!

    • I’ve had that concern for myself, as well.

  • ND

    Being an introvert makes it so hard to find a decent job, I hate going to an interview only to have the interviewer ask questions that I have to answer on the spot. I get even more nervous and that complicates trying to remember what the answer is…..

    • Timmins C.

      I hear your pain! I got a successful job in one to one sales of cars. I ask the customers questions and then just let them talk until they trust me. I’m successful because I let the customer sell themselves. When they ask me a question I respond, “Hmmm, that’s a good question.” And then I think about before answering. The customer knows I’m really listening to them…Good luck

    • Rose

      I can relate to this sooo much! I dread asking questions about myself on the spot.

  • BGS

    I’m an introvert. I’ve probably always been, but one who loves company. Never really talked that much, though, but when I’ve talked, I’ve often come across words I had to look for. Pictures of what I wanted to say was clear in my mind, just the word for it was gone. This explains it very well. Also the fact, that after discovering the internet my talking has become even less, because I feel like I express myself so much better on “paper”… Except, when I have to write a job-application :-/ But that’s a different thing that stops me(low self-esteem for one thing). This Monday, I was called in for a job-interview(first one in almost a year), got the call Friday, and was preparing myself all weekend. Thank God I had that weekend, or I might have completely ruined it. And of cause the open question “Tell something about yourself” came, and I started something, felt like babbling. Stopped, because I had to think. I never know what to tell on that question. When I think I most often close my eyes and look down as that’s one of the ways I focus. I hate that question, because no matter how much I practice, it just comes out wrong. But at least I left the interview with a good feeling.
    I think a lot about things, and before I can finish my thoughts the topic has moved on to something completely different, which makes it difficult to actually participate in a conversation. Finally something that gives me a reason why it is like that. I feel like I’m surrounded with extroverts.

  • Beverly Brown

    I often don’t know what I think until I’ve written it down!

  • Johanna Liscum

    Meetings, doctor appointments, performance reviews… “Do you have any questions?” “Uh, not that I can think of,” but give me an hour and I’ll have a long list. Arg.

  • Alice

    I spent the first 19 years of my life never talking because my words wouldn’t “load” fast enough. This created social anxiety and fear. Finally, I realized that I could talk, if I wrote down what I was thinking first.
    So, if I think I will need to speak on something, I go into my room, alone, and write out my thoughts on the matter. This has helped a lot, because I can recall the words that are already there. When I was learning how to speak, I even did this with rote conversation. It still doesn’t work in every situation though. There are certain people who take the words out of my mouth, no matter what I do.

  • SocialSquirrelOnline

    Yes! Thank you!

  • Lyd

    So am I I am trapped inside the faulty genetic prison of introversion from which DNA alone forever bars my escape (that’s a good sentence I wrote, indeed, haha whaha! hahaHaha) .

  • Justin

    I can relate to this article on so many levels. Wow.

  • Angel

    This article sums me up to a T.

  • Bridgett

    Exactly. I often stuttered and ended up failed to say what I was trying to say. There were time when I was in a particularly on good mood but somehow others thought I was being rude. Why is it so hard to be normal. Probably I should talk less. And currently I’m in a dark tiny corner somewhere in my office typing and sending this message to you. #insertsmileyfacehere

  • Good grief! This is me to a T! I repeat the same response over and over and over again, hoping it will make sense. And then I ask if it made sense! Gah. I end up sounding like such a fool. My problem is that I have a tendency to hyper focus when I’m on a task. So when someone pulls me from my hyper-focus state, it takes several seconds for my brain to go another direction. Also, I absolutely, no questions asked communicate better in writing.

  • Kurtis

    You could just say; ‘hold on a minute will you? I’m thinking!’

  • Diana Comeau

    Couple all that with a hearing impairment and you have extreme frustration and severe anxiety! Boy, do I understand!

  • thank god it’s not just me. I thought there was something wrong with me. I’m like a rabbit caught in the headlights when someone tries to have a conversation with me. I hate it. And like someone said above, about being hyper focused, I’m exactly the same and then I feel like I come across as being slow and a little stupid when it takes me a little while to process what they are saying. Not sure what I can do though to be able to hold a conversation with people easily without this constant struggle going on in my brain. It’s making me very anxious and then making speech harder and it turns into a vicious cycle

  • Nicholas

    wow! I’m impressed, that’s exactly how I feel and it always seems to occur in important situations when I need to express myself the most.

  • Nice article, but my antennae go up when anyone mentions “Highly Sensitive Person” without the caveat that this is a self-described identity, like Aspie (Aspergers) that does not have an official diagnosis and has not been in any way shape or form delineated from the Autism Spectrum. Anyone interested in sensitivity might find it useful to check out Intense World Theory,

  • unknowngalaxy

    I was adoped at 3 and I pretty much already had a speech disorder because I had to learn English 3 years after everybody else. When ever I do a presentation I am talking but find that to get off track without knowing. I look up and notice that no one is interested, unsure I try to remember what I was doing and skip to the next page. I sometimes don’t even know if I skiped a while page or not. I try to prides it and end up saying” well..umm….so..(next thing, or topic)” and I absolutely hate it it makes my life so hard because I can’t speak well at all no matter how many doctors, teachers, or places I go to help fix his.

  • Dude, this made me feel so much better

  • Inriia

    double worse adding actual social anxiety to the mix

  • Introversionary

    This really hit home for me. I’m struggling with a work situation right now where I attempted to express my point of view in writing and am being forced instead to meet and hash out a disagreement in person. It feels like I’m playing a rigged game where the verbal communicators get home field advantage every time.

  • Lerato Kgatle

    I’m such a victim of this trap and i always feel so bad afterwards because i know i have the ability to be eloquent for me its being caught off-guard that mostly plays in my disadvantage, also i do like to be quite profound when i talk so that causes a delay in my speech too. The second recommendation on how to remedy this is actually a recent strategy that i have employed. Taking your time to give response is whats best but i find it can be extremely difficult especially in a fast-paced or heated exchange, you find yourself wanting to match the quick-wit of those around you the real solution is to slow down, be the pause in the dynamic.

  • I always thought it is my misinterpretation to relate introversion to wanting to write and read all the time. Entire day in a room with something to flip across or board on a journey with what I feel is essential in my life – like, read psychological scripts. I’m getting too involved into books related to human mind and people who talk just a few words, very little. This is a so good write up I must accept. I’m confident now and yeah! I’m rightfully connected to what I’m doing as a day job. A writer, a reader and a stupid.

  • Helen

    Did you get the job?

  • Macross fan since 2016

    Yes, of course, that makes a lot of sense now!

  • In middle school my Spanish teacher would call on me to answer questions because she knew my hand would never go up. Once she called on me, I paused for a moment as I always did and answered the question correctly as I usually did. She then paused for a moment and turned to the entire class and said “At first I thought Tom wasn’t paying attention, but I soon learned he always pays attention, you just can’t tell from the expression on his face and he always knows the answer but he won’t raise his hand and when I call on him pauses before answering.” It felt great to have a teacher ‘get me’…

  • Rene

    Here’s some advice for the “Tell me about yourself” question in a job interview. The interviewer is solely interested in what you can do for the company. They don’t want to know where you grew up, how many kids you have, your likes and dislikes. If you stick to your job history, skills and abilities that pertain to the job, it’ll be easier to answer that question.

  • Meryem Dinia

    I’m so happy I found this article. I feel understood.

  • Milka

    I feel so very understood, thank you 🙂

  • The difference between writing and talking is very clear with me. When speaking, I’ll get fumbletongue or simply NOT be able to get the word out… but I can write with ease. Occasionally, I have to think for a moment to get the right word when writing, but that’s a much more rare occasion than when I’m speaking.

  • Hi Jean! I’ve always had trouble with this as an INFJ. My face turns the color of tomatoes when I’m called upon to answer a question or something of the like. People often ask if I’m embarrassed because I keep stuttering like I can’t speak without the stutter. I actually had a coworker ask if I was okay because she thought I was going to pass out. I was even more embarrassed after that. 😑

  • Lori Soldanels

    Yes. Thank you. The rest of the world seems to move entirely too fast…if only it could just slow down. I always feel like i have to get the short version of my thoughts out and paraphrasing does not work most of the time. and even with that shortcut, people have moved on to a new topic before i get the paraphrase out. difficult to talk to most people. i’m getting better at it, but will never be adept. and to endure small talk in this state of being is a fucking nightmare. you want me to abuse my mind to do all this about a sandwich? um, no. on to the more important stuff so i can actually spend my energy on something worth its use.

    lucky for me (or sometimes unluckily), jokes come out easily, almost effortlessly. this makes social situations easier and people like it, but then those same people are unwilling to engage me in serious conversation (or can’t) or they simply don’t take my point of view seriously. catch 22.

  • RustbeltRick

    “Being unable to translate your thoughts into words, especially under pressure, is a common introvert problem.”
    Which means introverts often lack a crucial skill set required for success in politics. I once heard the US Senate described as “a room full of extroverts,” and I guess that makes sense, but it might also explain the tragic flaw of modern politics — that too many elected officials lack thoughtfulness and empathy, traits we tend to associate with introverts.

    • Kaz

      If you’re referring to yourself as being thoughtful and empathetic, you are full of sh-t. You’re like all liberals, you’re a self-absorbed, self-congratulating assho1e. You creeps don’t love anyone but yourselves.

      • Alouette

        I’d rather be in the company of a self-absorbed liberal than a control freak conservative whose only thought is blowing the fu-k out of innocent people and killing and injuring over a million. In point of fact, conservatives are the ones with their heads up their ass so far they can’t see they have to share this planet with other people who are not psychopathic killers and who don’t want kill everyone with brown skin in the Middle East. Conservatives are the ones who don’t love anyone but themselves, and if you’re different from them, they don’t have the mental acuity to process that information.