DID YOU KNOW “that the brains of introverts and extroverts are measurably different? MRI technology reveals that the dopamine reward network is more active in the brains of extroverts while introverts have more grey matter.”[i] I posted a graphic this week with this brain fact written on it on social media, and it drew more feedback and comments than usual, making me think that this needs to be this week’s Brain Fact Friday.
Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast for BRAIN FACT FRIDAY and EPISODE #186 on “Using Neuroscience to Understand the Introverted and Extroverted Brain”
DID YOU KNOW "That MRI technology reveals that the dopamine reward network is more active in the brains of extroverts while introverts have more gray matter?" (Deane Alban).
On this episode you will learn: ✔︎ Where the terms introvert and extrovert originated from. ✔︎ Characteristics of an introvert, extrovert and what's in between. ✔︎ 3 ways the Introverts' and Extroverts' brains differ. ✔︎ How you can use this information to improve your workplace productivity and social life.
After I posted this graphic on social media that you can see in the show notes, John Harmon, Mind/Brain Researcher from EPISODE #170[ii] made a comment that really made me think, which is the purpose of this podcast. I want us to all think on a deeper level about understanding how our brain functions and impacts our results. He said “this makes sense to me since extroverts engage in more high energy personal interactions. Conversations trigger more emotional ups and downs, including rewarding thoughts and feelings. Especially feelings. With introverts, solitary activity tends to be much more even-keeled emotionally. Feelings of reward are weaker and less frequent. Therefore, the dopamine-laden neural networks that coincide with this feeling will be less active as well.” I had to stop and think after reading John’s thoughts, and it took me inside my own brain. I could those times that I’m stepping away from my usual introverted self where I’m studying, reading and researching in my quiet office, towards a more extroverted persona when I’m speaking in public, and interacting with larger groups, that this high energy interaction results in a spike of dopamine that I enjoy, but not for too long, as I crave the quiet and solitude of my office to bounce back, and recharge before another event.
John’s comments made me want to dive a bit deeper into understanding our personality traits, especially over the holidays when we may be interacting with others more on a social level. If we can understand ourselves and others at the brain level, it might give us more clarity and awareness throughout this holiday season and into the New Year, helping us to see why we feel the way we do, and see beyond the labels of introversion and extroversion.
When I typed introverts and extroverts into Pubmed.gov[iii] where I’ve been taught to look for the most current brain research, I found 170 articles ranging from different topics like Childhood experiences and adult health[iv] or Introversion/extroversion, time stress and caffeine: effects on verbal performance[v] I knew that this would be a good topic to take a closer look at if there were this many abstracts to read. If you want to dive deeper than I go with this Brain Fact, you can easily go to www.pubmed.gov and type in the words introvert and extrovert to see the studies that have been done on this topic. Also, if you want a quick reminder of how to tie in the most current neuroscience research to your next presentation, go back and listen to EPISODE #124 on “How to Be a Neuroscience Researcher in 4 Simple Steps”[vi] and you can easily add brain research to your work.
So, back to this week’s Brain Fact Friday on Introverts and Extroverts. It was Carl Jung who created these terms in the first place, way back in 1920. He deduced that “extroverts gained their energy from their social interactions and external environments and tended to feel uncomfortable and anxious when they found themselves alone. Introverts on the other hand, can replenish their energy levels when they are in quiet environments. Unlike extroverts they find socializing and busy environments overstimulating and too demanding.”[vii] So what are the differences between introverts’ and extroverts’ brains?
The Dopamine Difference: “Introverts are sensitive to dopamine”[viii] which explains why they prefer solitude and calm over those high energy personal interactions. Extroverts draw their energy from others, while introverts need time to recharge after being around others for longer periods of time. This is an easy one to see—you know whether being at a party, especially this time of year is something that fuels you or depletes you. It happened to my husband and I recently, where we were at a party, and the host, an obvious extrovert came over to us, unable to hold in his excitement and exclaimed “Hey guys, I want you to know that we have extended the party by 3 hours!” He was thrilled to share this with us, and we were all having an incredible time, but to an introvert, this news wouldn’t be as exciting to hear. When my husband looked at me and was still ok with leaving the party early to stick to our schedule of waking up early, I was thankful that I was with an introvert like me, who understood this, without saying a word. “Extroverts are less sensitive to dopamine”[ix] and need more of it for their happiness, which was obvious with all the extroverts on the dance floor who were there long after we had left the party and gone to sleep.
Introverts Prefer a Different Side of Their Nervous System,[x]the parasympathetic side that is responsible for the rest and digest mode and restoring the body to a calm state, vs the sympathetic side that triggers fight, or flight modes.
We dove deep into understanding the Parasympathetic Nervous System with Suzanne Gundersen on EPISODE #59[xi] and her interview that’s worth reviewing as it’s risen to the TOP 10 most watched interviews we’ve conducted and can help us with strategies to calm our brain when under stress.
Remember: “While extroverts are linked with the dopamine/adrenaline, energy-spending sympathetic nervous system, (allowing them to engage in high energy personal interactions like John Harmon noted), introverts are connected with the acetyl-choline, energy-conserving, parasympathetic nervous system”[xii] that explains the need for taking a break from stimulating environments. “Acetylcholine is related to pleasure, just like dopamine, however acetylcholine makes a person feel good when they turn inward.”[xiii] Understanding ourselves and others is much easier when we can link our personality and how we behave to the wiring within our brain and nervous system, as well as how we respond to the neurotransmitters our brain creates.
Introverts Have More Grey Matter in the Front of Their Brains. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that introverts had “thicker gray matter in their prefrontal cortex—the area of their brain associated with abstract thought and decision-making. Extroverts had thinner gray matter in the same area”[xiv] that’s associated with “deeper thought and planning” which suggests that “extroverts may be more prone to impulsivity than introverts who prefer to mull things over.”[xv]
Travis Bradberry, the author of the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 reminds us that “how social you are is driven by dopamine, the brain’s feel-good hormone. We all have different levels of dopamine-fueled stimulation in the neocortex (the area of the brain that is responsible for higher mental functions such as language and conscious thought). Those who naturally have high levels of stimulation tend to be introverts (like we said above as they are more sensitive to dopamine)—they try to avoid any extra social stimulation that might make them feel anxious or overwhelmed. Those with low levels of stimulation tend to be extroverts. Under-stimulation leaves extroverts feeling bored, so they seek social stimulation to feel good.” Just like my friend, the extrovert who extended the party for 3 more hours that night—this caused his dopamine to rise and kept him on the dance floor all night, while the thought of more dancing made me look at my watch and think of ways to avoid the surge in dopamine with an early night.
While taking a closer look inside our brain and nervous system can help us to gain some understanding, my LinkedIn connection Denny Coates[xvi] reminded me that they key word in this graphic is “more” and that “all healthy human beings have a dopamine reward network and plenty of gray matter. Which means we all have the potential to exercise introversion at times and extroversion at times” reminding us not to compartmentalize people as introverts or extroverts. This rang true to me as there are times I question “what am I, introverted or extroverted” because public speaking energizes me, so I can’t be only a book worm who loves to study and learn in a quiet environment, leading me to think like Denny, and look for what could be in the middle. I found the term Ambivert whose personality type “doesn’t lean too heavily in either direction. They have a much easier time adjusting their approach to people based on the situation.”[xvii]
What are you? If you still aren’t sure, you can take Travis Bradberry’s 9 Signs You Are an Ambivert Quiz[xviii], and if you answer yes to most of these questions, you are probably like me, and sometimes seek out stimulation, while other times like to avoid it. See how you can leverage your personality type remembering that we don’t have to label ourselves as one or the other, but can learn how to adapt to social situations and make them work for us, not against us. Here are the 9 questions to ask yourself:
I can perform tasks alone or in a group. I don’t have much preference either way.
Social settings don’t make me uncomfortable, but I tire of being around people too much. (like my dance party example).
Being the center of attention is fun for me, but I don’t like it to last.
Some people think I’m quiet, while others think I’m highly social.
I don’t always need to be moving, but too much down time leaves me feeling bored.
I can get lost in my own thoughts just as easily as I can lose myself in a conversation.
Small talk doesn’t make me uncomfortable, but it does get boring. (I noticed this for the first time recently when someone sat down next to me and started a conversation about nothing. I couldn’t end that conversation fast enough. Has this ever happened to you?)
When it comes to trusting other people, sometimes I’m skeptical, and other times, I dive right in.
If I spend too much time alone, I get bored, yet too much time around other people leaves me feeling drained.
To review this week’s Brain Fact Friday, “Using Neuroscience to Understand the Introverted and Extroverted Brain” I hope this helps you, like it did me, to see inside our brain, at the differences, and help us to see that we don’t have to be one or the other, but to stretch ourselves when we need to in professional or social environments, and then give ourselves a break when we notice we need to back off, and go within to recharge our batteries.
Have a wonderful weekend, whether you will be out at a party, working, or relaxing. Either way, I hope what you choose whatever gives you the most energy to launch a productive week.