How Neurobiology Shapes Your Introversion—and How It Doesn’t

The feeling of being “born this way” can cut two ways. In one sense, the idea that you were granted a particular trait from birth can be liberating. It’s a core part of who you are and something that no one can take away.

Yet, it can also be a curse. In a society that still highly values extroversion, it’s easy to feel that you have a strike against you when trying to make your way in a world that doesn’t quite understand introversion.

While I proudly embrace being an introvert, I also struggle with how much deference to give to biology. Should I go full-on into introvert mode, gleefully checking the “regrets” box on every party invitation and never flexing beyond my comfort zone? Maybe get a place in the woods, go off the grid, and become a total recluse?

Or there’s the other extreme. Head to a Tony Robbins seminar, walk on fire, and push aside all desire for solitude (and my authentic self) to become a true person of action.

Of course, the best response is a balanced approach, trying to take stock of where you are and what your goals for growth may be. There’s a lot of science about why introverts are the way they are. Research is ongoing, but we can say with confidence that much of the core of our personality is framed by our genetics. A rather famous study from 2005 found that among a group that was asked to gamble, the extroverts had stronger reactions in the brain from the thrill seeking and rewards that come with putting money on the line.

As enlightening as these studies are, we should remember that the final experience and implications of sensory output are going to vary from one person to another. The key for introverts is to embrace what they’re comfortable with and be willing to challenge themselves when necessary. As a writer, I can safely spend most of my day behind a computer monitor. But part of the job sometimes involves conducting a guest lecture, speaking to prospective clients, or mingling at parties and gatherings. To live an ideal introverted life, you sometimes still have to find and embrace that temporary extroverted self you have tucked away.

You were probably born that way

A deeper dive into the current state of the research reveals some interesting tidbits. For example, in The Introvert Advantage, Marti Olsen Laney argues that level of blood flow to the brain varies highly between introverts and extroverts. Introverts, according to this research, have stronger blood flow, which leads to greater sensitivity to stimulation. That’s why you may want to ditch the loud, boisterous party long before your extroverted friends ever will. And that’s also why a day at home with books, Netflix, or sports can be wholly satisfying to an introvert while an extrovert may be dying to get out of the house. Knowing this can be power enough to make decisions about your day or even your career. If nothing else, a more quiet day can give you the strength and inner drive to accomplish a more extroverted task the next day.

The crux of the issue is this: introverts are affected differently by crowds, group activities, and other types of simulation. It’s all going to vary by individual, of course, but in general, such experiences tend to drain you as they accumulate.

I think of it as a gas tank. Most introverts like myself start the day full. The tank slowly drains with each social interaction, even if they’re positive. At some point, you’re just empty, and the only way to refill the tank is to get that time alone. It’s a core part of how you feel, live, and spend your day. Trying to fight it isn’t going to be easy unless you find a reason that’s worthwhile to you.

Going beyond biology

Of course, we are not necessarily bound by our biology. The desire to change how you interact with the world—or your willingness to embrace change at all—should be the result of deliberate thought and reflection. Introverts come from all walks of life and engage in any type of job or activity you can imagine.

This applies in particular to leadership. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg recently highlighted the work of Quiet Revolution in discussing how introverts often make excellent leaders. We tend to think of a leader as someone who is on stage and forcefully pushing their agenda. However, leading a business or a team within an organization also involves more subtle, nuanced skills that many introverts find more natural.

There is evidence that introverted leadership can be uniquely impacting. For example, a study published in Harvard Business Review found there were particular benefits of introverted leadership for “proactive” teams—those more inclined to offer ideas to improve the business. Such team members find an introverted leader can foster innovation by giving others a chance to offer their voice and speak out freely.

Introverts are found in all walks of life because the skills they offer can benefit so many. Even in a socially engaging field such as sales, an introvert’s tendency to analyze, listen, and use soft power may be a better approach than a hard sell.

The best thing you can do as an introvert is tap into your strengths: silence is your power—not to avoid going into the world, but to enhance your abilities to be in the world well. The biggest myth about introverts is that we just want to be alone all the time. Introverts aren’t hermits; we like engaging with the world…just on our own terms. And we must engage with the world to provide the kind of leadership only we can bring.

The road isn’t easy

One of the biggest myths I still encounter repeatedly is that introversion is some type of personality defect that must be treated. Anyone who is an introvert probably had the phrase “needs to come out of his/her shell” written on their report card in elementary school. Or you’ve been out with colleagues at work and heard “I thought you were stuck up, but it turns out you’re all right after I got to know you” once or twice. This comes with the territory for those with a quiet temperament.

Although this is the culture we exist in, at least for us in the Western world, the research shows that introversion has profound value. I believe that how much you push yourself outside your introvert zone and where you will make that push matter most—your career or your personal life—is a choice.

The biology and science around introversion should inform us—not define us.

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  • David Lee Conley

    I was re-reading through the comments and thought I would expand upon our brief exchange. A lot has happened in the past several months. Long story short, after accessing my patient portal for the mindfulness clinic I was referred to, I found out that they diagnosed me as having severe depression (I thought it was mild) and severe anxiety (I didn’t think it was that bad). But the biggest shock was PTSD. Through the course of adjusting my medications, repressed memories came back to the surface of physical abuse I suffered from the ages of about 5 to 8 years old from He Who Shall Not Be Named (for legal reasons).

    After deep reflection of everything that I’ve remembered, hints of things still forgotten, I now know the true source of my introversion, as well as many other facets of my personality. So now I have a target to eliminate and change myself into something better. Will I become more extroverted? I don’t know.

    As for the INTP label, I know I make frequent references to it, and, in fact, I only recently started re-embracing it after 20 or so years. I don’t perceive it as a pattern of behavior that I have to follow or as a “label” in the sense that most people use that term. To me, it’s the most accurate description of who I am and how I behave that I can point people to so they can understand how to interact with me.

    I tend to be very direct, extremely honest, and I have good intentions, but there are a wide variety of social situations where such behavior is, at best, frowned upon, and, at worst, inflicts unintended emotional pain on a person. This is the part I hate because, as an introvert trying to interact with other people, I want to be their friend, but I wind up hurting their feelings or coming off as arrogant.

    And the answer to your joke is yes. You would, if you were a fly on the tree, hear the soft kicking at the ground while the two introverts stare uncomfortably down at the ground, kicking the dirt, until they figure out what to say. 😁

    • Marc

      Interesting, when I think of the answer to that joke I think of two people meeting, sitting down on a nearby log and enjoying a mutual silence together. Not necessarily the shy response you have portrayed. I think of myself as quiet because that is what I enjoy being but I can readily step outside of this when required. I was a University Teacher for most of my career and speaking/teaching and interacting with a dozen or several hundred students at a time was simply part of the job that I enjoyed.

      On another aspect of your reply many of our tribe because of their introspection and observant natures tend to be very empathetic, picking up on many non verbal cues and verbal sub texts that many others miss. You need to activate that filter that says to you ‘Although this may be the case revealing this information may cause more harm/hurt than good at this time so don’t share or disclose’ It is a hard lesson to learn. I have a level 10 Extra friend who has commitment issues but cannot see that they stem from his fear of being hurt again after loosing a partner to cancer some years back. I give him a nudge now and then but I know telling him outright would send him over the edge and harm him further, so I just shut up and listen and be his friend.

      Embrace the silence 🙂

  • Jennifer Chute

    People have definitely told me numerous times they thought I was stuck up, which is always very amusing to me because nothing could be further from the truth! I almost yelled “YES!” out loud when I read that, but being an introvert I am alone and I decided to stay quiet 😛 But in all seriousness, it is so validating to know that other people have gone through similiar experiences of being misunderstood, and to feel empowered to work through it is priceless!

  • Ishmael Abraham

    Divine peace be upon the truth seekers. I am an orthodox Muslim electrical engineer with an INTP personality. Islam, unlike Buddhism, encourages a balanced approach between extroversion and introversion. The introversion phase makes you a good worshiper and extroversion phase makes you a good preacher. Quran criticizes absolute monasticism and celibacy and encourages marriage and political action as spiritual acts.

  • Elvis Daniel Guerra

    Ok, ciertamente parece una materia del pensum de un introvertido diplomático. En donde tienes que tener cuidado contigo mismo, con lo que expresas, con lo que hablas y con lo que escribes. Parece el concejo de mis padres. Que mejor neurobiología que la que viene de tus padres. Ok. Ignorar o hacerse el desentendido, para evitarnos algunos problemas. Como dice el dicho “Hazte la vista gorda” con el pretexto de la figura de la balanza. Por ejemplo, de que el mundo no está preparado para personas como nosotros. Haaa, respiro profundo, goos fraba… Esto es como decirle al introvertido como yo, no importa un poco de irresponsabilidad, con tal de que no te metas en problemas. Que tu carrera es más importante que tu propio ser. Es lamentable….

  • Charity Wakamau

    Thank you for reminding me am l normal…… Here is the best place l run to in my confusion to be able to refill.

  • Weston

    For the record: Derek is awesome.

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful and inspiring piece.

    I happen to be a gregarious introvert. Meaning, when I am out and engaging with people, I tend to have a big and sometimes loud personality. But, I have a very small fuel tank and I will disappear from the scene when I sense my gauge is going towards empty. My family and friends have always told me I know how to perform disappearing acts 🙂 So, I know what it’s like to be labeled for being introverted. Thankfully, now, there are writers like you and websites (or rather online sanctuaries) like Ouiet Revolution that inspire us onward.

    • I love that – gregarious introvert – describes me too! Still figuring out how to love my introversion. MOst of the time I accept it willingly. Getting there!