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.