Introverts are habitually perceived as being shy, antisocial even, and have gained a reputation for preferring solitude over the company of a noisy crowd. While it’s true that introverts find solace in being alone, this doesn’t happen for the reasons you might think.
According to doctor of psychology Perpetua Neo, it all has to do with brain chemistry.
Neo, who specializes in psychotherapy and coaching, told Business Insider that the difference between introverts and extroverts is biological and is connected to their sensitivity to dopamine.
Known as the “feel-good” chemical, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Because introverts have a lower threshold of dopamine sensitivity than extroverts, they are more easily stimulated and get their dopamine “fill” faster. This makes them become more easily overwhelmed by highly stimulating social situations, such as a crowded party with lots of people and noise.
“As an introvert, you are more energized by spending time on your own, or in very small intimate groups of people you trust,” Neo points out.
By comparison, extroverts thrive in highly stimulating social environments and, instead of feeling drained like introverts would do, they actually recharge their batteries by interacting with as many people as possible.
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Dopamine aside, another neurotransmitter that marks the difference between introverts and extroverts is acetylcholine. This chemical “changes the state of neuronal networks throughout the brain” and modifies the way they respond to external stimuli, notes the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
In the brain of an introvert the pathway for acetylcholine is longer, which means that a stimulus travels through many different cerebral regions until it reaches its destination. These include the right frontal insular cortex and the frontal lobe, which make the brain notice errors and evaluate outcomes, respectively.
This explains why introverts are more anxious in social situations, without actually suffering from social anxiety. This is because their brain evaluates social stimuli through a larger number of filters, making introverts self-conscious about their mistakes and causing them to worry about situations in which extroverts normally feel at ease.
“So, essentially, what happens is after too much social stimulation, whether we’re talking about small groups, or a noisy overstimulated context, an introvert’s nervous system is overwhelmed.”
As Neo puts it, “that’s just because the brain is wired that way.”
Introverts Are Not Shy Or Antisocial, They Just Recharge Differently
Introverts welcome social interaction as much as extroverts do and are just as invested in making friends.
In fact, Business Insider points out that, while extroverts are “social butterflies” who like to surround themselves with as many people as possible, introverts prefer to focus their attention on just one or two people and strive to make a deep connection.
The trouble is that, after so much social stimulation, they need to retreat into what’s known as an “introvert hangover,” in which they recharge their batteries by being alone.
Neo explains that this is just what introverts do to unwind.
“The difference is an introvert will tend to recharge on their own and an extrovert needs busy surroundings and busy situations in order to recharge.”
This pause in social interaction stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps introverts relax and conserve energy after a surge of dopamine, cortisol, and adrenaline.
The Difference Between Introversion And Social Anxiety
Although the two concepts are generally mistaken for one another, being an introvert has nothing to do with social anxiety.
“You can be an extrovert and have social anxiety, or be painfully shy, or socially awkward,” Neo reveals.
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While introversion refers to the need to be alone after too much social stimulation, social anxiety points to a fear of interacting with others.
“Social anxiety is where you have fear and this need to avoid social situations because you are so scared of how you are going to perform,” says Neo.
This constant angst makes interacting with people feel uncomfortable and exhausting, which is why those who suffer from social anxiety tend to avoid immersing themselves in any kind of social environment.