Recently, there’s been a real upsurge in interest in finding out whether you’re more of an introvert or an extrovert. A simple Google search can pull thousands of online quizzes, think pieces, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator explanations detailing the differences between the two and benefits of both. It can be incredibly confusing and lead to a million more questions. Can you be an extroverted introvert? What about an introverted extrovert? Does being an introvert mean you don’t like people? Does being an extrovert mean you have to choose a career where you interact with people all day?
According to the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary, introversion means “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life.” Extroversion, on the other hand, is “the act, state, or habit of being predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self.” At first read, these two definitions seem to cast equally undesirable traits—self-absorption or insecurity, narcissism or self-doubt. The words extroversion and introversion are also popularly used to describe someone who’s either sociable and outgoing, or withdrawn and shy.
In actuality, the two words merely indicate where an individual places a higher value, the inner world or the outer world. C.G. Jung applied the terms to describe “the preferred focus of one’s energy,” and therefore also from where we draw our energy.
The way our brains are wired, and our brain chemistry, can also help us understand the difference between introverts and extroverts. Research completed over the span of several decades has shown that the difference has a lot to do with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, and how it is activated in the brain.
In the 1960s, psychologist Hans Eysenck hypothesized that extroverts had a lower level of what he called “arousal.” He believed that while introverts were easily over-stimulated, extroverts required a little more stimulation from the outer world in order to feel energized. In his opinion, this explained extroverts’ constant desire for social contact, and overall sense of risk-taking, while introverts often thrived in quiet, peaceful areas and seek out alone time in order to shield themselves from too much stimuli. These notions eventually figured into his very influential model of personality.
It wasn’t until 2005 that researchers concluded in a study that it all might be linked to dopamine. In the study, researchers used a brain scanner to examine responses from participants who were doing a gambling task. They found that when the participant experienced positive gambling results, the extroverts appeared to have a stronger response in both the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens than the introverts experienced. If extroverts experienced a stronger effect in the parts of their brains responsible for pleasure, it can be predicted that extroverts will be more likely to act spontaneously and participate in social challenges and other “risky” scenarios.
More concrete evidence for difference in brain chemistry between introverts and extroverts came in 2012 with study completed by Randy Buckner of Harvard University. He discovered that introverts tended to have larger, thicker gray matter in their prefrontal cortex, which controls decision-making and is linked to abstract thinking, than extroverts. Buckner concluded that this may be the reason that introverts tend to think things over very thoroughly, most likely in seclusion, before they make decisions. This again lends support to the extroverted tendency of acting spontaneously.
But can anyone really be wholly one or the other, or is it more of a continuum? Much more needs to be learned about the brain to truly understand what causes and defines personality. Your brain is the most complex part of your body! Like with almost everything else in this world, perhaps it is a bit dangerous to imagine this personality aspect as binary.
This is particularly true when it comes to mental health treatment. An individualized approach is crucial to make mental health treatment most effective. It can be very valuable for a provider to understand on which end of the spectrum their patient lays. The way an introvert responds to therapy will be fairly different than how an extrovert responds to the same therapy. Extroverts tend to be more open and need an active discussion in which they can participate in their own treatment. Because introverts are more introspective, they may need more time to reflect and could benefit from weekly study and homework they can do between sessions. However, it would be dangerous to assume right off the bat and relegate a patient to a certain brand of treatment without taking note of the nuances in their personality.
Perhaps it is best to think of the observations of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was perhaps the first person to add a third category, the ambivert. He observed that some of his most “artistic” patients exhibited traits of both extroverts and introverts equally, “either preferring to be in the thick of crowds or sitting on the sidelines and observing the passing show.”
Bushak, Lecia. “The Differences Between The Brains Of Introverts And Extroverts.” Medical Daily. N.p., 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
Cohen, Michael X. “Individual Differences in Extraversion and Dopamine Genetics Predict Neural Reward Responses.” Individual Differences in Extraversion and Dopamine Genetics Predict Neural Reward Responses. Cognitive Brain Research, Dec. 2005. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
“Extraversion or Introversion.” The Myers & Briggs Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
“Extroversion.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.