The Perils of Introversion
In a world that’s run by the gregarious, active extroverts who comprise seventy-five percent of the population, there aren’t many obvious advantages to being an introvert. That’s why the title of a recent book by psychiatrist Marti Olsen Laney The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World is intriguing. Laney’s stated goal is to help introverts “realize just how special and unique they are.” Unfortunately, there is little in this book to bolster introverts’ self-esteem. In fact, any introvert who ventures to read this book will probably leave it disheartened.
According to Laney, introverts are plagued by many problems during their daily lives. They have difficulty socializing, yet they are extremely concerned with making a good impression. They require more sleep, but they often experience anxiety or insomnia. They have limited energy and are easily drained by crowds, excitement, and sensory over-stimulation. They aren’t able to think on their feet, and they need time for reflection. When making decisions, they may feel paralyzed because they see the advantages and drawbacks to every solution. All in all, introverts require a slow-paced life. They were made for contemplation, not action. Unfortunately, the modern world values action, speed, and outgoing behavior. All of this raises an important question: what’s an introvert to do in such a hostile environment?
Laney believes that introverts need to appreciate their unique characteristics and make allowances for them: in essence, they should coddle themselves. She recommends that introverts set strict start and end times to social engagements, so they do not feel obligated to stay longer than necessary. She also recommends that they use specific tactics to make socializing less stressful, such as brushing up on current events, wearing a conversation piece (e.g.: a unique pin), staking out a sofa or chair at a party and remaining in that space, attempting to speak in concise sentences when talking to extroverts, and taking bathroom breaks to temporarily escape from social situations. To deal with their sensitivity to sensory stimulation and their limited energy, Laney recommends that introverts take breaks from work every few hours, eat protein at each meal, use daily affirmations to increase positive thinking and self-esteem, dress in layers to deal with sudden changes in temperature, try aromatherapy to relax, and utilize many other techniques to make daily life a little bit easier. Although Laney is careful to say that introverts are not inferior to extroverts, just different, her suggestions make introversion sound more like a disability than a temperament.
Laney’s suggestions and descriptions will likely leave many a content introvert craving a temperament change, but such thinking would be in vain. According to Laney, introversion is a biological condition. To back up her claim she cites scientific studies that show that introverts use their brains differently from extroverts. While extroverts mostly use their short-term memory and the parts of the brain that deal with sensory impressions, introverts mainly use their long-term memory and the parts of the brain that deal with solving problems, planning, and internal thoughts and feelings. The two brain pathways require different neurotransmitters. The pathway that extroverts use is activated by dopamine, which is identified with alertness, attention, movement, and learning. Extroverts require lots of dopamine to be happy, and activity and excitement increase dopamine production, so extroverts enjoy being busy. Introverts, on the other hand, use a brain pathway that is activated by acetylcholine, which affects long-term memory, the ability to stay calm and alert, and perceptual learning. Acetylcholine produces a happy feeling during thinking and feeling, so introverts enjoy contemplation. Laney also links these biological differences between introverts and extroverts to introverts’ increased sensitivity to temperature, odor, sound, visual stimulation, and blood sugar level. Whether or not these explanations for temperament are true is debatable, since new evidence is constantly emerging, but Laney does make a powerful argument.
If introversion is actually an inherited, biological condition that causes numerous difficulties in daily living, then introverts would be well-advised to take Laney’s advice. After all, in a world that expects everyone to be an extrovert, there’s little that disadvantaged introverts can do except try to compensate for their shortcomings. In this sense, the book is informative, useful, and enlightening. But it’s also depressingly bleak, since it does not describe many advantages to introversion.
To portray a real “introvert advantage,” Laney would have to do something a bit more radical than write a self-help book: she’d need to question the validity of an extrovert-run world. Granted, extroverts are in the majority, but sixty percent of the intellectually gifted, including Albert Einstein and Bill Gates, are introverts (a fact that the book does note, but that is soon over-shadowed by the pages that describe the perils of introversion). And a society run by introverts wouldn’t be such a bad place: it would probably have shorter workdays, more emphasis on contemplation, less interpersonal conflict, greater scientific advancement, and leaders who actually reflect upon the long-term effects of their decisions before they make them.
Overall, the advice given in The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World should be taken with a grain of salt. Introverts who really want to thrive need to venture out into the big, scary world and try to accomplish something. That said, they might want to bring along a protein snack and a conversation piece, just in case.