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As-Is or What-Could-Be: The Extroverts/Introvert Spectrum

In our previous articles, we discussed the processes our brain and visual system go through daily to register, digest information and make sense of the world around us. These processes are influenced by age, time, events and circumstances, neurobiological differences in our brains and our unique personality traits. So how we see the world is based on how we perceive it. This article will discuss one of these differences: the introvert/extrovert spectrum and its influence on how we perceive things.

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"It takes a long time to become young." Pablo Picasso

The Brain of an Introvert

The introvert/extrovert personality spectrum was first introduced in the 20th century by Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung. Jung proposed that extroverts are energized by external environments and objects, while introverts prefer solitude and gain energy from their internal environment. Another psychologist named Hans Eysenck proposed biological differences in the brains of introverts and extroverts. His studies suggested that extroverts have a lower level of stimulation arousal so they seek excitement and take risks to normalize their arousal level. According to Eysenck, introverts have a higher arousal rate so it doesn't take a lot of stimulation to reach a normal rate. He suggested that introverts become overwhelmed and overstimulated with external events like socializing because it takes very little for them to reach and exceed a normal state of arousal.

Some other studies proposed that extroverts react differently to reward and pleasure because of a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine, which controls external reward and response to novelty. While both introverts and extroverts have the same amount of dopamine, these results showed that extroverts had stronger reactions in 2 areas of the brain linked to reward and surprise. They showed a more robust response to winning and achieving goals, especially when the challenge paid off, hence their risk-taking preference and seeking unfamiliar and challenging activities.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, studies suggested that highly introverted individuals often rely on a different neurotransmitter type for pleasure, called Acetylcholine. Acetylcholine, just like dopamine, activates pleasure but through calmer activities and turning inward rather than seeking external rewards. These studies suggested that introverts are more drawn to reflect internally, focus and analyze their surroundings in quiet environments. Introverts prefer using the parasympathetic side of their nervous system to engage with their surroundings, which is the state of rest-digest and internal reflections.

The What Is Versus The What Could Be

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The Frontal Lobe is a brain region that controls planning, decision-making, abstract thinking and high-level executive functions (decisions like determining good against bad or better versus best). The prefrontal cortex (a section of the frontal lobe) involves our concrete-rule learning and abstract rule-learning. At a very high level, the rule-learning process refers to our ability to interact with an unknown circumstance and match the context with an appropriate behavioral response. Abstract thinking is our ability to construct abstract concepts, like freedom or reasoning, that are not directly related to concrete physical objects or experiences.

Some studies using neuroimaging technologies have proposed neurobiological differences between introverts and extroverts. Gray matter and white matter are two major components of our central nervous system. Gray matter supports the brain's essential functionalities, such as muscle control, memory, emotions, sensory controls, decision-making and self-control. A study published on NCBI outlined a negative correlation between extraversion and the gray matter volume (GMV) of certain brain regions, including the left superior frontal gyrus (sits in the frontal lobe). This study and numerous others have shown a relationship between the brain's frontal lobe region and our emotional responses and personality traits.

Studies have suggested that introverts have thicker and larger cortical gray matter compared to extroverts. One particular study by Harvard Psychologist Randy Buckner, published in the Journal of Neuroscience Issue 50 2012, signaled a neurobiological aspect to these findings. The results suggested that people with high introversion traits use more neural energy for abstract thinking. In contrast, extroversion traits make us focus more on the present and living in the moment.

The Introvert: More Studied Than Understood

Many case studies have been done throughout the years with similar or contradictory and perhaps even inaccurate results to measure and understand the differences between extroverts and introverts. While there's a long way ahead to get a better understanding of different personalities, some of these studies signal our current society's harsh reality: introverts, still, are very much misunderstood.

One consistent issue, especially in the Western culture, has been a society and even educational systems and work environments that often work in favor of extroversion traits. Modern educational systems and most work environments have been designed to benefit extroverts' needs and encourage extroversion as the more favorable and preferred personality type to succeed and get ahead in life.

68% of people reported that they have, at one point in their career, worked in an open office layout, according to a 2010 International Facility Management Study. Many companies have adopted the open floor plan offices, a more modern and "energetic" design that can benefit certain activities like teamwork and socializing, an environment that extroverts are more comfortable in. Meanwhile, sensory overload and distractions can actually hurt introverts' performance. Even the open floorplan house layout that has become popular in recent years and the current trends of urban developments and mixed-use developments all seem to focus on collaboration and integration, benefiting extroverts more than introverts.

Misunderstandings and wrong perceptions about what makes an introvert and the appraisal to be "outgoing" and "assertive" to be successful have been linked to introverts' dissatisfaction and underperformance. Reports show that introverts often change who they are or fake their social preferences to get accepted in such environments.

In recent years, however, more conscious office layout designs have been adopted by companies to improve productivity and work satisfaction for different types of personalities. Some of these practices move away from the complete open-space layouts and provide a mix of open and private spaces for various activities and needs of the employees. As architect Janet Maclaurin stated, the more modern and conscious office space designs allow for areas to interact and socialize but also concentrate and disconnect. These new designs highlight an essential step towards understanding introverts and signal a shift that has been happening in the workspace culture, and that is, the desk is no longer the only place work happens.

This article was curated and edited by Aidin Belganeh

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