Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I Want to be Alone or Introversion for Beginners

I read this on Martyn Clayton's blog and he very graciously allowed me to re-post it here. I think it has some wonderful information.

“Within you there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat any time and be yourself”
Herman Hesse

Working from home I’m sometimes asked ;“Don’t you get lonely ?”by people who clearly would be lonely if they had to do the same. The simple answer to that is , no I don’t. Not at all, not in the slightest, in fact quite the opposite. I love working alone, I love working from home. I love the isolation and the need to be self-disciplined. I even get a sense of excitement as I begin each working day wondering what kind of possibilities it might turn up, what ideas I might have, how existing projects might develop.The short periods of time when I haven’t worked alone I’ve been unhappy, bloody miserable in fact. Working with other people leaves me feeling drained, restricted, limited and verging on the depressed. My ideas dry up and I feel bored. Just as I imagine people who love a busy work environment and the input of colleagues would hate working from home. It’s different strokes for different folks. Sometimes people refuse to believe that I could be happy, presuming I must be in denial or ill, or quite possibly mad.It always used to puzzle me as to why I preferred to work this way. I even wondered in the early days if there might be something wrong with me. Surely it couldn’t be ‘normal’ to want to spend so much time alone, particularly where work was concerned.The breakthrough for me came when I took a psychological profiling test as part of a college course. The test revealed that I scored very highly on the introversion scale and the description of the responses of a typical person fitting this profile read as if they had been written just for me. So, should I choose to accept it , I had a name for the way my head worked, but what kind of a name was it ?Introversion. It made me think of serial killers ,fifty-something blokes who still lived with their mothers and hermits. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the way my brain’s wired.Since then however , the more I’ve researched the subject, the happier I’ve become about this one particular accident of birth. There has been a shed-full (introverts love a good shed) of scientific research into the subject beginning with the psychologist, Carl Jung back in the early 20th century. Although he focused primarily on sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling; introversion and extroversion were important components of his mental or psychological traits theory. Although most people will exhibit traits of both extroversion and introversion in the daily lives, there is usually one dominant trait that usually reflects how an individual prefers to operate in the world. The introvert's main focus is within his/her head, in the internal world of ideas and concepts; the extrovert's primary focus is on the external world of people and activities. Introverts get their energy from themselves and are drained by people; extroverts get their energy from other people and are drained by being alone.The two don’t sit in polar opposition, but instead run along a scale. People in the middle of the scale illustrating equal measures of introverted and extroverted qualities are known as ’ambiverts’ . My other half, who is also an introvert is less introverted than me, but an awful lot more introverted than the average extrovert. When she returns from her bustling working environment she needs plenty of quiet downtime apart from the rest of the world to recharge her batteries.One reason why introverts tend to get such a bad press and are so generally misunderstood is because we are in the minority. Definite introverts represent only one in four of the general population, but interestingly represent a majority within the exceptionally gifted. There are good evolutionary reasons as to why the population should break down in this way. The division has been described as one of ‘warriors’ (extroverts) and ‘counsellors’ (introverts). For a society to survive it needs the players in the field, and they need to be numerous and ultimately expendable. The warriors need the advice and inspiration of the counsellors if they are to fully understand their world and what is required of them. Without introversion the stock of great world literature, art and scientific discovery would be severely denuded and humanity would still be living in the dark ages. To be a Newton or a Darwin you need to be able spend hours, days, weeks, months, years in your own company totally possessed by the single ultimate idea that will change world history. Extroverts would find that impossible.This is all well and good you might be thinking, but isn’t this introversion just an excuse for shyness , social phobia or downright rudeness ? That would be presuming that introversion is somehow a ‘personal lifestyle choice’ like whether or not to get married or have kids. The key point in all of this is that introverts are born not made. Scientific research into the brains of introverts and extroverts has revealed some key differences in the way they are wired. These differences have even been spotted in babies. The information as to which orientation their baby’s brain has revealed has been kept from the families so as not to prejudice the child’s upbringing. As the children grow, sure enough they begin to clearly exhibit behaviour patterns that mirror their brain patterns.Introverts have more blood flow to their brain and more blood flow indicates greater stimulation. Anytime blood flows to a particular part of your body, after a cut finger for instance, the area becomes more sensitive. Introverts’ blood also flows to different parts of their brain particularly those associated with remembering, internal thoughts and planning. Not only does introverts’ and extroverts’ blood travel on separate pathways, each pathway requires a different neurotransmitter. Extroverts have a low sensitivity to the brains ’happy drug’ dopamine. They require vast quantities of it to enable themselves to function and it is released through experience, activity and sociability. It acts as a reward circuit - do something the brain enjoys and receive a reward of happy juice. Introverts on the other hand have a much shorter dopamine pathway and are highly sensitive to it. Rather than seek out dopamine hits, introverts have to limit the amount of the chemical released to maintain a balance. Introverts often talk of ‘feeling overwhelmed’ by experience , extroverts are frequently bored. Whilst the introverts dopamine pathway is shorter than the extroverts, the pathway of another key neurotransmitter is longer. Acetylcholine is the oil that makes the memory machine function. It is the chemical that switches on the deep REM sleep and initiates dreams. It helps the brain recover from exertion and the utilisation of our energy stores. The introvert brain is wired to seek out more energy conserving acetylcholine and less experience seeking dopamine if it is to be kept in a state of happy equilibrium. Introverts need quiet time alone if they are to keep functioning.Which brings me back to working from home. Technology used to be enemy of the introvert. It was technology that made factory hands out of shepherds and coal miners out of peasant farmers but it’s now technological advance that is opening up opportunity for the introverted to fashion their own working world. It’s no surprise then that one of the chief drivers of this change and the wealthiest man on the planet, Bill Gates, is himself an introvert.Introversion is a dark continent for the average extrovert. Introverts can’t be up to any good spending all that time locked away can they ? They can’t be truly happy ? It just can’t be healthy can it ? A confusion exacerbated by the fact that introverts who have arranged their lives to suit their orientation do seem happy. As they need less dopamine to be content, they often appear blissfully so when compared to the average extrovert. On the other hand an introvert forced into an extrovert model of the good life is a miserable creature. As too is an extrovert ignored, rejected or forced into a lonely existence by circumstance. Understanding how your own brain and those of your loved ones are wired would appear pretty vital in promoting good mental well-being. A square peg will never slot into a round hole no matter how much you try and force it.So if you suspect you have an introvert in the family, don’t try and force them into group activities or endlessly ask them if “they’re alright” (they’d be quite alright if you’d just shut up for a bit) but try instead to value them for who they are. They may well be a genius, or will at the very least have something interesting to say if they trust you enough to share it . As a general rule they are not about to murder you in your bed , in fact the profile of the serial killer is generally that of the “rejected extrovert” not the introvert. We just couldn’t be bothered with the extra hassle.