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Introverts, Extroverts, and Brain Function

Updated on June 8, 2017

The youth lay sprawled along the grass covered median in a lower middle class neighborhood of a downtown suburb. The crimson color that streaked his face was unmistakable. As my eye caught a glimpse of a damaged bicycle lying nearby I watched two men slowly get out of their truck. The adrenaline rushed to my face in panic as I realized the young cyclist had been struck. Instantly, I imagined the reaction of his family, particularly his mother, as the news was delivered. Would her life of relative ease be completely shaken with this first in a series of hardships brought on by this unforeseen event? Or would this be another excuse for bitterness and hopelessness in a life all too familiar with hardship and suffering. How would the driver’s life change and how would it affect the lives of those who loved him. My mind raced from person to person as I worked through how each of their lives might unfold as a result of this tragedy.

Based on my reaction, one would have thought it was my child lying on the ground covered in blood. As much as I have tried to numb myself to the pain of the world, I can’t do it without numbing myself to those close to me, something I’m not willing to do. So I go through life, moment by moment, living with the intermittent pain and grief of others whose lives intersect mine. As my companion sat beside me, her reaction was quite different. She seemed to take it all in stride, somewhat preoccupied with the electronic gadget in her hand. What allows some people to acutely feel the pain of the world while others appear somewhat insulated?

Alternate Realities

In Ray Bradbury's 1950 novel Fahrenheit 451 he draws a picture for us of a world consisting of alternate realities created by each one of us. A world of wide screen TVs, seashell thimble radios tamped tightly in our ears playing the beautiful sounds of nature accompanied by sleeping tablets and no books to challenge our thinking or sense of reality. We could program for ourselves a reality that was acceptable to individual sensibilities. With the exception of the sleeping tablets, was this my companion's experience. With so much information and so many images surrounding our 21st century existence, is this how we survive modernity?

Sensitive or Desensitized

In Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death he states that for much of human existence mankind only had to deal with the daily lives within a local region or community. We were able to engage in the pain and suffering and do something about it… or not. Either way, we were able to make a difference if we chose to. But Postman states that there is a feeling of helplessness when through the medium of modern communication devices we see the pain and suffering in places so out of reach, so foreign. He believes this forms a sense of detachment or desensitization within us. We are less affected when appeals are made over TV to help the starving children in Africa when they are followed by an advertisement for Mercedes Benz touting, Rad to the Meticulously Engineered Bone. The starving children take a back seat, so to speak, to our insatiable craving for ease and luxury. Everything is presented on the same level so what is truly important becomes indistinguishable.

Your Hardwiring

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We Come Prewired

Just as cultures have adapted to change in the past and survived, I also believe that a healthy person's reaction to traumatic situations are as unique as the individuals themselves. Years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a book titled, The Highly Sensitive Person. Both of our backgrounds were in design and art, something not unusual for people highly in tune to their surroundings. The introduction of the book gives a short self-assessment:

  • Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?

  • Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?

  • Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?

  • Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?

  • Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?

  • Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?

  • Do you have a rich and complex inner life?

  • When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?

Since Dr. Elaine Aron's book was published in 1996, several other books have appeared in bookstores confirming her findings and validating the fact that some 20% of the population processes information in a completely different way than the other 80%. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, written by Susan Cain, cites neurological studies pointing out how, among other factors, different levels of serotonin in one’s brain affects the way we respond to external stimuli. It helps to understand the thrill seeking and sometimes impulsive extrovert while shedding light on why so many introverts or HSPs will choose a quiet evening at home over a party. It may just be our way of dealing with an over stimulating culture. Additionally, according to Dr. Larry Cahill whose work was cited in an article in the May 2014 issue of Scientific America, research also shows that the female and male brain are very different as well but that's a discussion for another time.


Be Yourself

As I recall the accident on that suburban street, it was my heightened senses that allowed me to pick up on the nuances of that event and experience it as though the boy lying on the grass was my own son. Conversely, it explains why my companion’s reaction was so different than mine. After all, anybody who knows her knows that she is your classic extrovert. At that moment, we were both being truly ourselves.


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