Nature vs Nurture: Inside an introvert’s brains in a cocktail party

I grew up in an Asian family, where one believes that life is fated.  My parents were “English educated” – which in a certain day and age meant that they were modern. My father used to wear hippie pants – and they believed in fate and fear the effects of deity.

If born of a certain day, month, year, preferably “Year of the dragon” – you’ll sail towards the golden sea, without hard work.  I was not born under such lucky stars – and hence embraced American style motivational thinking with open arms.  You can be what you put your heart too.  Nurture.

And now as a Myers Briggs Type Indicator facilitator and career coach, where I am to teach others that you are born towards certain temperaments, and nothing really changes even in adulthood.  The only reason why you appear to change, is because you were measuring the wrong thing in the first place.  Lack of self awareness, confounding variables in the environment, impression management towards gaining sense of approval from significant people, etc.

In “Quiet, the power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop Talking” (Ch 5),  author Susan Cain, interviewed Dr Carl Schwartz, Director of the Developmental Neuroimaging and Psychopathology Research Lab, using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines to determine if there’s a difference between introverts and extroverts even in adult life.  Specifically, in the activity of the amygdala – in shaping the personalities of introverts and extroverts.

In an experiment using a slideshow mimicking a crowded room of strangers and some familiar faces, Schwartz found that the amydalae of high reactives (introverts) reacted more to the photos of strangers than low reactives (extroverts). Using a longitudinal study, found that the footprint of a high or low reactive temperament never disappeared in adulthood (what Carl Jung assumed all these while).  Susan Cain calls this the “rubber band theory” of personality.  “We are like rubber bands at rest.  We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so much.”  Nature and nurture. Bill Gates is never going to be Bill Clinton.

What is going through the Introvert’s brain in a cocktail party?

A lot.

1. When we greet a stranger in a party, the amygdala (the ancient part of the brain), goes into overdrive.

2. For those relatively skilled in social situations, the neofrontal cortex kicks in to tell you to calm down, and what to do next – shake hands, smile. But conditioning and learning only suppresses the activity of the amygdala, not erase the fear.

3. During times of stress, unwarranted fears came go haywire,  – “when the cortex has other things to do than soothe an excitable amygdala”.  => Solitude and time for meditation works for both introverts and extroverts as you don’t want your amygdala to spin out of control on you.

What should we do:

To conquer fear of public speaking, small talk with strangers etc.

1. Desensitise yourself (and your amygdala) in small doses, over and over again – in a safe environment.

Frankly, nothing new, something I’ve always known intuitively.  But well meaning friends around me feel that you should just jump into the deep end.  I learnt to ride a bicycle “in one hour” in my forties at the harassment of my husband.  Now older and wiser, I put my foot down, when he insisted on me buying a beautifully crafted bicycle meant for racers as my first bike, so that I can use it 3 years later and not out-grow it, as he put it.  Instead I bought one, which I would safely use straight away, to minimise my fear of falling.  Also, I took to “Youtube” and watched many, many bicycle training videos to desensitise myself.

What looked like a “one hour miracle”, was actually hours of practice soothing my amygdala which cannot tell the difference between real practice and what the eye sees.

2.  Find your sweet spot.

Once you discover your preferences,organise your life around “optimal levels of arousal”, what Susan Cain calls “sweet spots”.   If you’re happily reading your book in a quiet place, and after 30 mins find yourself re-reading a sentence 5 times, you’re understimulated.  Call a friend, go out for tea.  Now you’re back into your sweet-spot.  But if your extroverted friend who needs a higher level of stimulation, manages to persuade you to follow her to a party after this tea, you may find yourself having to make small talk with strangers, and soon, find yourself “overstimulated”.

What next?  Pair off with someone for in-depth conversation, or go back to your book. Understanding your sweet spot, can increase satisfaction in every area of your life and more.

In looking for a job, find out how much time, your work requires you to behave out of your sweet spot? Too much time in a research lab, and not enough time interacting with people? Or too much time socialising and schmoozing and not enough time to research in your cubicle.

3. Find out what’s meaningful for you

Can we act out of character? How then do famous strong introverts speak in public effectively?  Susan Cain introduces us to the Free Traits theory, created by Professor Brian Little of former Havard University psychology lecturer. “According to the Free Traits theory, we are able to act out of character in the service of core personal projects. ” Introverts can behave like extroverts to accomplish work/causes they regard as important, people/ projects they value highly.

To thine own self be true. – Shakespeare

How to identify core personal projects?

4. Pay attemton to your actions

Can you fake it till you make it?
Yes, to a certain extent. Studies by research psychologist, Richard Lippa comparing introverts to pretend and act like extroverts, with actual extroverts, some of the psuedo-extroverts were surprisingly convincing.

Pay attention to how your face and body arrange themselves when you’re feeling confident and adopt theose same position when it comes time to fake it.

Studies have shown that behavior can lead to emotions. Smiling makes you feel stronger and happier and frowning makes you feel angry.

There is a limit to the control of self-presentation – beware of behavioral leakage. When you act out of character for a project you don’t care about, your discomfort can come across strongly and detected by the other party, sometimes as “freudian slips”.

5. Restore
Professor Little advises, find as many restorative niches as possible in your daily life. This is recommended by many books on Introversion/Extroversion, notably, “The Introvert Advantage” – a quick read, practical guide. Having read the Introvert Advantage, I consciously spend time finding restorative niches for myself. Surprisingly for a sedentary person like myself, going for a walk in the park, or jogging in the gym is a restorative process. After a day of lecturing, I recharge with a 20 min treadmill time, then off to a dinner with my husband’s colleagues and then supper with his friends.

While some of the recommendations are not new, it has given credibility that I am not abnormal, and allowed me to negotiate with my husband, an extrovert, who wants me to go everywhere. Professor Little calls it “Free Trait Agreement”,

Read more about this inspiring book, Quiet by Susan Cain.
There are more nuggets in this book not covered by my blog. Watch Susan Cain’s TED introduction, but she’s too modest in promoting her book.

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