Introverts — Different Brain Pathways and Neurotransmitters

Today’s post comes from the book, The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney, PsD. I think I’ve mentioned before (or at least intended to) the fact that according to Dr. Laney and others, introvert brains operate differently than extrovert brains. In brain function studies of introverts/extroverts, PET scans were used to determine the most active part of the brain based on blood flow. The results indicated that:

“…introverts had more blood flow to their brains than extroverts. More blood flow indicates more internal stimulation…

“Second, introverts’ and extroverts’ blood traveled along different pathways. Dr. Johnson found the introverts’ pathway is more complicated and focused internally. The introverts’ blood flowed to the parts of the brain involved with internal experiences like remembering, solving problems, and planning. This pathway is long and complext. The introverts were attending to their internal thoughts and feelings.

“Dr. Johnson tracked the fast-acting brain pathway of extroverts showing how they process input that influences their activity and motivation. The extroverts’ blood flowed to the areas of the brain where visual, auditory, touch and taste (excluding smell) sensory processing occurs. Their main pathway is short and less complicated. The extroverts attended externally to what was happening in the lab. “

These differing pathways for blood flow require different neurotransmitters. Extroverts rely on dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with movement, attention, alert states and learning. Extroverts are not terribly sensitive to dopamine, though they require large amounts of it. Unfortunately, while the brain produces some, it’s not nearly enough. Thus,

“Extroverts need [dopamine’s] sidekick, adrenaline, which is released from the action of the sympathetic nervous systems, to make more dopamine in the brain. So the more active the extrovert is, the more Hap[py] Hits are fired and dopamine is increased. Extroverts feel good when they have places to go and people to see.

“Introverts, on the other hand, are highly sensitive to dopamine. Too much dopamine and they feel overstimulated. Introverts use an entirely different neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, on their more dominant pathway…

“Acetylcholine…affects attention and learning (especially perceptual learning), influences the ability to sustain a calm, alert feeling and to utilize long-term memory, and activates voluntary movement. It stimulates a good feeling when thinking and feeling.

One of the results of all this, is that it takes introverts longer than extroverts to refill their energy well when it’s been emptied, because their nerve receptor sites are slow to re-uptake the neurotransmitter. So we need more time to recover and get tired more easily.  Something I’ve been experiencing a lot lately. Fortunately, Laney devotes an entire chapter to dealing with this, but that’s a post for another day.

11 thoughts on “Introverts — Different Brain Pathways and Neurotransmitters

  1. KC Frantzen

    Interesting premise.

    May you get some needed recovery time!!

    I’m a weird mix… People would THINK I’m an extrovert, and I can be. But I’m quite content by myself too. Big crowds are not my thing, at ALL.

    Thanks for this Karen.

  2. in2ext

    I’ve heard mixed reviews about this book. Some people the last chapter sort of undermines all the effort of the previous chapters. That’s the main reason I haven’t read this book yet.
    What are your thoughts?

    1. karenhancock

      LOL. Actually, I didn’t really read the last chapter (“Extroverting: Shine Your Light into the World”). It didn’t seem useful to me at the time, and I’d already found so much that was I just skimmed over it. I’m learning more and more that not everything in a book has to be useful to me. I get out of it what I believe the Lord wants me to, directs me to at a particular time, and ignore the other stuff. Maybe some day I’ll get around to reading that last bit more carefully. I certainly wouldn’t let it stop me from reading the rest of the book, though.

      Oh, wait. There is a part I underlined: “the irritations of life usually upset introverts more than extroverts. Since they are more alert to their internal world, they notice their reactions to stress sooner and more intensely… and it is harder for them to soothe themselves.” That does seem to be true for me, and noting it is helpful, because then I can deal with it all sooner.

  3. Loren Warnemuende

    Phew! Makes me glad I’m an introvert! Though probably if I were an extrovert I wouldn’t think introspection and analysis of life was so important!

    It’s interesting–I am currently in a couple of roles that would seem better for an extrovert (mom to three little ones, and coordinator of our moms’ group at church). I am constantly interacting with people. I do love it, and I know it’s exactly where God wants me to be right now, but it can be exhausting. I keep remembering “His strength through my weakness….”

    Reading your blog and quotes from the book made me realize that these roles, though, might be why I have SO little motivation and energy to get on top of things around the house! Sigh! I’m trying to figure out quiet recharge places and moments.

    1. karenhancock

      Loren, from reading the book, I’d say the introverted qualities of liking to plan, being attentive to detail and most of all, being reliable, would actually make you well suited to being a coordinator. (Except if you have the typical introvert’s phone phobia, then it could be problematic. LOL.) I think the thing I’ve learned most is that it’s not that we don’t enjoy being with people and interacting, it’s just that it tires us out rather than energizes. I’m therefore starting to rest more in the middle of things — just sit down for 15 minutes and drink some water. Amazing what it does for me.

  4. villageintrovert

    This is a pretty good book. It was nice to read from someone who seemed to “get” how I worked (for the most part anyway). The last chapter I don’t remember very well, probably because it required some sort of energy-sapping persona that just wouldn’t be me 🙂 I’ve tried to get my wife to read this book, to show her I am not an alien, but I still haven’t succeeded!

  5. bruno

    I’m wondering if depressed introverts do better with a different kind of anti-depression medication than an extrovert?

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  7. Helen

    i thought this was veey interesting in the light of recovery and mind vagueness- have i been chasing tge wrong neurotransmitter all the time??? In the light of myself and many people i know they fo become overstimulated on dopamine and have to take counteractive approaches..what do you think?


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