Common sense tells us that introverts and empaths have a hard time with social interaction, but is there any scientific basis to this?
Both introverts and empaths find social interaction draining at the best of times, and require frequent periods of downtime, where they can be alone and can recharge their batteries.
But can this be explained using scientific methods?
Introverts respond differently to rewards
Studies appear to show that one reason why introverts in particular prefer alone time is because they respond differently to rewards. Rewards include factors such as money, sex, social status, social affiliation, and in some cases, even food. Examples of rewards can include getting a pay rise at work or acquiring a phone number from an attractive member of the opposite sex.
We all like to receive rewards, but studies have shown that introverts respond differently to them. Compared to extroverts who are engaged, excited and motivated by rewards, introverts are the opposite. They are less bothered, less interested, less stimulated, have less enthusiasm on the whole.
One chemical that is bound up in how the brain responds to rewards is dopamine. Dopamine helps us take note of these rewards and allows us to move towards them. Extroverts appear to have a more active dopamine reward system compared to introverts. What this means is that when there is a potential reward in sight, an extrovert’s brain will become more active and the dopamine will then energise them to chase that reward.
Introvert’s brains do not get as active when a possible reward presents itself. For example, picture a busy nightclub, with loud music, lots of bright lights and a dance floor full of people. An extrovert would view this scenario as exciting, he or she sees possibilities for rewards all over the place, a fun time, full of interesting new people and having a great time.
For an introvert, the thought of meeting new people, putting up with loud music and interacting with a load of strangers is just not enough to get them excited. The environment is too noisy, too crowded, there’s too much activity. The energy he or she will have to expand is simply too much for any rewards he or she might gain.
Extroverts are stimulated by people, introverts by inanimate objects
Moreover, further studies have shown that extroverts are stimulated by people whereas introverts find stimulation in inanimate objects. In one study, a group of participants had the electrical activity in their brains recorded via an EEG. They were shown either pictures of people’s faces or inanimate objects, and their brains’ P300 activity was then measured. P300 activity is when a person experiences a sudden change in their environment. It is so-called because it typically happens within 300 milliseconds.
The results showed that extroverts experienced the P300 response when they viewed people and flowers whilst introverts only experienced it when they viewed pictures of flowers. This does not show conclusively that introverts prefer flowers, but it could suggest that extroverts prefer people.
Empaths and social interaction
As for empaths, we know that they are naturally very sensitive types of people, they share many similar characteristics as introverts, including a dislike of large gatherings and social parties, preferring to be by themselves or in a much smaller group. The very nature of being empathic means that you are soaking up all the emotions around you and in some cases, reliving past traumas that can be physical and psychological. But is there scientific proof that shows why empaths find social interaction difficult?
One study might help. Using fMRI, brain activity was measured of participants in response to positive and negative facial pictures of their partners and strangers. The results showed that those participants who had been designated as having highly sensitive brains (therefore empathic) had increased activity in areas in the brain commonly associated with an enhanced awareness of environmental stimuli, in particular, social situations.
It appears that empathic people have an increased awareness of their surroundings and as such, can feel overwhelmed by the environmental stimuli.
It can seem like there are many reasons to worry if you are an introvert or empathic person. However, it is better to embrace your differences than to deal on any negative issues, such as struggling with social interaction. Introverts and empaths make loyal friends, excellent colleagues and wonderful parents. We’re not all made to party all night.