Introverts and Overload

Perhaps the most interesting and insightful observation made by any academically respected modern psychologist comes from Hans Eysenck, the creator of the oversimplifying and all too social-scientific Eysenck Personality Inventory, regarding the temperament the social scientists simplify as “introversion.”

The introvert, he noted, is often misunderstood as a person who dislikes social stimulation, in contrast to the extravert, who enjoys it. On the contrary, he argued, the difference turns not on liking versus disliking social intercourse, but rather on relative levels of sensitivity to such stimulation, deriving from differences in what he termed base cortical arousal levels. The extravert, according to Eysenck, has a lower effective sensitivity to social stimulation, due to his lower base arousal level; he therefore craves more and more social interaction, because he can never get enough to feel sated, i.e., sufficiently “aroused” to function optimally. The introvert, by contrast, may enjoy interaction with others intensely, but only in very small quantities, due to his extremely high sensitivity to social stimulation (resulting from a naturally high base arousal level). His need for the mental stimulation of human contact is easily sated, relatively speaking; for the introvert, a little goes a long way.

I think of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “Funes the Memorious,” about a young man who, due to a freak accident, is cursed with an infinite, and infinitely particularized, memory. Ireneo Funes remembers everything he ever sees, including the exact date of the event, the colors people wore, the angles at which objects moved, the shapes of the clouds at each hour, the number of leaves on the trees, and so on. In desperation, Funes finally confines himself to life in a darkened room, meeting as few people as possible. Already burdened with so many memories that he can only sleep at night by turning his face toward an unknown part of town and imagining it as comprised entirely of black and homogeneous houses, his greatest dread is to add any more unnecessary sensations to the unending picture show of particularity in his mind.

An introvert is a little like Ireneo Funes. He feels perpetually on the verge of social overload, and eager, if not desperate, to avoid stimulants — not because he is unreceptive, but rather because even very limited contact is typically enough to take him to his receptivity’s threshold. His natural impulse then, in most contexts, on most days, is to work alone, to be in a quiet place, and to restrict human contact, especially unplanned or unpredictable contact, and most particularly contact with large numbers of people. This is not, as is sometimes assumed, because he undervalues companionship, or is even averse to it. Rather, it is far more likely that, having quickly intuited his own threshold for external input, he is inclined to be sparing, if not stingy, with the time and energy he expends on others, precisely because he is loath to run his social battery down on interactions that tax his emotional resources without providing sufficient value in return. In other words, he prefers to save himself for moments and individuals who will fulfill his social needs without risking the sort of hyper-stimulation that will cause his receptors to shut down entirely. Hence, the introvert’s natural friends are others like himself, meaning others whom he trusts to understand his urge to flee from excess interaction, and who share his dread of the sort of high-stimulation contexts that the low-sensitivity extravert, by contrast, craves: bustling offices, teamwork, parties, family reunions, impromptu visits, surprise invitations, busy tourist attractions. 

Now, perhaps we should step beyond the abstract psychological jargon of “sensitivity” and “stimulation” for a moment, and concretize these matters properly. What, exactly, is the “stimulant” to which the introvert is particularly “sensitive”? Answer: matter for thought. He whose temperament inclines toward obsessive and/or anxious reflection upon, and categorization of, everything he experiences, including his reflections and categories themselves, will naturally wish to reduce the number of things he encounters, in order to increase the mental time and space available for such thinking. To inundate such a person, then, with continuous or multifarious external stimulation, is not to provide him with more things to think about, but with too much (i.e., superfluous) information.

Aristotle, in seeking to define the object of the divine intellect’s thought, observes that it must be assumed that God’s mind, which is best, will not think everything, “for surely there are some things that it is better not to see than to see.” Following this logic to its natural conclusion, his famous inference is that the highest being, as an actively thinking intellect, unchanging and impassible, and also best, must be eternally thinking itself. In other words, the divine intellect is a thought thinking its own thinking.

Perhaps for our purposes, then, we may regard Aristotle’s Prime Mover, the self-thinking thought, as the introvert par excellence, i.e., introversion in its most purified or super-human form, and therefore in a sense the exception that proves the rule. For among humans, no such unchanging and impassible purity of intellectual activity is possible; earthly introversion, therefore, cannot entail a complete detachment from others, or more generally from “social interaction.” But if a completely self-subsistent and immaterial intellect may be regarded as the impossibly pure standard of introversion, then we may define the human introvert’s hypersensitivity, and also the nature of his peculiar social needs, more concretely.

The introvert is one who is less interested in having experiences than in contemplating the grounds of his experience. In other words, he naturally tends to seek ultimate causes rather than to pursue a sheer quantity of undigested effects. But he who is obsessed with ultimate things will necessarily feel distracted by the accidental or transitory, much like a person whose reasoning continually gets bogged down in endless qualifications and exceptions until his primary point of investigation is lost amid a thousand tangential sophistries. Precisely what such a person desires is the mental freedom to work through to conclusions, however provisional, without being sidetracked; enough control of his mental environment to allow him to contemplate experience without the constant threat of derailing interruptions; and distance from the general social noise of his surroundings, the sudden demands and last-minute requests, the unthinking forward momentum of crowds or the restraining friction of collegial conformity.

This merely human introvert, however, being an incomplete and developmental animal, naturally requires some social interaction to live, and to live well. And yet there will be a constant tension between his innate need for input and his innate urge to maintain the freest thought space. Inevitably, then, his inclination, as much an emotional reflex as a practical preference, will be to limit his society to those who by means of their interaction can help him to think and understand (i.e., learn), while at the same time being temperamentally capable of acknowledging and abiding by his constitutional reticence to engage — and prepared, even while walking together, to do so often at distance and in silence.

The so-called introvert is a little like Funes the Memorious in feeling forever on the verge of spiritual implosion due to social overload, and a little like Aristotle’s divine intellect in intuiting that there are many things it is better not to see than to see. 

I say “so-called introvert,” because in the end, I must confess that I find all these limbic system categorizations of human experience fundamentally unsatisfying, even trivial in many ways. Perhaps modern psychological categories must always be qualified as “so-called,” since they are all simplifications and superficialities at base. Show me a man who believes “unstable introvert” is a more accurate description of a certain type of temperament than melancholic, or “high basal cortical arousal” more informative than “he’s a loner,” and I’ll show you a modern materialist-reductionist, i.e., a specialist-turned-sophist-turned-bore.

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