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The Introvert’s Brain: Why They Might “Think Too Much”

Brain

“Only those who care about you can hear when you are quiet.” ~Unknown

I find it difficult to be understood. I seem to frequently create complexity out of something that is perhaps very simple and straightforward to others.

For example, going to a movie. For many people, it would be “choose a movie, choose a time, choose a cinema” and there you go.

For me, I check movie reviews, all possible timings, in all possible cinemas. For each timing and location, I will consider if the timing allows other things to be done before and after the movie, and whether the location has sufficient food and shopping options. All else being equal, the location with the cheapest parking fees wins.

Yes, I take a long time to decide on a movie outing, and more on issues with much bigger consequences in life.

In the recent years, I have had to make some rather big decisions about my life, on career and family. Judging from the process I go through to make a decision on a movie, you can imagine the epic journey I went through for each big decision.

My brain had a field time linking every single option to different possible outcomes. Even issues that were once unlinked would somehow be connected to one another the more my brain was allowed to think. And after that, my brain took the liberty of developing Plan A, Plan B, and even Plan C for each scenario.

Naturally, with such a repertoire of scenarios, my brain went round and round as it tried to take care of even the worst-case scenario.

There is a saying that if you cannot do much about something, there is no point worrying about it. But I always feel that I can do something. I can mitigate the impact of bad outcomes if I take careful calculated actions—that is why I think, I plan, then I do. Only when the worst-case scenario could be taken care of would I be ready.

To reach that stage, it took months (if not years). If I tried to explain to a select few friends that I trusted, I found myself bringing up the intricacies of each carefully-devised thought, fear, hope, and plan.

Most of the time, I would elicit a response like “You think too much” or “Don’t be so pessimistic” or “Be more positive.”

Perhaps the one that I dreaded to hear most was “be happy.” I was trying to be happy—I was taking charge of the difficult issues in my life, but in the process of sharing my elaborate thought process, it seemed to people that I was the one creating unhappiness for myself.

In the end, I shut up.

Perhaps it was my fault that I could not articulate my thoughts better. Perhaps I was too long-winded; people generally do not have the patience to listen to the epic journey in my brain. Perhaps they disagreed with some parts of my assumptions, or could not understand the situation sufficiently to appreciate my fears and concerns.

Whatever the possible reasons, I did not want to be discredited for my thoughts and feelings. The epic journey had been too arduous to be brushed aside with “don’t think so much.”

In a way, I wish I could stop that intricate elaborate deep-thinking process. I envy those who can just be happy-go-lucky, not think much, just do and deal with whatever consequences may come. However, science has shown that the brain is wired differently for introverts and extroverts.

German psychologist Hans Eysenck found that introverts have naturally high cortical arousal and may process more information per second. They get overwhelmed and tired quickly in environments with a lot of stimulation, such as a loud restaurant.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scans showed that introverts had more blood flowing in their frontal lobes and anterior thalamus, regions of the brain that recall events, make plans. and solve problems.

It looks like I cannot help it, since I am born with this brain.

With such a brain, all life experiences play a big part to stimulate and shape thoughts. Childhood, adolescent, social interactions, work, family—everything.

As an introvert thinks, s/he connects all the dots, linking past and present experiences much more than extroverts would.

Let’s say we have an introvert, born to a loving and nurturing family, who has close-knit friends and relatives and a cooperative work environment. And we also have one who is not. Which one is more likely to develop positive linkages and hopeful thoughts when forming their outlook in life?

I guess I have come to accept that even good friends may not be able to understand me. Or they might label me as “the one who thinks too much” and has a high dose of pessimism. They may even start to stay away from me, as conventional wisdom advises that one should surround himself with positive and optimistic people.

But I want to question: Do we just dismiss people because they appear “unhappy people” or “pessimistic people” at a point in time? Are they lesser beings just because they find it difficult to handle life as optimistically as others? Everyone has a story. At any point in life, maybe your story is happier than someone else’s.

Let me illustrate using examples from some of my favorite animated movies.

Mr Carl Fredricksen in the movie Up would be dismissed as a grumpy old man who offered no smile or generosity to even a little wilderness explorer. But he was not always unhappy. He happily fell in love and married, but lost the love of his life and his motivation when his wife passed away.

Elsa the ice queen in the movie Frozen would be dismissed as cold-hearted and aloof, but what would you expect of a young girl who grew up locked up in a room because she nearly killed her baby sister and was deemed dangerous by her parents?

Marlin the over-anxious father in the movie Finding Nemo was happily married and about to be the father of 400 children. Then a barracuda showed up, killed his wife, and ate all but one of the babies. The one baby that survived was born disabled. After carefully raising Nemo and letting Nemo attend school, the kid was immediately kidnapped by a human. Can you blame Marlin for his anxiety?

Take heart though, those who truly care will know how to reach out.

Mr Fredricksen, Elsa, and Marlin could have remained as they were had it not been for Russell (little wilderness explorer), Anna (Elsa’s sister), and Dory (the blue fish memorably voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) respectively.

They cared enough to stick by their miserable companion/sister, to encourage and give support. They offered a different perspective to gently draw their friend out of their fears and doubts.

I had always believed that only another introvert can understand and care for another introvert. But I am wrong. Russell, Anna, and Dory were extroverts and optimists.

Although they might not have fully comprehended their introverted friends, they cared enough to never stop reaching out. I realize these are cartoon characters, but I’ve known Russells, Annas, and Dorys in my life and I appreciate and cherish them.  There are not many, but a few truly kind and caring friends are good enough for introverts.

If you have had similar experiences as me, we should stop beating ourselves up for “thinking too much.” Whether we are blessed or cursed by our deep-thinking brain, we have to live with it and harness its strength.

We are naturally empathetic and will be the ones that best offer comfort and support when others are down. What we say or do, we have thought through carefully. We are trusted for our steadiness and thoroughness, and ability to understand complexities.

Yes, we can become more self-aware and accept that we have the natural tendency to go very deep. With that awareness, we can develop control over our brains to push ourselves to the surface once we have gone a little too deep.

We can make miracles if we adapt these abilities to a world where extroverts are in the majority.

In fact, they say the best teams comprise of an introvert and an extrovert (e.g. Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg) due to complementary strengths and weaknesses. And let’s not forget Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln and Warren Buffett who are famous for their powerful introverted brains.

On my part, I have learned to control how much I share, to control my tendency to articulate the epic journey of my decision-making process, lest I attract a “you think too much” remark.

I have learned to be comfortable with the brain processes I have, and not feel the need to always justify my thoughts and decisions. Less is more, for people who cannot, will not try to understand us. And if anyone cares enough, they can hear even if we are quiet.

Brain image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Lena Hong

About Lena Hong

Introverted mother in Singapore who enjoys writing, coffee, dogs as well as chats with friends and her tweenage daughter. Started Givingroses.com to increase awareness of little things we can do every day to make this world a kinder place, like civility and empathy at work and at home. Would love to share ideas and stories to grow and learn together.

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  • I am the same, thoroughly. My heart is broken every time I open my thoughts to my wife; like there is something wrong with me, like I must be broken. She says she feels like she has to rescue me and has decided not to. But most of the time I don’t feel like I need to be rescued, but accepted. I resonate and acknowledge everything you’ve shared here that it indeed is a huge part of who I am, and I am so grateful to know I am not alone. Thank you. You dont know what this means to me to receive this gift in the morning of a sleepless night. But now thinking about it, you might be the only one who does.

    Aloha, Mila

  • Diane Lau

    Lena (and Mila too), your post totally described how my brain works and it’s always wonderful to discover other people who think the same as you do! I needed this today, as tomorrow I am going on my first day trip with a group on a bus since I was a little kid. I have been hard on myself for how much planning and preparation I’ve done for this tour. “Relax and lighten up!” I keep telling myself. But you are right, this is the way I am and far better to embrace and accept it than try to be different. Relaxing sounds nice, but telling yourself to relax but failing at it is NOT! I’ll have a lot more fun (ironically) just letting me be me. Thank you for your wise and helpful words, Lena!

  • AZFan

    Lena, your story made me cry. I felt as though I was reading a journal entry that I should have written. I’ve learned over the past year, that ‘being quiet’ makes my life a lot easier, and though it’s been a relief having discovered that, I was also feeling rather alone and dysfunctional. Imagine my relief now… knowing that I’m not dysfunctional all alone! Thank you so much for baring your soul. I’m sure it was therapeutic for you, but clearly you are helping many others as well. I intend to save this post to re-read on the days I’m feeling ‘less than’. I may someday show it to my husband who’s very favorite barb is “You think too much”.

  • roxanne

    I am an extrovert and an optimist, but I too think too much. I think in terms of finding the best outcome of all possible good outcomes, though I recognize there may be bad outcomes. You don’t have to be an introvert to think too much.

  • Ayush Sachdeva

    You are having more of an ambivert then, now a days world is having more of Ambiverts then Introverts/ Extroverts.

  • Rooboo2015

    It was such a joy to read your story, it is so wonderful to hear other brains work like mine. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • bax

    Unbelievable article! You truly have delved deep into my mind and written the words I have been residing over for so long. It warms my heart to know I’m not the only one who feels this way about being a thinker. I to have had times when I wish I could think less, but deep down I know this is my blessing and I wouldn’t change being an over thinker for anything in the world

  • Traveline

    Wow thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. This is so me. When out bush, alone with a book I’m happiest. And true, nobody understands me hahaha. I do think deeper than most people around me. But what pleasure is it to meet a person every now and then who does think as deep as me and is willing to listen. What a bliss 🙂 and also we are great problem solvers and know a lot about other peoples problems. This makes us great helpers. We are all spacial no matter which way. I’m wishing u and everyone all the best and also that you may find what you enjoy doing without all those pressures and have the luxury to pursue it.

  • lily

    Very enlightening … makes one better understand why one can’t switch off one’s brain that runs much faster than one can type the computer keys. could be frustrating esp when one can foresee inevitable pitfalls ahead, and while planning for mitigating measures before “the sky falls”, those around remain complacent & complaining “it ain’t a problem until it is a real problem”. And frequently, it is a matter about the grasshopper who played his fiddle throughout summer while the ant labored to fill his burrow with provisions for winter. Everybody loves fun and nobody wants to think about anything beyond the comfort zone. But one grasshopper who brings joy with his music is enough. When it’s a horde that bask lazily under the sun and expect to be fed by the one ant come winter … how would an introvert or extrovert respond?

  • I feel like I can connect to your own experience. Thank you for sharing this, as I’m still struggling and often blame myself to take everything so seriously. I try hard to be carefree and relaxed so I ignore my thoughts most of the time.
    And for now I’m still learning to know the difference between the things that I can change and I can’t. So that I can focus this ‘too much thinking’ on those that matters more 🙂

  • Aurora Sky

    I very much identified with this article. People who are labelled ‘introvert’ might actually be a Highly Sensitive person. Please see the work of Dr Elaine Aron if you wish. Her research as a clinical psychologist and therapist of many years has shown that at least 20% of the population of humans and animals show the trait of high sensitivity. Until I found her work and read her book I really believed that I was a freak! These days I am comfortable with my ‘otherness’ and its quirks and I have even come to appreciate the benefits of being a sensitive soul. I recommend her to anyone who feels out of place in this loud world 🙂

  • Sanna

    It was only 2 weeks ago my mother told me to stop being a pessimist, stop thinking so much and start being happy. I almost started crying, because, even though she didn’t think of that way, she was telling me to change who I am and become someone different. So this article/story really hit me. Thank you for voicing the thoughts that so many of us can’t share with the people around us. I hope someday I find a friend that sticks with me despite of my overthinking and reaches out to me, the way that I reach out to my extroverted friends.

  • Emily Reynolds

    Lena, thank you for such a lovely and thoughtful article. I know that, for me, the greatest gift a friend can give me is not understanding, but acceptance of me and my feelings. Acceptance is also the greatest gift I can give myself. You mention how we can use self-awareness to keep ourselves from getting lost or overwhelmed in the constant storm of ideas raging through our mind. Once we are aware, we find a moment of clarity, and here we can choose self-love over self-criticism. <3

  • Wow, great article! The resonate words in this that reflect where I am in this journey is, “in the end, I shut up.” I wish I were further along with my abilities to cope, but I’m not. Recently, I was informed that someone thought I was just rude and didn’t want to talk. No, one of two things were going on. I was either coming from an overly extrovert heavy meeting and was spent, or I simply wanted to avoid a conversation that would end up with a “just be happy” remark.

    On a different comment about, “We can make miracles if we adapt these abilities to a world where extroverts are in the majority.” … while I don’t disagree, I do think that the corporate world is geared to reward and advance extroverted peoplthank you for this article and thank you to all the ones who commented. .. maybe we all need to get together and chat, well, come up with a plan “D” 🙂

  • According to Myers-Briggs there is a spectrum between the two where everyone falls… in a single word, tendencies

  • alchemy

    Lena, thank you so much for writing this. Though I’m not a “feels” person generally, I have to wonder if our (to others) elaborate thought process is somehow kick-started by intensely unpleasant feelings during certain experiences, causing us to “learn our lesson” quickly and never, ever wanting to chance re-experiencing those feelings. My extroverted, adrenaline-seeking spouse (who tells me I think too much and to be happy [since when does lots of thinking equal UNhappy?]) is perfectly okay with physical and/or emotional discomfort and takes no pains to avoid it…he just goes, and whatever will be, will be, figuring he’ll deal with it in the moment. He might “learn” eventually, but will be no worse for the wear. Me, on the other hand: I know I’d be worse for the wear, likely thinking I was an idiot to not have learned from prior experience and not planned to avoid the problem I knew was waiting to bite me. So while every situation isn’t going to be necessarily to my liking, not only do I want to avoid certain uncomfortable/irritating/overwhelming/time-wasting situations, I also want to avoid thinking ill of myself for having not thought something through enough to avoid them. It’s a complicated web. After hearing a lifetime of admonitions to “be happy”, and “stop thinking so much”, eventually turning us silent (because if anyone can learn a lesson efficiently, it’s us), thank you for showing us our tribe.

  • Douglas Thorburn

    Well , I guess I’m not an introvert … I gave up most of that stressful worrying about things that most likely won’t happen when I was 17. There isn’t enough time in life to waste it on foolish worry. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best but all that crap in the middle can be tossed. I decided I didn’t like being a shy introvert so I changed.

  • INFJ VIP

    Let’s face it, there are a lot of people out there on heavy meds. And a lot of personality disorders at play as well. These individuals might absolutely “fit in” – busying themselves with cell phones tapping, social media marketing efforts, work, romance, the mundane – but they are on powerful mood stabilizers. Being a sensitive person is a gift. It’s training your mind to focus that sensitivity like a powerful laser that is the challenge. But you’ve proven to yourself you have an overflow of mental raw material and observational power to make that work. Plus there are so many people in the world now! Every restaurant is crowded! Always!

  • EaganRon

    Thanks for your story. I think of the the thought process you describe as less about introversion vs. extroversion than about pessimism vs. optimism. A great book that validates those of us who are planful to avoid bad negative outcomes is The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, by Julie K. Norem. I highly recommend it.

  • Kristee Trumbo

    Fabulous!!!! for years I have been using Disney to describe people and you poetically state ‘spot on’ points that are accurate in every sense of the word. I’m going to copy and share with many!!! Thank you!!

  • Lena Hong

    I am grateful to know I’m not alone too. Thank you Mila for sharing your thoughts with me. Yes, beyond acceptance, wouldn’t it be great to be appreciated for our deep-thinking? But perhaps spouses/friends don’t quite know how to express that, even if they do. So I guess let’s make a conscious effort to appreciate ourselves more. I’m glad to have this opportunity to encourage each other!

  • Lena Hong

    I’m glad you found my post helpful, Diane! Yes I agree that ironically, the process of stressing up over details and being thorough is just us.. we are happier knowing we planned and thought through things carefully, ya? I hope your day trip went well!

  • Lena Hong

    Oh wow, it is amazing to know that my sharing touched and resonated with you, AZFan. I think we all yearn to have someone listen and appreciate us for who we are, especially the spouse and friends. Learning to appreciate ourselves and not having to over-justify ourselves to others is liberating… let’s learn to do that together, consistently. 🙂

  • Lena Hong

    Perhaps not all introverts are deep-thinkers and vice-versa, but it would seem more deep-thinkers tend to be more introverted. I accept, Roxanne, that there will be a group of deep-thinking extroverts too! Thanks for sharing!

  • Lena Hong

    Thank you Rooboo2015, appreciate it. Wonderful to hear I’m not alone too!

  • Lena Hong

    I’m so glad that the article resonated with you, bax. Yes, let’s not see our deep-thinking as anything terrible, but something that can be leveraged on as a strength! Deep-thinkers unite! 🙂

  • Lena Hong

    Thank you, Traveline, I needed that good wish from you! 🙂 I totally agree it’s a bliss to meet like-minded people, who can understand our thought processes even before we articulate them. We are willing to spend the time to listen to others, but the reverse isn’t always true. Let’s continue to appreciate ourselves, fellow deep-thinker! 🙂

  • Lena Hong

    Thank you lily, that’s a very interesting analogy of the grasshopper and ant! My personal view would be that grasshoppers and ants have their strengths and weaknesses. The ants prepare well for winter but could overwork themselves to exhaustion. Grasshoppers are not as well prepared but enjoy life and still survive. As long as there is no exploitation of the ants by the grasshoppers, both have their own lives to live. But if there is exploitation, ants should stand up for themselves, like in the movie “A Bug’s Life”!

  • Lena Hong

    That’s a very good tip, Prisilia, on focusing on things that matter more. Thanks for sharing! In fact, I think by choosing to share our deep thoughts with selected people also helps, so that we are not always told off, making it even harder to appreciate our deep-thinking brains. We already beat ourselves up a lot, so no need others to add on. Let’s continually remind ourselves, yes we think seriously, we contribute to our studies, work, family in a serious manner.. that’s a virtue not everyone has!

  • Lena Hong

    Thank you Aurora Sky, yes I have read the work of Dr Elaine Aron too. The amazing neurological wiring of HSPs makes us easily over stimulated by all sort of stimuli in the environment, and keeps the brain constantly stimulated – a gift or a curse, we need to harness it for its maximum potential. 🙂

  • Lena Hong

    I can identify with that Sanna. It’s sad to hear such comments from our own family. Guess we have to recognise that while we have the patience and sensitivity to listen and understand others, the reverse is not always true. There will be people who will appreciate us for who we are, you yourself must start to appreciate yourself because that means you are appreciating me (and the rest who have commented here) too! 🙂

  • Lena Hong

    Thank you so much Emily, for identifying with what I am trying to say! <3

  • Lena Hong

    Hi Jamey, can totally identify with the exhaustion of extroverted meetings. And agree on corporate world…incidentally it’s been quite a challenge for me to enjoy the corporate world, and I do write about it in my website. Hope to have the opportunity to discuss more! A Plan D discussion sounds absolutely enticing, don’t the rest agree? 🙂

  • Lena Hong

    Thank you so much alchemy, it is so real reading what you wrote! I wouldn’t give up thinking deeply and all possible options because doing otherwise will make me feel unprepared, and uncomfortable, just like you! Thank you for sharing your experience and identifying our tribe! 🙂

  • Lena Hong

    Hi Douglas, looks like you are happy to make the change, but if you ever do worry again, I trust it would not be foolish but sensible thoughts of caution.

  • Lena Hong

    The book sounds interesting, will go look it up, thanks for the recommendation!

  • Lena Hong

    Thank you Kristee, it’s great to know my points resonated with you! 🙂

  • Taosophy

    All introverts are not worriers who seek to plot perfect experiences devoid of dynamism and anxiety. Anxiety begets more anxiety. Try a little stoicism because…everything is NOT going to be okay…EVER.

  • logic and truth

    You have no idea how much of a relief this was, after reading this. Word for word, that’s me too, that you’ve written about. I had recently given up on everyone around me because I kept hearing ‘you think too much’. For my brain the way I thought was absolutely normal. This gives me peace knowing that’s its OK to be this way and to slow down and rise up to the surface when it gets hyper thinking and deep down. Thank you thank you thank you 🙂

  • Taosophy

    The behavior described in this post seems more related to some kind of obsessive compulsion than introversion. An introvert MAY try to order his experience to reduce social anxiety associated with introversion, but as a fellow introvert who loves his solitude and independence, I can’t say that I obsess over the details of any decision.

    I would just as soon decide not to go to the movies if I had to worry about all those logistics. Not worth it. But this seems to be another aspect of the poster’s character–who ALSO happens to be an introvert.