Sense and Sensation

QUIETAs I mentioned yesterday, I’m reading Susan Cain’s new book Quiet: The Importance of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Currently, I’m about 2/3 through the book, and it has been an eye-opening experience. Cain confirms some information about introverts that I already knew, but she’s also done a tremendous amount of research into neurophysiology and how the brain chemistry of introverts is fundamentally different from those of extroverts.

One of the most memorable sections so far talks about sensitivity. Introverts are “high-reactive,” meaning that if you place one of us next to an extrovert, and make us both watch Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the quick cuts, endless explosions, shaky camerawork, and deafening soundtrack will more likely cause the introvert to run screaming from the room. (The extrovert may also run screaming from the room, but for other reasons, such as trying to figure out the nonsensical plot, or suffering from the headache and motion sickness associated with the 3D glasses. I seriously can’t understand how anyone survived watching such an abomination on a massive movie screen.)

It’s like this: given the same amount of sensory information, introverts process it with more sensitivity, and we can’t handle nearly as much. Interaction with other people is high on the list of exhausting activities for us, because of the sensory information associated with concentrating on the words being said, picking up visual cues from facial expression and posture, projecting an attitude of friendliness, and having to think of things to keep the conversation flowing. It’s the contrast between spitting water on someone through a plastic straw, and blasting them full strength with a fire hose.

Even Superman gets sensory overload!This explains quite a bit about some of the actions I’ve taken in the past. When I was about 16 or 17 years old, I was driving my mother and sister around one afternoon, and I pulled out of a shopping center onto a busy road in front of a tractor trailer. And even though the truck was far enough behind me that I had plenty of time to speed up and get out of his way, my mother got startled and yelled at me about how close it had been, that I wasn’t watching the road, etc. What I didn’t realize was that during her tirade, I’d slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a full stop, and into much more danger than if she hadn’t said anything. All I remember feeling is a blank whiteness, as if all of my perception inputs had been muffled by this overload of sensory data.

It wasn’t until the truck honked its horn and pulled around me that I came back to myself, turned to my mom, and yelled back, “Do you want to drive?!” I was in the process of unbuckling my seatbelt and opening the car door when she pulled me back down into my seat, and said, “No, no, stop being ridiculous, I’m sorry, just drive.” My mother is one of the people I love most in the world, an amazing role model and the apotheosis of encouragement, but to this day I’m reluctant to drive if she’s in the passenger’s seat.

Another example: several years ago, when Janet and I attended WisCon (one of the many times we went), I’d been so looking forward to seeing a good number of my writer friends, but when we touched down in Madison, something inside me initiated “turtle mode.” (Which is not nearly as fun as “ninja turtle mode.”) There had to have been close to a thousand people attending that year, and even though these were my peeps, the people that I felt most comfortable and at home around, the sheer number of bodies moving around me at all times overloaded my poor brain. During the Ratbastards Karaoke Party the first night, I was unable to get up from my chair and talk to my friends, even though they were just right there! Tim Pratt (the same guy who made me a Writer, remember?) came over and sat next to me and Janet to say hi, and I was so unresponsive that I barely acknowledged that he was there (which I felt so bad about afterward; sorry, Tim!).

Even though I yearned to spend time with so many friends with whom I normally only interacted online, that extended weekend I spent more time in our hotel room than at any previous WisCon. Why couldn’t I just get out there? I kept berating myself. The convention felt like such a waste, and it made me incredibly depressed. I only saw these folks once a year, and I’d blown the chance to hang out with them. However, right at the end, a moment that nearly redeemed my intensely introverted experience: as Janet and I waited for the hotel van to ferry us to the Madison airport, Theodora Goss (herself an introvert) came over and kept us company. She’d bought one of Janet’s paintings in the Art Show, and effused over it. I’d previously bought the hardcover edition of Dora’s collection In the Forest of Forgetting, and effused over that. We had an incredibly pleasant and intimate conversation during that time, just the three of us, and it did me a world of good. I hadn’t been able to interact with many of the people I’d wanted to, but I’d had a wonderfully deep, if brief, conversation with a woman I’m now proud to count as a good friend.

I haven’t even finished Quiet yet, but it’s already high on my To Recommend list, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. It may help you to understand the people around you better, or even yourself. But even if all it does it allow you to find a bit more peace within yourself and others, it’s worth it; an increase in quiet is a good thing no matter where you might be.


Filed under Books, Introversion

3 responses to “Sense and Sensation

  1. Thank you for writing this, and for the book recommendation. I’ve had very similar convention experiences. Those one-one conversations truly make dealing with the crowds worthwhile.

  2. Pingback: Introverted, Not Shy | Jason Erik Lundberg

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