Rearranging the Introversion-Extroversion Schema

Is it time to unhook introversion from extroversion?

Posted Aug 06, 2011

Some people objected to the theory, believed it "pathologized" introversion and was "a step backwards for us introverts."

I don't feel that way. First of all, other personality traits have clinical sides (optimism/mania, pessimism/depression) and we don't get all bent out of shape about that.

Grimes suggests that introversion is on the nonclinical end of the spectrum; it's not a disease or a pathology, but a place on a measure of something we're only just coming to understand.

"Autism spectrum" frightens people. I understand. But perhaps the idea will go down easier if we call it the sensory perception spectrum.

What do you think?

Keeping in mind that I'm making this all up as I go along....

At one end of the sensory perception spectrum is people with a high threshold for sensory overload. They can handle all the bells and whistles you throw at them. Perhaps schizophrenia, where sensory systems start inventing stimuli, is at the clinical end of this scale. (Again, making it all up, not a professional.)

At the far other end is deeply autistic people, who (as I understand it) can be paralyzed or thrown off their tracks by the intensity with which sensory input hits them.

In between is a wide range of us, with varying levels of energy and ability to absorb sensory input.

Could that "my brain is full" feeling introverts get when we've been out and about too much be our sensory processing systems getting fatigued? It's actually a physical sensation to me.

So then, what about extroversion, if introversion is not its opposite?

Perhaps the extroversion spectrum measures desire to be around other people. (At one far end you you might have borderline personality disorder...but what's at the other?)

Or maybe extroversion measures outgoingness vs. shyness. (Clinical aspects? I have no idea. Thoughts?)

Yes, yes...measuring personality like that seems mean and small. I do understand objections to labeling. We are not the tidy sum of our traits; we are all that and much more.

But such measurements are nevertheless a useful schema, and this one opens entirely new avenues of thought about how we perceive each other. Unhooking introversion from extroversion makes sense.

I'm sad that introverts are offended by the suggestion that we are on a scale with autistic others. How is that different from extrovert chauvinism towards introversion? I assign everyone who hasn't already to read Temple Grandin's books right now. Or, if you prefer, rent the movie Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes. It's so excellent I watched it twice in two days. Grandin herself loved it and felt it did a great job capturing her intensely visual way of seeing the world.

There's already a grassroots community of people talking about sensory processing disorder; check out Sensory Planet Social Network. They are learning and sharing information about the many ways people respond to sensory input.

Without underplaying the tremendous challenges of living on the far end of the autism scale, I also believe that the more we understand about variances in sensory perception, the more our view of the autistic brain will change. I predict that unlocking its mysteries will allow us to tap into amazing and wonderful brains all along the spectrum, and that will change the way we understand our world.

And if introversion is, as Grimes suggests, an entrée into all this, that's pretty cool.

Visit Jennifer O. Grimes' blog, "The Inner Voice", on Psychology Today.


My book, The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, is available for pre-order on Amazon. It will be released December 4, just in time for party/festive/family-togetherness season. You know you need it.

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Image by Patrick Hoesly via Flickr (Creative Commons).