Friday, March 18, 2016

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - 3 stars

There are many different kinds of powers in the world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard's education. The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you've been granted.

Quiet had been on my radar ever since Susan Cain's popular TED Talk on introversion. I am an introvert myself; one who never minded disclosing the fact when the topic came up. Usually, that led to responses ranging from "Oh, I never would've guessed!" to "Gosh, that can't be easy". All from well-meaning people who conflate shyness with introversion - traits which sometimes go together, but are wholly different at a fundamental level. So I was very excited to find someone out there, on such a wide-reaching platform, attempting to clear up some facts about what introversion actually is and is not. Since it is a subject close to my heart, I couldn't resist adding my perspective - in case you're wondering why this review is longer than usual. :)

So what does it mean, anyway, to be an introvert, and how is it different from being an extrovert? The differences lie mostly in how we, as introverts and extroverts, process information, how we perceive demands on our time and attention, and how we recharge our faculties. From a neurobiological perspective - on which Quiet places heavy emphasis - several factors come into play. (This is easily the most fascinating section of the book, and one that led to many aha! moments and much vigorous nodding every time I came across something that resonated with my experiences.) 

For introverts, the neural pathways that transmit information are apparently not only different but also longer; the frontal cortex - governing abstract thought, planning and decision-making - is larger and denser with gray matter. In layperson's terms, it means that new information or external stimulus is processed within more sections of the brain, its purport is weighed more carefully, and more associations with existing information are attempted. But before you rejoice or feel jealous (depending on who you are): all this cool computing doesn't come for free - introverts tend to display slower response times to new and complex information; nor does it necessarily infer a superior brain - what an extrovert may perceive as a manageable and engaging amount of stimuli can easily overload an introvert's brain. 

Of course, it's not as scary as it sounds. You don't see introverts everywhere melting down from shorting their brain circuits. The brain is way more resilient - it doesn't take much to bounce back from the overstimulation of crowded parties or loud concerts. Such experiences can be a lot of fun even for introverts, albeit in smaller doses. Extroverts, on the other hand, are fueled by such activities, and find themselves completely in their element. How do they thrive in high-stimulation environments? The answer is dopamine: the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood and reward-seeking behaviour. As it turns out, extroverts have low sensitivity to this mood-boosting chemical. Not only can they handle more of it, their circuits are wired to crave more of it. 

I've seen this in action with the numerous extroverts among my family and friends. (On a side note, this pairing happens quite often, be it with close friends or partners. Probably because we have much to fascinate, and also learn from, each other.) They are high energy folks, who turn strangers into friends with relative ease. They range from warm and personable to frank and opinionated, but they never lack things to say, nor are ever hesitant to express themselves. They put themselves square in the onslaught of people and activities, unfazed and even excited. 

When it comes to the positive traits of extroverts, I admit to being a bit jealous at times. For many introverts, it would be fascinating to truly feel how an extrovert feels like, to jump headlong into new experiences, to pause the ever-churning thoughts for a bit and live in the moment. On the other hand, an introvert's high sensitivity and low reward-affinity bring a gamut of traits like introspection, perseverance, prudence and best of all: imagination. Building a rich inner world and toying with ideas at length can give birth to amazing and powerful ideas; ideas that make the world a better place. The work of Gandhi, Einstein, Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling might vouch for that. 

I'm not silly enough (and neither is Cain) to presume that these traits are exclusive to introverts, just as openness to experience and ease of expression are not the domain of extroverts alone. If that were true, what a dull world we'd be living in! In reality, there are no full-blown introverts or extroverts - we all fall somewhere along the scale. The extremes are just abstractions that exist to clarify the concepts. Moreover, every trait is learnable by everyone; the brain is not a static organ but an ever-evolving entity. It's just that based on temperament and environment, some qualities come relatively easy to people, while others can only be hard-won. 

But even as we celebrate the contributions of well-known introverts, as a society we are dismissive of introversion as a way of living. The book raises important concerns about how we've come to lionize the extrovert ideal. Instead of seeing the two types as natural variances, we placed extroversion on a pedestal and relegated its counterpart to second place. In doing so, we've labelled introversion an inconvenience, an impediment to overcome. Luckily for me, this was not true while growing up; even Cain notes that in eastern countries, which are more traditional and collective-based, it is extroversion that is usually shunned. Children are taught to think before they speak and exert caution in general. But taken to an extreme, that too is not ideal, as it stunts extroverted kids from being their true selves.

I do wish Quiet had a more balanced perspective and appreciation of the "other side". Given that its main focus is to clarify the nature of introversion and give a boost of validation to us folks, I did not expect to find a lot about what makes our counterparts tick. But the subtle and insidious belittling of the extroverted way was off-putting. Many references to extroversion indirectly reinforced the benefits of being an introvert (or having one on board), and highlighted the regrettable choices of extroverts, who were portrayed to act on impulse and the desire for reward-buzz. Regardless of disclaimers, I couldn't help feeling that Cain's writing came from a place of believing the introverted nature to be better. It did prompt me to find out more about extroversion on my own, and I learned quite a few interesting facts that I wouldn't have known otherwise, indirectly thanks to this book. 

Quiet meanders into self-help territory at times, doling out one too many workplace case studies of introverts (the arc invariably being: X was dissatisfied and unsure of her place, but she eventually understood how to leverage her unique traits, and ended up bringing a new perspective to her work environment). However, it never turns into preachy self-help, with advice on how to "unearth your hidden exuberance" and "blossom into your true poised self" (à la "How to Win Friends and Influence People"), as if one wouldn't be a fully functioning member of society otherwise. For not encouraging that narrative alone, I feel compelled to give it extra points. 

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