Ode to Silence

I titled this post in my head before I realized that Ode to Silence is a real poem, but I remember learning in high school that an “ode” is a love poem, and silence is undeniably one of my loves, so I felt justified in keeping it.

I self-identify as a textbook introvert. There are tons of posts and articles about introversion online (in addition to a recent favorite book, Quiet), but a lot of the descriptors in this post hit the nail on the head for me. 

Image: http://www.musedmagonline.com/2012/01/dont-call-introverts-shy-understanding-their-influence-and-power/
Image: http://www.musedmagonline.com/2012/01/dont-call-introverts-shy-understanding-their-influence-and-power/

I recently had a thought as I was reflecting on some interactions I’ve had with faculty members and other Ph.D. students: It seems like in academia (or at least in the department I’m in), being comfortable with silence is a must. I find myself fairly frequently sitting silently face-to-face with a faculty member. Maybe I’m just an  awkward person. Maybe my professors are too. Or maybe we’re just comfortable with pausing while we think. Today I asked a friend, also a student in my department, how the big neuroscience conference was that he just attended. His eyes bugged out a little as he told me, “Awesome, but as an introvert surrounded by 30,000 other people, I sort of wanted to go crawl into a corner. It was overwhelming.” In most of life, it seems like at least 75% of people are extroverted. Maybe that ratio is reversed in the environment I’ve chosen to immerse myself in. Is my perception a random and rare case, or is there something to it?

Image: http://ideatransfuser.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/23-signs-youre-secretly-an-introvert/
Image: http://ideatransfuser.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/23-signs-youre-secretly-an-introvert/

The Power of Word Labels

I think a lot about how the word we use to label something affects our perceptions, conceptualizations, and actions regarding that object. Grammatical gender is one type of label that many languages employ, and in some cases, it may have a strong influence over speakers’ conceptualizations of the objects they talk about.

In one pretty classic study, Russian speakers were asked to personify the days of the week (all of which have associated genders), and participants consistently and unconsciously personified grammatically masculine days as males and feminine days as females. Although the evidence isn’t unanimous, a number of studies suggest that grammatical gender may have meaningful effects on speakers’ cognition in ways like this.

In German, “bridge” is grammatically feminine, while in Spanish, it’s masculine. Does that matter? One study (p. 70) suggests that it does: German speakers were more likely to describe a bridge as “beautiful, elegant, peaceful, pretty and slender,” while Spanish speakers tended to use the adjectives “big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.” This is a case in which using a gendered pronoun seems to liken bridges to humans who are similarly gendered.
Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GoldenGateBridge-001.jpg

Another context that draws attention to the power of word labels is the concept of functional fixedness. This is the idea that once we have an established norm for what an object does, it becomes much more difficult to think of new uses for that object. To overcome functional fixedness and increase flexible thinking, Tony McCaffrey, a researcher at UMass Amherst, has developed a method called the “generic parts technique,” which requires a person to break an object down into its component parts and name each part in a way that doesn’t imply meaning. For example, “candle” would be broken down into the parts “wax” and “string.” While “wick” implies an object that should be lit, “string” is much more general, and people are therefore more likely to think of novel and creative uses for the object than when they use its functional label. Empirically, McCaffrey has shown that this method allows participants to solve more problems that require creative insight.

Another issue that’s widely debated is whether labeling psychological illnesses might have negative effects on patients. One side is that labeling an illness results in better access to services for a patient, but the side of the argument that I’m more interested claims that having a named diagnosis might propagate the illness for the patient. For example, if a psychologist diagnoses someone with depression, he will almost certainly go straight home to Google “depression,” and WebMD will enlighten him with a number of common depressive symptoms: fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest, overeating or loss of appetite, etc. Armed with this knowledge, it seems likely that the diagnosed person might start noticing these “symptoms” that weren’t actually present until he started looking for them, or may have been present but milder. Next thing you know, the patient stops eating and starts harboring suicidal thoughts, because isn’t that what a depressed person does? Cue vicious cycle.

Screen shot 2013-06-19 at 4.55.47 PM
A verbal label can encourage certain behaviors, which in turn might make the label even truer than it was initially

Lissa Rankin suggests in her book Mind Over Medicine that physical diagnoses might have a similar effect. She argues that when given a troubling diagnosis, the body signals a stress response, and bodies under stress don’t have the healing capacities that healthy bodies do. Thus, regardless of the validity of the diagnosis, the patient is now in a mental state that will create physical hardship, and possibly illness, for his body.

I’m not saying that diagnoses are never valuable, or that people with diagnoses all of a sudden inflict more severe symptoms on themselves than they had in the first place. What I am saying is that maybe we should think twice before hastily slapping a diagnostic label on a person- it could be a violation of the Hippocratic oath to “first do no harm.”

Along these lines, my recent preoccupation with the introvert/extrovert dichotomy makes me wonder: could “self-diagnosing” yourself as an introvert be harmful? While it seems like a good thing in many cases- it will allow you to better understand yourself and your behavior- might it be the excuse you need to avoid group functions and hole up by yourself whenever you feel stressed? Could it be a self-fulfilling prophecy in that sense? Is that a bad thing?


As mentioned previously, I just finished Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.


As a self-proclaimed introvert, I found it eye-opening (at times I wondered if I was reading my own biography), but I think many extroverts will find it enlightening as well. Here’s a synopsis with my personal highlights and thoughts:

In the introduction, Cain separates the concepts of “introversion” and “shyness,” a distinction that was really crucial. For sure, many introverts are shy and many shy people are introverts, but introversion at its core is different: according to Carl Jung, who coined the terms “introvert” and “extrovert,” introverts gravitate toward the inner world of thought and feeling, they focus on the meaning they make of the world around them, and they “recharge their batteries by being alone.” [10] Cain adds to Jung’s characterization by including a constellation of traits that often co-occur in introverts: they prefer less stimulation, one-on-one and in-depth conversations, and expressing themselves in writing; they enjoy solitude, listen well, take few risks, avoid conflict, work best alone, think before speaking, and have a propensity to get intensely focussed. Many are also “highly sensitive,” the psychological term for people who feel emotions especially deeply and are more sensitive than the average person to physical stimuli as well as things like music, art, and poetry.

Cain traces the history of the “extrovert ideal” in America, arguing that over time, more emphasis has been placed on charisma and vocal leadership, while the benefits of introversion have been overlooked. She also presents some evidence that collaboration may, in some cases, inhibit progress. The extrovert ideal is flawed and ignores so many contextual factors.

Another important distinction she makes is between “temperament,” our innate, biologically-based behavioral and emotional patterns, and “personality,” the “complex brew that emerges after cultural influence and personal experience are thrown into the mix” [101]. While altering our temperament is not an option, our personalities are shaped by our experiences in the world. Cain isn’t arguing that we’re born an introvert or extrovert and we’re stuck that way, but that we have the free will to affect how that temperament is manifested.

She cites examples showing that introverts and extroverts think differently. For example, it seems that extroverts’ dopamine pathways are more active than introverts’. Greater dopamine responses cause extroverts to experience greater reward buzzes and to feel more pleasure and excitement than introverts. This, in turn, is likely to encourage them to take greater risks than introverts might take in search of a reward, which has been suspected as the underlying factor for many lost fortunes when the stock market crashed- people (extroverts) were continually taking risks with hopes of obtaining a reward that never manifested. This is one of many examples of how an introvert’s way of thinking might enhance extrovert-dominated environments.

In the final section, Cain uses the differences between the two groups of people as a basis for concrete advice. First, she encourages introverts to act extroverted when it is necessary for something that’s important to them (like speaking in front of a group if it will further a career that they love). She offers suggestions to both extroverts and introverts for communicating and understanding each other, and tips for bringing out the best in introverted kids, both in the classroom and at home.

I really liked a statement she made in boiling down her argument for readers: “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk” [264].

Guess which light I’m in right now? 🙂