Like you, I’m an introvert. But just because I enjoy being alone doesn’t make studying easy.
Extroverts often confuse our quiet, thoughtful tendencies with a natural ability to be studious, but you know as well as I do: studying can be a challenge for us, too! We may thrive in the quiet, but “thriving” does not always translate to “powering through a stack of flash cards.”
I believe the best way to improve at something is to understand the root of your issues. Knowing why studying is challenging for your introverted self will help you to capitalize on your strengths and use your study time more effectively!
Introverts are commonly assumed to be shy individuals who dislike social interaction. While this may be true of some introverts, most of us enjoy people and are happy to carry a conversation.
So what is introversion? Introversion is a natural preference for less external stimuli, the ability to thrive quiet places, and maintenance of a rich inner life. An introvert’s inner world is the real world (unlike extroverts, who tend to feel most sure of the reality of their environment).
Because of this internalized reality, time alone is crucial for introverts. It’s in solitude that we are able to process the information we’re continuously gathering with our senses. This isn’t something we consciously choose: our natural preference for quiet can be explained by the biological makeup of our brains.
Inside the introverted brain
Researchers have speculated that much of the difference between an introvert’s brain and his extroverted counterpart’s is related to dopamine—the brain’s reward system. When engaging in risky behaviors, extroverts experience a greater release of dopamine to the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens than introverts do.
Both the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens are involved in motivation: the amygdala is crucial in emotional responses and decision-making, while the nucleus accumbens deals with pleasure and reward.
Put simply, extroverts get more enjoyment from high-risk, high-reward situations, while we introverts just don’t get the same level of gratification from such circumstances. Instead, we find more satisfaction in our decisions when we take the time to contemplate them.
To further distinguish between introverted and extroverted brains, a Harvard psychologist studied the prefrontal cortex in both introverts and extroverts. He found that this region of the brain, which is related to abstract thinking and decision making, is used more heavily by introverts. We introverts tend to ponder life more than the average extrovert, and this stimulation of the prefrontal cortex is quite rewarding for us. This explains why our inner worlds are so rich, and why we are perfectly content with little interaction with the outside world.
Additionally, introverts are more sensitive to external stimuli. Because of this, environments with heightened audio, visual, or sensory “noise” are not preferred. It’s not that we don’t like people or exciting activities. It’s that too much of any stimulus leaves us emotionally, mentally, and physically drained.
- Introverts are not rewarded by risky behaviors like extroverts are.
- Introverts dedicate more natural resources to abstract thinking and decision making than extroverts.
- Introverts are sensitive to external stimuli, and are easily overwhelmed by it.
Lost in our own minds
So how do these biological processes show up in an introvert’s day-to-day life?
Whether we’re determining what we’d like for lunch or contemplating existential questions, we think. A lot. Our inner worlds are deep and complex.
We like to think, so studying should be easy, right?
Sure, many introverts are able to sit and ponder for hours. But you and I both know that may not mean we’re intensely focused on the task at hand. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat at my desk, math book open wide, nothing tangible to distract me… and suddenly, two hours had flown by, and I’ve accomplished nothing.
Since an introvert’s thought life is so intricate, we may distract ourselves… within our own minds. How, then, can we be productive with our study time?
Making the Most of Your Study Time
It’s fairly obvious that loud environments and group study sessions probably won’t be beneficial for an introvert. But as thinkers by nature, we must keep a careful balance.
In college, I learned that I need to engage with my environment in small ways to keep my mind from distraction. This is how I best utilize my strengths—sitting and pondering—without losing track of what I should be learning.
Maintaining a study space with just enough environmental noise helped me stay focused on the task at hand, because said task exists in the external world. This is what introverts need: enough external stimuli to keep us engaged in our studies, but not so much that we’re overwhelmed by it.
10 practical ways to engage your mind (but not too much)
I’ll be the first to admit, it’s difficult to find that balance between engaging your senses and being distracted by your environment. Here are ten ways you can gently stimulate your senses without overwhelming them, as well as suggestions of how to keep unwanted distractions out.
- Find a genre of music that keeps you focused. Personally, I love playing classical music or acoustic cover songs in the background.
- Invest in a good pair of headphones. Noise-canceling headphones can keep desired noise in and distracting noise out: a win-win!
- Clean up your primary study space. I don’t mean that you need to dust more often (I’m not your mother), but trust me: a visually clean and appealing space can work wonders on your overstimulated brain.
- Turn off your notifications. What’s more distracting than when your device dings, buzzes, and lights up—simultaneously!?
- Get some fresh air. A stuffy room can quickly become a distraction. Consider moving your study session to your backyard or the park… or just open the window!
- Fiddle with something. Keep a rubber ball or a blob of play-doh at hand if you catch your thoughts wandering; it’ll help you refocus!
- Frequent a coffee shop. Sometimes it’s nice to be where the people are. If you find a spot with the right atmosphere, it can be a great change of pace.
- Go to the library. Libraries are notoriously quiet places, perfect for studying. (You may even find a fellow introverted college student with whom you can exchange overwhelmed glances when you’re drowning in your studies.)
- Eat a snack. Or chew gum. Both engage your senses.
- Light a candle. Involving your nose comes with a bonus: studies have shown that smells help to recall memory. Using the same smell repeatedly can help you to recall what you’ve previously studied.
We’re all different and will each have our preferred study methods. But if you’ve been struggling to focus, maybe one of these suggestions will work for you!
Learning why we do what we do can help us to better use our strengths and overcome our weaknesses.
Embrace your quiet nature and use your thoughtful tendencies to propel yourself forward! These are great strengths, and will serve you well in you pursuits, academic and otherwise.
Study well, my introverted friends!