Monday, February 27, 2012

Defying Categorization

I'm still reading Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, and I was somewhat confused about Cain's description of novelty-seekers. Cain describes this as a trait most often shown by extroverts, who require stronger stimulation to maintain their interest. She describes introverts as sensitive, easily over-stimulated people who minimize the risk of surprise in their daily lives, but then she goes on to say that many writers, artists, scientists, and other highly creative types are introverts. How can a person be devoted to creativity if he or she does not seek out the new and unexpected?

A few years ago, I did some research for a talk I was giving, and I delved into the scientific literature on circadian rhythms and their effect on various levels of dopamine, serotonin, and other chemicals that affect how we react to the world around us. I ran across the term "novelty-seeking behavior" and I thought, "hey, that describes me." I love new ideas, new ways of looking at things, exploring new places, eating all kinds of ethnic food. Doing the same thing day after day depresses me.

On further examination, though, I found that the psychologist's definition of novelty-seeking is more akin to what I would call thrill-seeking. I have no desire to parachute out of an airplane, dive off a high cliff, or drive a race car. In my mind, those behaviors go beyond novelty, focusing as they do on the immediate adrenaline rush, the very real presence of danger. Maybe the marketing term "variety-seeking behavior" describes me better.

There is such a person as the novelty-seeking introvert. I knew one such person. This person had been in an uninspiring job for more than ten years because it offered him stability and predictability. He didn't care for ethnic restaurants, and he would have been quite content to live exclusively on burgers and fries for the rest of his life. If you could get him to go to a party at all, he would spend the whole time sitting miserably at the edge of the crowd, completely at a loss for anything to say. However, he was fond of rigorous solo hikes that took him far from the nearest human contact. He described to me in near-rapturous terms a winter hike where he became hypothermic and suffered frostbite. A bungee jump off a high bridge was an ecstatic adventure for him, an almost spiritual experience.

Thrill-seeking introverts, sensitive extroverts, seeking the new and different without courting danger, seeking the safe and secure without being boring. I suppose what this all means is that no matter how you try to put people into little boxes, we will always come up with a way to defy categorization. Each one of us is a custom design, and the world needs all of us with our various quirks and talents.

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