Introverts in Flatland
By Gil McRae, FWRI Director
“Distress not yourself if you cannot at first understand the deeper mysteries of Spaceland. By degrees they will dawn upon you.”
― Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
Some of you may be familiar with Edwin Abbott’s work quoted above. Flatland (1884) is a novella about a two-dimensional world that satirizes Victorian class culture. The residents of Flatland, without a third dimension, have no “space” as we commonly know it. There is no “up” or “down” simply forward, backward and side-to-side. In addition, there are distinctions based on gender and class. All women are lines, regardless of standing, so they can literally disappear if viewed end to end. For men, the complexity of the shape dictates the social class. Middle class workmen are equilateral triangles, gentlemen are pentagons, nobility are hexagons and the priestly order are circles. Of course, in two dimensions (other than the ability of women to disappear) all these shapes look pretty much the same, so additional senses (smell, sound) are used to distinguish classes. For example, women (the lines) are required by law to emit a loud cry as they move, lest they accidently stab someone if approaching them end-to-end. In addition to its satirical elements, Flatland is fascinating from a geometrical standpoint. This is most notable when a sphere visits from the three-dimensional world (aka spaceland). A sphere viewed in two dimensions is essentially a line that starts small, gets bigger, then smaller as the sphere passes through flatland – and of course to a Flatlander the sphere appears out of nowhere. Flatland had a bit of a renaissance moment in the early twentieth century when some interpreted Einstein’s theory of relativity as predicting a 4th dimension. This is not technically true, and subsequent work by Hermann Minkowski (which Einstein ultimately agreed with) established the notion of “space-time” in which time and space are one intertwined fabric. Einstein considered time itself the 4th dimension and his theories predict (later confirmed) that time slows down for observers moving fast relative to those moving slowly and that time also slows for observers in higher gravitational fields relative to those within weaker gravitational fields (string theory needs 10 or more dimensions to make the math work, but let’s not go there). So, does this mean people that live in high rises age quicker (lower gravity) and that truck drivers age more slowly (higher speeds on average) than a non-trucker, non-high-rise dweller? Yes, but infinitesimally so. You may have heard about the recent confirmation of gravitational waves by multiple astronomers. In the most well-known case, these waves were created when two black holes collided a billion years ago. This collision was so cataclysmic it warped space-time, created the waves that were detected by sensors on earth a few years ago, and confirmed a key component of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
So, Flatlanders are locked into a perceptive bias based on what is observable to them, and there is a lot more going on in our three/four-dimensional world than we realize or can detect with our senses. This got me thinking about human personality and the way we perceive the world and interact with each other. The psychiatrist Carl Jung defined the terms introvert and extravert in the early twentieth century, but not how the terms are commonly used today. Jung used the terms to distinguish whether individuals focus their energy on the inner world or the self (introverts) or external world (extraverts). This is not necessarily the same as todays common usage where introverts are seen as shy and withdrawn while extraverts are social and outgoing. The reality is more complicated. Recent studies have shown that brains of extraverts and introverts (in the Jungian sense) fundamentally differ. Extraverts are more sensitive to reward than punishment and tend to have more dopamine receptors in the midbrain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates a pleasurable feeling. Introverts have greater blood flow on the acetylcholine pathway than the dopamine pathway in their forebrain. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter associated with attention, learning and memory. Of course, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the introvert/extravert scale but your tendencies may have a biological (and genetic) basis. An extreme extravert within a group of introverts can feel a bit like the sphere entering flatland from another dimension – they experience the world in a fundamentally different way.
Wonder where you stand? Do you gain energy from interacting with groups of people, or do you need a break to be by yourself after social gatherings? Try this exercise: draw a diagram with you in the middle and all the big challenging issues you can think of that impact your life in a circle around you. Draw a line between yourself and the issues. Where do you put the points of the arrows?
We are all different and perceive the world in unique ways. Sometimes this is due to things beyond our control. Understanding and appreciating that fact seems like a good place to start for getting along with each other.