o-worker appears out of the blue and asks me a question. Her eyes and tone of voice say she wants an answer now. Her request is easy, but my mind is momentarily paralyzed.
I start sentences then stop them. I hesitate. I say words that are close to what I mean, but not exactly. I backtrack.
My co-worker — an extrovert who always seems to express herself effortlessly — looks at me like,come on, spit it out. I think, if only my brain would cooperate.
Why introverts struggle with word retrieval
When we’re speaking out loud, we introverts may have trouble with word retrieval, meaning, we struggle to find just the right word we want. We may come off sounding like we don’t know what we’re talking about, even though we do. In social situations, we may have trouble keeping up with fast-talking extroverts.
Our brains use many different areas for speaking and writing, writes Dr. Marti Olsen Laney in her book, The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World, and when talking out loud, information needs to flow between the separate regions. One reason why introverts struggle with speaking is that we process information deeply, which means information moves slowly between areas of our brain.
Another reason has to do with introverts relying more on long-term memory than working memory. Information stored in long-term memory is mostly outside of our conscious awareness. Like the name sounds, long-term memory contains information that is retained for long periods of time — in theory, information is saved indefinitely. Some of this information is fairly easy to access, while other memories are more difficult to recall. Contrast this with working memory (sometimes referred to as short-term or active memory), which is limited and retains information for mere seconds.
It takes longer to reach into long-term memory and pull out just the right word or piece of information. The right association is needed, which is something that is related to what we’re trying to recall. This, of course, slows us down when we’re speaking.
If we’re anxious — like how I felt when my intimidating co-worker approached me — it may be even more difficult to locate and articulate the right words.
Why it’s easier to express ourselves in writing
Introverts “often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation,” writes Susan Cain in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Introverts may prefer text messages and emails to phone calls. Many of us keep journals or compose lyrics, poems, or stories, and some of us make careers out of writing.
The reason for this preference once again has to do with how our brains are wired: written words use different pathways in the brain, which seem to flow fluently for many introverts, writes Laney.
What to do when your mind goes blank
Memory is complex, and it uses many different areas of the brain. Our brains store memories in several locations and create links between them, called associations.
To yank something out of long-term memory, we need to locate an association. The good thing is, most pieces of information in long-term memory were stored with several associations or keys for unlocking them.
“If we find just one key, we can retrieve the whole memory,” writes Laney.
When you struggle to remember a word, a piece of information, or even what you did over the weekend (because that question often comes up in small talk!), try these things:
- Be still and relax.
- Give yourself permission to be quiet for a few moments. Don’t let the other person rush you.
- Buy yourself time to process things by saying something like, “Let me think about that,” or “Hmm, let me see…” Or, give a nonverbal signal that shows you’re thinking, like looking away and furrowing your brow slightly.
- Let your mind wander for a moment and go where it wants. One thought may lead to another, and one of those thoughts may hold the “key” to unlocking the words you want from your long-term memory.
If all else fails, and words escape you, don’t feel embarrassed — your brain is doing what comes naturally to it, and that is to pause and reflect. If you’re being quiet, you’re in good company with other deep-thinking introverts: Stephen Hawking once said, “Quiet people have the loudest minds.”
Then, try breezing over any awkwardness in the conversation by using humor to make light of your tongue-tied state, or say you’re a little distracted right now, and you’ll get back to the other person later — by sending an email or text.