Your Personality, Your Noise

There are far too many unsupported and overhyped statements about what “science tells us” about introverts and extraverts. This distorts the dialogue and affects school and workplace policy. I take up this subject both because it overlaps with some of my interests and because it bears examination. “Science tells us” statements have popular appeal, a big market, and numerous high-profile outlets. They need vigorous questioning.

When it comes to introversion and extraversion, the findings are far less definite than pundits claim. Any blanket statement about introverts and extraverts needs unblanketing. (I see no need to call anyone an introvert or extravert in the first place, but that’s another matter.)

Here is an example. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Susan Cain says,

And just to give you kind of a concrete illustration of [how introverts and extraverts work differently], there’s this fascinating study that was done by the psychologist Russell Geen, where he gave math problem [sic] to introverts and extroverts to solve with varying levels of background noise. And he found that the introverts better [sic] when the noise was lower, and the extroverts did better when the noise was higher.

I can’t find that study anywhere, but the statement alone contains some problems, which I’ll lay out in just a moment. I did find Geen’s 1984 study “Preferred Stimulation Levels in Introverts and Extraverts” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 46, no. 6), and I found it precise and cautious in its wording.

This study consisted of two experiments. Subjects (all male) were selected from the upper and lower 25 percent of the Extraversion scale of the Eysenck Personality Inventory. They were undergraduates enrolled in psychology classes.

For the first experiment (which involved 30 extraverts and 30 introverts), Geen sought to determine whether extraverts and introverts, given the freedom to choose a noise level (other than zero), would differ in their choices, and whether such freedom of choice would equalize their arousal levels. There was a “choice” condition and two control conditions: one where the subject was given the noise level chosen by another (“yoked”) subject with the same personality type, and another where the noise level was selected by the experimenter. The subjects took this test one at a time. After selecting their noise level (or having it selected for them), they had to  wait two minutes. Then the projector was turned on, and they worked to complete a paired-associates learning task. The learning task ended when they completed two successive errorless trials. If, after twelve trials, they had not achieved this, the procedure was terminated.

The second experiment had more subjects (40 extraverts and 40 introverts) and a slightly different approach. This time, in addition to selecting their optimal noise level, introverts indicated the lowest acceptable noise level, and extraverts the highest. This established the four intensity levels used in the study. There was only one control condition: where the experimenter chose the noise level for the subject. (The “yoked” condition was eliminated because, in the first experiment, its results did not differ from those of the choice condition.) Otherwise this experiment followed the same procedures as the first.

I will focus on the results of the second experiment (because I have a bit more to say) and because, in Geen’s words, it provided “a replication and extension of the first.” With respect to pulse rate, something interesting came up: introverts and extraverts did not differ in pulse when they had chosen their noise level. When subjected to moderate noise, introverts were more aroused (i.e., had a higher pulse rate) than extraverts, but at the extreme noise levels (high and low), their rates did not differ from each other. This, right away, casts doubt on the blanket assertion that introverts are more sensitive to stimuli than extraverts. The statement needs careful qualification and questioning.

When it came to the task, introverts and extraverts performed equally well at their chosen noise levels. When subjected to superoptimal noise levels, both introverts and extraverts did significantly worse. When subjected to suboptimal noise levels, extraverts did significantly worse, but introverts did not (or they did worse, but not significantly).

This is interesting (and again, carefully thought out and presented), but I see a few caveats here. (And I haven’t forgotten about the Cain quote; I’ll come back to it in a minute.)

First, there are problems with selecting the top and bottom 25 percent on the extravert scale; your subjects are already at the extremes. How much of this applies to a full population is uncertain. That said, if you didn’t do that, you’d probably end up with so much noise (in the data) that you couldn’t draw any conclusions.

Second, I wonder to what degree the Eysenck Personality Inventory already relates to noise tolerance. That is, are these subjects defined as introverts/extraverts partly on the basis of their reported tolerance of noise? That would make the experiment somewhat redundant.

Third, I wonder to what extent the particular kind of noise influenced the results. (These were one-second bursts of white noise, with a mean of ten seconds between bursts.) I can imagine the high levels being particularly jarring (to anyone), and the low levels annoying (that pesky sound you can’t get rid of).

There are still more open questions; to begin to address them, I would need more statistical  knowledge and access to the raw data. To his credit, Geen does not draw rash conclusions from this study; at the end, he offers possible implications and describes the work that still needs to be done.

So I come back to the Cain quote, in particular: “And he found that the introverts better [sic] when the noise was lower, and the extroverts did better when the noise was higher.”

She could not have been talking about this study, because that was not the finding. There must be another  study that I haven’t located yet. Even so, a person making such a statement should specify the following:

  1. Which study is this? Give identifying information.
  2. How were the introverts and extraverts selected and defined?
  3. What kind of noise was used?
  4. What were the math problems, and what do you mean by “did better”?
  5. Was there any complexity/contradiction to the findings?
  6. Did the author bring up any caveats (and do you see any)?

That’s a lot, I know, and in an interview it might not be realistic. But that’s only scratching the surface; an expert should be able to do things I myself can’t do: for instance, explain the methods used for interpreting the raw data.

What I see instead (and not just from Cain by any means) is a tendency to oversimplify and exaggerate the results of studies, and to do so again and again.

Some of these studies are interesting and valuable. Others are bunk. Still others are works in progress. All of them have limitations, but when taken skeptically and cautiously, they can help us reach greater understanding.

The implications? I see no problem with the idea that different people work well at different noise levels. But reducing the matter to “introverts” and “extraverts” is unnecessary and unfounded. Much depends on the individual, the context, the particular task, and the type of noise. There are situations that call for quiet, situations that call for noise, and a range in between. While a workplace should probably establish basic quiet (so that the noise doesn’t get out of hand), people can learn how to handle both quiet and noise in reasonable degrees.

Note: I made a few minor revisions after posting the piece–and then made a few more a year later. Also, Science of Us (New York Magazine) has started challenging some of the pop-psychology assertions about introversion and extraversion. (Here’s another piece on the topic.)

Noise and Its Discontents

A few weeks ago, during a lesson on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I played my students a DVD of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra performing the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, which has “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” as its lyrics. At first, the students were somewhat giggly; then a hush came over the room. We were all taking part in something extraordinary. Afterward, I felt rested and restored; weeks later,  I carried the music in my mind.

It’s a truism to say that we live in a noisy world—but noise has become the default in our lives. We acquiesce to having many conversations and activities at once; to focus on a single thing seems brazen. Yet something like Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 requires full focus; insofar as we have pushed such focus away, we have pushed away the music too.

Lately I have read, on blogs and in magazines, various insinuations that certain people—classified as Highly Sensitive People—are especially affected by noise. To me, that’s a diversion of the problem. Yes, noise affects some more acutely than others, but it affects everyone; it scatters our thoughts, work, conversations, meals, commutes, and sleep. As we (as a society) lose the practice of quieting down, we also break up others’ quiet.

But let’s backtrack a little and take a look at what noise and quiet actually are. The words are often used loosely to encompass visual stimuli as well as sounds. This is legitimate; I will explain why.

The word “noise” apparently derives from the Latin nausea (“disgust, annoyance, discomfort”). That is one theory, anyway. Another is that it derives from the Latin noxia (“hurting, injury, damage”). Let us think of it as something cacophonous to the ear or eye or mind—a pile of clashing stimuli. So, if I am reading an article online and am interrupted by flashing ads and popups, I consider the experience noisy. If I am at a concert, and my neighbor is checking messages on her illuminated handheld device, I am bothered by what I would call noise. You can have a chorus of a hundred and no noise; you can have two people interrupting each other—and noise aplenty.

The opposite of noise, then, is not silence, but harmony and integrity. A focused class discussion is harmonious in that the people listen to each other, build on each other’s points, and refrain from distraction. The harmony need not be perfect. In a concert hall, there will be sounds of rustling programs and feet, or even the occasional squeak of the bow on the string. That doesn’t turn the performance into noise. Nor do dissonant musical intervals, necessarily. You can have a dissonant piece that is nonetheless harmonious in a larger sense. Noise destroys the harmony and integrity of something.

Quiet is not silence; it is a kind of rest. You can be quiet while giving an animated speech; the quiet underlies the speech. It is that which allows you to collect your thoughts and perceive the audience. Without the quiet, it’s difficult to collect or perceive.

So, what are the intrusions on the quiet? What accounts for the rise of noise?

One of the biggest culprits is acquiescience: the attitude that “that’s just the way it is today.” I often hear people say that because we live in a world of multitasking and constant digital communication, we should simply go along with it, in the classroom and everywhere else. Stop holding on to the old ways. Adapt to the new. Have more group work. Have kids text about Shakespeare. Have many conversations going on at once. Even explicators of the Common Core—or many of them–tell teachers not to be the “sage on the stage” but instead to “facilitate” while the students work in groups.

I have never advocated for lectures as a primary pedagogical format in secondary school. When I defend lectures or the “sage on the stage,” I defend them as part of a larger collection of approaches. That said, they merit defense. One great benefit of the lecture is that it allows students to listen to something, make sense of it in their minds, come up with questions and counterpoints, etc. Also, there are some true sages in the classroom. I don’t claim to be one—but I have had teachers to whom I wanted to listen for hours because they inspired me so much.

When the quiet and focus are in place, a host of possibilities arises. The teacher can shape the presentation; she has the latitude to approach a question obliquely, since she doesn’t have to meet the a demand for instant entertainment and sense. The students start to see how one idea leads to another; the sustained thought enters into their reading and writing. This makes room for serious joy and accomplishment.

Outside of school, whoever reads a book for an hour or two without interruption, practices an instrument with full concentration, or stays away from email for a full day, not only has a treasure, but holds it out for others to take as well.

For these reasons, I will continue to fight the noise on many fronts, external and internal. It may be a losing scrimmage, but if I can win here and there, it will be worth it.


I made a few revisions to this piece long after posting it.

Enter This Landscape

I recently came upon Cynthia Haven’s blog, The Book Haven—in particular, a post about the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, with a quotation of my translation of his poem “Tu, Felix Austria” (one of my favorites of the translations and of his poems). I continue to read her blog with enjoyment and admiration.

It was in 1988 that I first encountered Tomas Venclova’s poetry. I was a senior at Yale; he was directing my independent project on Russian poetry translation. Knowing that he was a poet, I wanted to read his work (but didn’t want to tell him this). So one day I made a furtive trip into the library stacks. I opened up a volume of his poetry and read the lines,

Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.
Stogų riba sutampa su aušra.
Byloja sniegas, pritaria ugnis.

What did these words mean? At the time, it didn’t matter. I was drawn into the sounds, or what I thought were the sounds. “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

(Later, I learned that they meant, roughly, “Stop, stop. The sentence disintegrates. The border of rooftops coincides with the dawn. The snow proclaims, the fire repeats.”)

Not long afterward, Tomas (or Professor Venclova, as I called him at the time) invited me to translate his poems—not a coincidence, but a great honor. Throughout the project (which resulted in a book, Winter Dialogue, most of which later reappeared in slightly edited form in The Junction), I immersed myself in the original poems, through listening to recordings of them and poring over the Lithuanian. I also had Russian literal translations and Venclova’s notes to guide me along.

The strength and weakness of my translations was that I tried to preserve the sound, rhythm, and form of the original—or, rather, to recast the poem in comparable sound, rhythm, and form. When it worked, it worked splendidly (for instance, in “Tu, Felix Austria,” “Pestel Street,” and “Autumn in Copenhagen”). When it didn’t, it came across as stilted. I don’t regret taking this approach. I do wish, in retrospect, that I had trained my ear to hear the translations in themselves. I always heard the originals behind the translations.

I bring this up because I have been repeatedly remembering the poem “Pašnekesys žiemą” (“Winter Dialogue”) and its opening lines:

Įženk į šį peizažą. Dar tamsu.
Anapus kopų gaudžia tuščias plentas.
Su jūromis kariauja kontinentas—
Nematomas, bet sklidinas balsų.
Praeivis arba angelas sniege
Paliko lengvą užpustytą brydę,
Ir kranto atspindys juosvam lange
Mums primena bevaisę Antarktidę.

In my translation (in The Junction), this reads:

Enter this landscape. Darkness still prevails.
Filled to the brim with voices, though unseen,
The continent takes up arms against the seas.
Across the dunes, the empty highway wails.
A passerby or an angel in the snow
Has left a subtle covered trail behind,
And, in the blackish pane, the seaside’s glow
Becomes the bleak Antarctic in our minds.

In the beginning, the landscape consists of sounds—the voices, the wailing. So, the invitation into the landscape is indeed an invitation into the poem’s sound, much like the invitation that I heard when I first read “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

I love remembering this poem and reciting it to myself. One of my favorite stanzas is the sixth (remember that this is a dialogue):

Po sunkiasvorio debesio tinklu
Tarytum žuvys blizga ankštos aikštės.
˶Ar tu atsimeni, ką sakė žvaigždės?”
˶Šis amžius išsiverčia be ženklų,
Tėra statistika.” ˶Mirties trauka
Sukausto žmogų, augalą ir daiktą,
Tačiau sudygsta grūdas ir auka,
Ir štai tada, manau, ne viskas baigta.”

And in English (the translation takes a few minor liberties):

Beneath the screen mesh of the weighty cloud,
The squares, like fish, are glittering and playing.
“Do you remember what the stars were saying?”
“This century is managing without
A sign; there’s just statistics.” “Gravity
Of death has fettered person, plant, and thing,
But sprouts burst forth from seed and sacrifice,
And then not all is over, or so I think.”

How many people have room to enter a landscape of this kind? Even I don’t have that room in the way I once did. I am cluttered with obligations and concerns. A pile of tests to correct lies in front of me. Emails await my response. But at least I know what it means to enter something like this, and I can do so, up to a point. I know there is more to this poem than I can grasp–a history that I have not lived, a consciousness I have not known, a language that is not mine. All the same, when I listen to it, some of the barriers fall away. I understand something of it, beyond the aspects that I can analyze.

What worries me as a teacher (and what sometimes overwhelms me) is that many students don’t know how to still themselves to enter poetry. (I don’t mean this poem in particular, which probably requires adult understanding.) Many children and adults have a persistent need to make noise—not only out loud, but in themselves. I am not referring to my students in particular. I hear from teachers around the country (and even from professors) that students do not know how to quiet down, in part because adults don’t know, either, or don’t practice it.

I am not recommending that schools start including meditation in the school day, though some schools do. The quiet should come through the very attention to the subject, be it a poem, a math problem, or a historical document. But “should” is one matter; “does” is another. Quieting down takes practice, and given all the buzz around us, it may need a kind of practice in itself, even a simple kind.

Nor am I suggesting suggesting that we have all lost our focus and quiet (or that any of us has lost all of it). Nor do I blame technology for the problem. Technology, after all, gives us audio recordings. I can listen to many more recordings in Russian, Lithuanian, and other languages today than I could a few decades ago. It’s possible to listen to “Pašnekesys žiemą” (and other poems) by downloading the MP3 version of Venclova’s album “Winter Dialogue: Chants from the Holy Land” (for those interested, “Pašnekesys žiemą” begins around 56 minutes and 25 seconds into the recording).

Nor would I say that humanity has ever been fully focused. We need a mixture of focus and distractibility in our lives, and the relationship between them is intricate. Problems arise when we tip too far toward the one or the other, when we forget how to navigate between the two.

What would help, then? Maybe more poetry in the curriculum—where students memorized, recited, discussed, and (sometimes) wrote sonnets, villanelles, and other kinds of verse. This isn’t a fix (what is?), but it would help young people start to listen to language and form.  They would develop a tolerance for poems that they didn’t understand immediately. They would learn to hold things in their minds. Also, memorization is a gesture of a kind. It’s a way of saying, “This is important, and therefore I will preserve it.” Students may not agree immediately (or ever) that a given poem is important. But they will gain something from the gesture.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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