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March 23, 2015 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Lessons From the 52-Hertz Whale

In 1989, an oceanographic institute working for the US Navy detected a whale call that was unlike any other recorded in history. The call resonated at 52 hertz, far above the range of any other whale in that area, believed to be emanating from one whale in the Pacific. A blue whale’s call resonates at 10-39 Hz, and the fin whale’s at 20 Hz. Neither species can interact with the “52-hertz whale” because its call is too high for them to hear. It swims alone, singing to no one but itself.

When its discovery was made public, the creature was dubbed “the loneliest whale in the world”, and it became a spirit animal for the despondent, the heartbroken, and the just-plain different folk all over the world. Is it a danger to idolise and anthropomorphise this creature for the sake of our own self-satisfaction? Or can the feelings stirred by this creature’s plight teach us something about introverts, those for whom solitude comes as naturally as it does to this poor whale?

The ability to give care, attention and “a shit” in social interaction is a limited resource, like a battery. This is true for everyone, but the difference between extroverts and introverts is how that energy is expended and rejuvenated. Extroverts gain their energy through company and expend it alone on personal tasks, while introverts gain energy through solitude and expend it in social interaction. Introverts get a bad rap because their need to deliberately forgo company is mistaken for selfishness or anti-social tendencies. But introverts are just more careful about how and when they expend their limited energy store. They’re also more inwardly focused on their own thoughts and feelings, preferring to cultivate a complex inner world, rather than be in tune to the social current.

However, we live in a society that favours the extroverted, those who can make friends and influence people with limitless energy. The corporate and social realms march (or swim, to continue the metaphor) to the beat of this drum out of a belief that overt friendliness fosters creativity, synergy and other buzzwords.

It should be said that no one is a complete introvert or extrovert. One is simply introverted and extroverted. Modern psychoanalysis is consistently aiming to reflect this as it moves towards a “spectrum” approach of assigning individual personalities and identities, rather than a binary “if not this, then that” label. The extrovert/introvert spectrum (or E/I spectrum) assigns individuals based on a preference for stimulating environments. Introverted quiet-cafe people sit at one end and extroverted party people dwell at the other. “Ambiverts” sit in the middle, being comfortable in either pool.

For those who require the science, you’re not the only one. Psychology has a tendency to be seen as a bit ethereal, even by those within the field, so most psychologists and neurologists aim to find a “wetware” explanation for behavioural tendencies. The research of Hans Eysenck, author of The Biological Basis of Personality, states that an introvert’s desire for quiet low-stimulation environments is tied to cortical arousal—the rate at which your brain takes in information. Introverts have naturally high cortical arousal, which means they are constantly evaluating their surroundings, for example, looking for a less stimulating environment in which to think or to add new information to their inner world.

Put an introvert in a crowded, noisy restaurant or a party where everyone talks over each other and the music, and they’ll be overwhelmed by the influx of information. Suddenly you have to process talking, and listening to people over music, and social cues, and navigate a sea of people, and you just want to find a place to sit down and OMIGOD WHY IS THIS SO DIFFICULT!?! So an introvert will mentally shut down or “chug” like a computer with too many programs running, and this kicks off a retreat to solace. This is just how the introverted mind is wired, and that’s okay.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the other end of the spectrum as well. As introverts are wired to seek solace to recharge, extroverts are wired to seek company to do the same. A cognitive neuroscience study from 2011 has shown that this “wiring” pertains to how stimuli is received and processed by the brain. For example, in response to social stimuli such as looking at people’s faces, extroverts respond more strongly and feel more rewarded, while introverts have a response on par with how they would respond to an image of flowers. This explains why an extrovert feels replenished in more stimulating environments, while introverts can stand to shirk them.

As social animals we’re driven by a need for connection, regardless of where we fall on the E/I spectrum. Thanks to smartphones and the internet, introverts have both a convenient escape from social pressures and a means to interact with others without fear of public embarrassment. Some even take this to the point of completely replacing face-to-face interaction, with communities on Tumblr and Reddit becoming a haven for the introverted and socially awkward to share their thoughts and feelings. Like the 52-hertz whale, the introvert’s voice is being heard.

The 52-hertz whale has always been heard but never seen. While its migration patterns can be traced from its call, finding the whale itself is like searching for a needle in a haystack that covers 70 per cent of Earth’s surface. Many theories have been made to explain the high tenor of its call, trying to put the whale on the couch, so to speak. Its discoverers believe it could be a blue whale/fin whale hybrid or one of the last members of an older species that hasn’t become extinct yet. Worse still, it could simply an accident of nature, its defective call dooming it to be eliminated from the gene pool by the cold hand of natural selection.

Perhaps it is the realisation of this fact, that the whale may never find love, that gives introverts who relate to its tale a capacity for great introspection and a desire for personal improvement. If you’re going to be apart from others, you may as well distinguish yourself, right? But at the same time, you want to put your voice out there and be accepted by your peers. The danger with this, and I speak from personal experience, is that after the necessary retreats to that online well of objectivity and opinion, you return to the outside world too esoteric for anyone to relate to or understand. Like the 52-hertz whale, you are never on anyone else’s wavelength. Any attempt to be social, to put your own unique call out there, just demonstrates how different you are to what society expects of you. And so you retreat back to solitude, and the cycle continues. You put out a call, and get no response. And thus the introvert sphere has made the whale one of its totems.

But does introversion necessarily always lead to isolation? Is it healthy to either accept or deny this tendency? Online, self-identified introverts fall into two categories: those who take pride in their self-isolating status (“I’m not a loner, I just don’t care for other people”) and those who try to be more like an extrovert out of a desire for social acceptance.

The former group interests me because, to the outside, they seem to possess a sort of superiority complex. Such a thing is only really possible on the internet, where one can narcissistically lord over others one’s solitude and inability to be “understood”, yet ironically require validation for doing so. Sites like Reddit and Tumblr have a tendency to become echo chambers of these sorts, due in part to rampant categorisation (INTJ for life!) and the tribalism that goes with it (INTJs rule!). Everyone kind of becomes their own whale, echolocating and having their own words or words like them being echoed back at them. Their isolation is self-validating because everyone on their forum or feed is like them and will repeat their sentiments back at them. Anyone who doesn’t fit in with their esoteric worldview and match their wavelength is ignored, to the detriment of making any actual connection.

What I describe here is merely the introvert in extremis—the worst case scenario. Withdrawal from social situations and the comfort it creates can slowly become a feeling of not needing other people to live a fulfilling life. Introverts become perfectly happy alone, and they believe that creating distance is seen as not only good for themselves, but for others, should their frustrations bubble to the surface. Personally, I think the ability to be comfortable alone is a good character trait to have. But we should aim to be the kind of person we ourselves would want to spend time with. And to that end, if you don’t like the person you’re with, you should find better company.

The introverted-and-not-proud, on the other hand, have accepted who they are but desperately want to fit in; that is, be more like an extrovert. It exacerbates how much we expect people to be extroverts right off the bat. Learning how to hold a conversation, to pay attention to people, the very idea that a relationship of any sort takes maintenance, can be an alien frame of thought for someone used to solitude. They treat actual interaction and conversation like a science to be learnt, rather than an art to be experienced and muddled through in all its awkwardness. Post-interaction becomes a play-by-play recount of all the things they did wrong or right: “Did I listen enough? Did I come off desperate?” You’re essentially asking “Did I perform well?” But extroverts are not out to perform—they’re trying to have a good time with good people, as anyone would. To build on one of the central tenets of introversion, you decide who you expend your energy towards, and we should all aim to find people who replace our solace with genuine company.

To that end, one thing that is common to both pools is the portrayal of extroverts, who are seen as irritating vampires out to leech introverts’ energies or encroach on their personal space for their own amusement in attempt to “fix” their introverted companions. This makes out that extroverts are blind to the feelings of their introverted friends, but aside from a senseless few, extroverts wouldn’t be who they were if they didn’t understand people.

In any case, the 52-hertz whale has become a great 180-ton exemplar for introverts to point to and say, “this is me!”. I understand the desire to anthropomorphise and impose our feelings on this animal, but whales are not people and vice versa. In fact, most animals are solitary by nature, and only meet to feed or mate. We don’t know if 52-Hertz is actually happy being alone, or can even experience loneliness as a human does (a documentary on the whale, 52, is due for release later this year, which could shed further light on this). A higher hertz call may simply be the whale equivalent of a speech impediment—potentially debilitating, but something that can be managed with time and patience.

More importantly, I think we need to remember that extroversion is not the default mode of human behaviour, just the one we’ve been taught to accept is the default. And being an introvert makes you neither big and important nor small and insignificant. You’re never one thing or the other, and the E/I “war” should not be an us-versus-them conflict. Being introverted or extroverted can be a badge of honour or a label, but it should not be a mask that your face grows to fit.

The 52-hertz whale has been checked up on every year since its discovery—the only change about it being that its call has become lower over time. Its Wikipedia page states “the fact that the whale has survived and apparently matured indicates it is probably healthy.” I think that’s something we should all take solace in.

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