We all know that one person, the close friend who’s insanely good at Karaoke not because they can sing just like Frank Sinatra but because they show no fear when their name is called to perform “Mack the Knife”. The rest of us sit back and shutter at the idea of stepping up in front of a microphone and wailing away at Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” (even though we’re perfectly happy to do so in the car or in the shower). The difference between our friend and the average person is that the average person lacks the confidence to perform in front of a crowd and that lack of confidence is most likely directly linked to a fear of embarrassment. The very idea of embarrassment being connected to neurological function is something most of us give little thought but that’s not true for a group of scientist at the University of California, San Francisco and University of California, Berkeley.
The scientists were interested in the neurological underpinnings of the emotional experience of embarrassment. Their hope is that by understanding the science behind the emotion we might be able to better understand the signs of many neurodegenerative diseases that affect many thousands of Americans. The experiment was very straight forward; let people sing “My Girl” by the Temptations along with with the appropriate music in the background, then play it back to them without the music, leaving only their raw vocal performance to be heard. It follows that these participants would experience some level of embarrassment which was quantified by the physiological responses to hearing their own lonely voice. It’s important to note that most of the participants involved had some sort of neurodegenerative disease and their responses would be compared to those participants that didn’t have any neurodegenerative disease. The actual emotional response of embarrassment was quantified by recording facial expressions, heart rate, sweat rate and other physiological markers associated with embarrassment. After recording the level of embarrassment in all 79 subjects each subject then received an MRI to determine the size of particular regions of the brain. The scientists were please to find that there was a strong correlation between the size and the condition of an area of the brain in the right-front hemisphere called the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex. Virginia Sturm of the University of California, San Francisco eludes to the fact that damage to the frontal lobes often results in altered states of complex social emotions such as embarrassment. This study seems to pinpoint the problem. The correlation was strong, subjects who had a healthy pregenual anterior cingulated cortex ( a thumb sized region in the right-front hemisphere) also had a substantial emotional response in the form of embarrassment. Conversely subjects who had neurological damage to this region had a much more indifferent response, the more damaged the area the more indifferent the response. Another interesting point to make is that all 79 subjects individually experienced a “scare” tactic where a loud gunshot sound was pumped into the room and all 79 responded with a similar level of fear.
The idea here is that this neurological damage to that particular region affected their emotional response of embarrassment and did not affect other emotional responses such as fear. Virginia Sturm of UCSF believes that this type of data can help diagnose neurodegenerative diseases earlier. It’s not hard to notice when a loved one starts forgetting things or struggles to perform normal tasks however the same may not be true for someone who becomes withdrawn or indifferent. Ultimately the issue may be some sort of neurological degeneration and the sooner we can diagnose it the better off it will be for everyone involved.
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Written by: Matthew Panechelli