Found! The Seat of Embarrassment in Your Brain

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Paul Bradbury

Ever wonder why your pulse races and your heart beats faster and you start to sweat when you’re embarrassed?

You can blame your pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, a thumb-sized region in the brain that seems to determine the size of your emotional response to, say, accidentally tripping in public or realizing that you’ve beamed an amorous email meant for your honey to your boss instead. (More on Healthland’s Guide to Life 2011)

Virginia Sturm, a postdoctoral fellow at the Memory and Aging Center of the University of California, San Francisco, recently reported at the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting that changes in this part of the brain can regulate how much — or little — you’re shamed.

She studied the size of this particular region of the cingulate cortex in both healthy controls as well as people with neurological disorders, and correlated these measurements with an embarrassment-inducing task: listening to themselves sing the Temptations’ “My Girl” karaoke-style. “The smaller the region,” she says, “the less embarrassed people were.”

Sturm says emotions like embarrassment are slightly different from feelings like sadness and anger, because embarrassment involves a social element. Feelings like guilt, pride, shame and embarrassment all tend to occur in the presence of others, and result largely from how we think others perceive us. (More on 5 Ways to Stop Stressing)

What’s interesting about the region of the cingulate cortex that Sturm identified is the fact that it connects to both higher-level behavioral networks in the frontal cortex, which regulate how we interact with others, as well as to more basal functions and automatic behaviors that are less under our control, such as heart rate and breathing.

Other parts of the cingulate cortex have previously been linked to depression, and deep brain stimulation of the area has helped some patients feel less depressed.

That means that treatments that stimulate activity in this part of the brain could help increase mindfulness in people with neurological disorders that make them too uninhibited or oblivious to the effect their behavior has on others. Conversely, suppressing activity in the region can help people with outsize embarrassment responses; perhaps, rather than suffering from social awkwardness, they could be helped to interact more normally with others. “There are lots of ways this region could affect emotional behavior,” says Sturm. (More on Who’s Stressed in America? The Answer May Surprise You)

In any case, it’s nice to know that being embarrassed is a perfectly natural response — and a biologically built-in part of being human.