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The Science Behind Embarrassment


Author: Celeste Nachnani

Edited by: Hailey Hunter


Imagine you are in front of a crowd of people. You are about to deliver a performance: singing, dancing, or public speaking. You get nervous, your face starts flushing, and your palms are sweating. Somehow, it feels like everyone suddenly has x-ray vision and is analyzing you microscopically, waiting for you to make a mistake, have a voice crack or forget your lines. This may be some people’s reality, or it may be an exaggerated scenario of feeling embarrassed. For instance, maybe you trip on your shoe lace in front of a couple of friends. In reality, it is just a small thing- however- we may perceive ourselves to be laughing stocks due to a small slip up. Either way, everyone feels embarrassed at some point in their life. This can be surface-level or cause deeper issues such as social anxiety. The neuroscience of embarrassment has been studied to further our understanding of our interactions as social beings and even help us understand how to combat our social anxiety.


In “That’s Cringe: The Neuroscience Behind Embarrassment,” authors Carina Kill and Zeynep Toprakbast define embarrassment as a self-conscious emotion experienced in short-lived situations. This can lead to awkward or humorous situations, but internally a person may be judging themselves based on an awkward interaction. Humans are social beings, making them desire a sense of community. In a community of people, people do not want to receive a negative evaluation from others. This negative evaluation can be “socially imposed” or “internally imposed”. Understanding how others evaluate you comes from the quality of being empathic and being able to share and relate to others’ emotions. In certain studies, regions of the brain involved in empathy are active when a person is experiencing embarrassment (Kill & Toprakbasti, 2021).


In a study conducted in Germany, neural substrates were monitored while the subjects of the experiment put on a karaoke performance without background music. When the subjects were given feedback (whether positive or negative), the anterior insula region of their brain was active. The anterior insula is responsible for feelings of trust, disbelief, love, or resentment. Trusting someone’s feedback can cause you to internalize those feelings of pride (due to positive feedback) or embarrassment (due to negative feedback). The anterior insula is connected to the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain. This is responsible for the “pain empathy” people experience. For instance, if you are in a room with someone and they say something raunchy just as the room goes quiet or maybe spit while they are talking, you may feel secondhand embarrassment, even if you didn’t commit the blunder. However, you feel empathy for them at that moment.


Further results of the study show that there is higher activity in the medial prefrontal cortex when people are reviewed in front of an audience. This medial prefrontal cortex is responsible for habit formation and long-term memories. If you are asleep one night and you suddenly remember something awkward you did in first grade, you can thank your medial prefrontal cortex for storing that long-term memory.


People with social anxiety disorder tend to have an increase in amygdala activity and a decrease in medial prefrontal cortex activity due to avoiding situations in which they receive any sort of feedback or judgment in front of an audience. This may lead to impaired judgment in understanding how people in social situations may be reacting to them, making it seem daunting to interact with others.


Another experiment was conducted at the University of California San Francisco, in which the subjects of the experiment rewatched their karaoke recordings. The pregenual anterior cingulate cortex was activated during viewing. The anterior cingulate cortex is responsible for impulse control and emotion regulation. It pushes people to make decisions based on what will allow them to obtain a social reward. It is also responsible for making people feel sweat, an increased heartbeat, and unregulated breathing when they do not obtain this social reward and instead receive a negative evaluation from their peers (Welsh, 2011).


Another experiment studied the presence of an audience and how it affects neural responses. Participants' pupils dilated more when a high performance of theirs was exposed to an audience compared to if a low performance of theirs was exposed. Additionally, there was increased activity in the bilateral dorsal anterior insula, which is also involved in pain empathy (Neural Pathways of Embarrassment and Their Modulation by Social Anxiety, 2015).


Overall, many parts of your brain are responsible for making you feel embarrassed. The centers of your brain are activated when you receive any social evaluation from your peers. However, everyone is put in these situations more than a couple of times in their life. Let the feeling be like the embarrassing situation at hand: fleeting.


References

Kill, C., & Toprakbasti, Z. (2021, May 10). That's Cringe: The Neuroscience Behind Embarrassment. Grey Matters. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://greymattersjournal.org/thats-cringe-the-neuroscience-behind-embarassment/

Neural Pathways of Embarrassment and their Modulation by Social Anxiety. (2015, June 18). NCBI. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5008438/

Welsh, J. (2011, April 15). Embarrassed? Blame Your Brain. Live Science. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.livescience.com/13727-embarrassment-brain-dementia.html


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