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Those embarrassing moments.

Like the time I was crossing a car park going past the back of a restaurant. I noticed a large pool of something on the ground and went to walk around it but in the next moment my feet were pointing skywards and I was flat on my back in this pool of………..rancid cooking oil. Embarrassed? Yes, though I hoped that the horrible smell and the copious amounts of brown oil dripping off my clothes, distracted the onlookers from noticing my lack of composure.

But what is it that makes us feel embarrassed? It can often be a sense of appearing stupid in front of others, our “inner critic” telling us so.

Another cringe worthy event would be to watch yourself sing Karaoke with the accompanying music turned off.
(What, and you too always thought you always had the voice of an angel?

In a somewhat bizarre sounding experiment, a group of researchers actually inflicted this on a subject group to investigate which part of our brain causes embarrassment.

Neurodegenerative disease affects behaviour.

Moreover, some of the subjects had neurodegenerative disease in the form of frontotemporal dementia. In this particular form of dementia, those affected can sometimes behave in ways which would otherwise normally cause social embarrassment. They lose the ability to understand and express certain emotions.

For those who were cognitively intact, their level of embarrassment in watching themselves sing “My Girl” the 1964 hit for The Temptations brought a suitably embarrassed response.
Those with neurological damage to a particular part to their pre-frontal cortex, in part of the anterior cingulate gyrus had a different response. This was also demonstrated on MRI scans, which looked to see what differences were present in the size and volumes of different brain areas.

The group were also subjected to a “startle” test. Here they would be sitting quietly and then be subjected to a sudden gunshot noise, causing them to “jump”. Those with dementia also reacted to the noise, showing that they still retained an emotional response to sudden and loud noise. What they had lost though, were the more complex social emotions such as embarrassment.

And the point of all this was?

Other than the fact that people love to sing whether they have a good singing voice or not, the study revealed that this particular area of the brain is associated with our ability to feel embarrassed.
The study hopes that this finding will enable better screening tools to be developed to detect subtle emotional and social changes associated with early neurodegenerative change and lead to an earlier diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia.

University of California – San Francisco (2011, April 16). Neurological basis for embarrassment described.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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