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See Inside September / October 2011

How Embarrassing: Researchers Pinpoint Self-Consciousness in the Brain




COURTESY OF W. IRWIN, University of California, San Francisco

Feeling embarrassed? You can probably thank your pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC), a boomerang-shaped region of the brain nestled behind the eyes. Cognitive scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, and U.C. Berkeley probed the neuroanatomy of embarrassment by asking healthy people and those with neurodegenerative diseases to sing along to the Temptations’ “My Girl.” Horns blared, strings flowed and the subject’s voice soared—and then the music and professional vocals were stripped away. The subjects had to watch a video of their own solitary singing while researchers measured their racing hearts, sweaty palms, squirms and grimaces. Those with damage in the right pACC were least likely to cringe at their own performance.

The study, presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology conference in Hawaii, adds further evidence that this brain region has a role in many emotions, says U.C.S.F. postdoctoral fellow Virginia Sturm. Among them are the self-conscious emotions, including embarrassment, pride and guilt, which are felt in the context of others’ imagined reactions. Embarrassment, Sturm says, may have evolved to motivate us to repair social bonds that become strained when we fall short of expectations.

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