Neurological basis for embarrassment described

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RECORDING people belting out an old Motown tune and then asking them to listen to their own singing without the accompanying music seems like an unusually cruel form of punishment. But for a team of scientists at the University of California, San Francisco and University of California, Berkeley, this exact Karaoke experiment has revealed what part of the brain is essential for embarrassment.
The twist to the experiment was that most of the subjects had neurodegenerative diseases, which helped scientists identify a thumb-sized bit of tissue in the right hemisphere of the front part of the brain called the “pregenual anterior cingulate cortex” as integral to embarrassment.
The degree to which the singers were embarrassed in hearing themselves sing “My Girl” — the 1964 hit by the Temptations — depended on the integrity of this particular region.
“In healthy people, watching themselves sing elicits a considerable embarrassment reaction,” said Virginia Sturm, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF. Their blood pressure goes up, their heart rate increases, and their breathing changes, she explained. People who had neurological damage in the medial frontal cortex, however, responded more indifferently. “This brain region predicted the behavior,” said Sturm. “The smaller the region, the less embarrassed the people were.”
Knowing that people lose their ability to be embarrassed and which part of the brain governs that ability may suggest ways to help diagnose people with certain neurodegenerative diseases earlier.
The work, presented at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Hawaii, is part of a larger body of work at UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center examining emotion and social behavior in neurodegenerative diseases and searching for better ways to predict, prevent and treat them.
Neurologists at UCSF and elsewhere in the country have documented for years how people with a group of related neurodegenerative conditions called frontotemporal dementia act in ways that would be embarrassing to healthy people.
These conditions result from progressive degeneration of the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain, which play a significant role in decision-making, behavior, and understanding and expression of emotion and language — including complex emotions like embarrassment. As these parts of the brain deteriorate, people lose their ability to interact with others and may behave strangely.

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