Have you ever been on the brink of sleep when you get hit with a memory of something embarrassing that you did in the past? Maybe even just remembering the moment makes you cringe and fully wake up. Or maybe you try to forget it ever happened. Like other emotional experiences, embarrassment is deeply personal and yet also deeply understood by others. Nearly everyone has an embarrassing story they can share, but the very nature of embarrassment is to cause avoidance, discomfort, and distress. This is why many people will go to great lengths to try to avoid embarrassing themselves. Advancements in neuroscience over the past thirty years have given scientists new ways to understand how this powerful, uncomfortable, and complex emotion operates in our brains, and how it may be involved in several neurological disorders.

What is Embarrassment?

One of the first challenges faced by scientists who study emotion is often defining the emotion itself [1]. While it may be easy to conjure up memories of past embarrassing events, it is much more challenging to come up with a strict definition for embarrassment that encompasses everyone’s experience of the emotion. Because of this, older research methods that relied only on self-reporting embarrassment gave little insight into the potential neural mechanisms behind this complicated emotion. Despite this difficulty in pinning down an exact definition, embarrassment has been broadly classified as one of the self-conscious emotions, alongside feelings like pride, guilt, and shame [2]. Defining the boundaries between these emotions has been a topic of ongoing debate between scientists in the field for many years. Some researchers feel that embarrassment is simply a less-intense form of shame, while others feel that embarrassment should be considered its own distinct emotion [3]. Those who believe it is a separate emotion argue that the actual experience of embarrassment is distinctly shorter-lived, and is often more situation-specific or accidental than shame [4]. Embarrassing situations are often associated with feelings of awkwardness, and can sometimes even be considered humorous, whereas shameful experiences are often distinctly non-humorous and associated with a sense of deep regret and self-loathing [5]. What all of these self-conscious emotions share, though, is an emphasis on the relationship between the person experiencing the emotion and their sense of self or social standing. Scientists believe that the ability to critically evaluate oneself as a separate entity gave early humans a survival advantage that has carried across evolutionary time until now, currently manifesting as the array of self-conscious emotions.

The ability to self-evaluate has been demonstrated in children as young as two years old [5]. Interestingly, even in toddlers, this self-evaluation often carries moral judgement. For example, instead of merely reporting that they have done something, a child will often express concern about having done something bad, or pride about having done something good [6]. In doing this, the child demonstrates their ability to not only evaluate their own actions, but also to assign moral weight to their evaluations, based on their current set of social norms. It is worth noting that this set of social norms is likely to change over the course of a person's life, both as they age and become more aware of the norms around them, and if they ever experience a dramatic change in social scenery, like when moving to a different country. The combination  of self-evaluation and moral judgement based on these social norms is believed to be at the core of feeling embarrassed [5].

When people violate a social norm and feel the fear of being negatively evaluated as the result, they are thought to be experiencing embarrassment [7]. Because humans are social beings, scientists originally thought that the fear of being negatively evaluated was only the fear of being negatively evaluated by other people, and not oneself [8]. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, where an individual might have once needed to be accepted by a larger community in order to have increased access to resources, like food or protection. By having a fear response when lacking the community’s acceptance, the individual might therefore be inclined to modify their behaviors in order to regain acceptance, and by extension, essential resources. But it has recently been proposed that modern forms of embarrassment are much more subtle and complex.

One current theory proposes that there are actually multiple subtypes of embarrassment; all involve violating norms, but vary in their degree of publicity and type of negative evaluation [8]. As an example, imagine that someone is eating at a table with their friends when they laugh and a piece of food falls out of their mouth. If none of the friends see the incident, there is no way for them to negatively evaluate the individual, and yet the person is still likely to feel embarrassed. This type of embarrassment is thought to result from the individual imagining the negative evaluation that the others would have had if they had seen the event, or from the individual judging themselves negatively for not adhering to the social norm (keeping food in your mouth while eating). Distinctions like this have led some researchers to define two separate types of embarrassment: one stemming from negative evaluations that are socially imposed, and the other from negative evaluations that are personally imposed [8]. This dichotomy between personal and social evaluations is important because understanding how others view you, and thus negatively evaluate you, involves empathy, whereas a straightforward personal judgement of yourself does not. There are different regions of the brain engaged when undergoing these empathetic vs. non-empathetic emotional processes [9]. By better defining the possible subtypes of embarrassment, scientists are thus able to better understand which brain regions may be more active during the different experiences of this emotion. Understanding embarrassment on a neurological level like this is necessary to fully comprehend the medical conditions that have abnormal social interactions as part of their symptomatology, such as social anxiety disorder or the autism spectrum conditions.

Another  important consideration when studying embarrassment is that the social norm being violated during an embarrassing experience does not have to be agreed upon by everyone in the society or group. Rather, the norm can be anything the individuals have consciously or subconsciously deemed acceptable behavior for themselves [8]. This helps explain why different people may feel embarrassed about different things. For example, if one person grew up in a society where talking very loudly in public is the norm, they are unlikely to be embarrassed when doing so, but someone else who was taught that it is polite to be quiet in public spaces might feel very different in the same situation. This does not mean that the first person never experiences embarrassment, but that the conditions triggering the emotion are likely to vary from individual to individual, and from culture to culture [2]. Interestingly, it is also possible for people to feel embarrassed for others when they violate their social norms, even if the person violating the norm is not themselves embarrassed. For example, the loud talker discussed above could cause members of a culturally quieter society to feel embarrassed for the loud speech, even though the speaker themselves is not violating any of their own social norms. Despite these many subtle distinctions, the nearly universal experience of feeling embarrassed has led researchers to keep searching for a shared neurological basis for the many forms of this complex emotion. With the advent of neural imaging technologies, researchers have been able to make massive progress on this front.

Embarrassment in the Brain

In order to understand how a highly-social emotion like embarrassment is produced by the brain, researchers first attempted to find brain areas engaged during social activities. To do this, several teams monitored the brain activity that occurred when viewers watched a multitude of video clips, some depicting social interactions - like two people having conversation - and some with distinctly non-social material - like clips of static physical objects [10]. In this study, a variety of social interactions were represented, ranging from multiple-person interactions to individuals making various facial expressions. The researchers found one particular brain region, the superior temporal sulcus (STS), to be engaged only during depictions of social activity. Because the level of engagement in this region was uniform across the different types of social behaviors shown, researchers have concluded that this area is likely to be involved with social cognition in general. Due to the extensive connectivity between the STS and other highly-evolved brain structures, like the facial recognition centers and areas required for distinguishing human voices, it has been proposed that one of the STS’s central roles is integrating input from several regions. This integration of several inputs is thought to be what leads to the complex emotional perceptions humans are capable of [10]. It was recently discovered that individuals with autism spectrum conditions tend to have lower right-STS activity, potentially explaining the difficulty these individuals can have processing complex emotional dynamics and situations [11].

To analyze the specific effects of embarrassment on brain activity, several research groups conducted similar experiments where participants were subjected to embarrassing stimuli while their brain activity was monitored. The embarrassing stimuli evaluated in these studies varied depending on which types of social violations were considered embarrassing by the group being studied. One example of a widely used stimulus is a recording of the participant singing along to a karaoke song, but with the background music removed [12]. One particular study conducted by researchers in Germany was designed to analyze the neural substrates of embarrassment while also isolating the two defining aspects of this emotion: the violation of a norm and the fear of negative evaluation [7]. To do this, the participants were asked to answer a series of questions either in front of a panel of fake peers (other research participants), or by themselves. The questions themselves were not relevant, but consisted of identifying certain physical characteristics in an image. After answering the questions, participants were told that they either performed very well, very poorly, or neutrally, regardless of their true performance. This allowed the researchers to separate the effect of having an audience - the publicity associated with embarrassment - from the effect of a negative evaluation. They found that a certain brain region, the anterior insula, was active when performances were rated very high or very low, but not during those given neutral ratings. Because very good performance corresponded with high pride ratings, and low performance with high embarrassment ratings, the researchers suspect that this anterior insula activity may in some way be linked to the entire range of self-conscious emotions [7].

The possibility of the anterior insula being involved in self-conscious emotions is interesting because the anterior insula is also known to have dense bidirectional connections with the amygdala, often called the emotion center of the brain. This interaction between the amygdala and the anterior insula has been specifically implicated in pain empathy, the process by which a person experiences another’s pain. If you have ever winced when watching a video of a particularly painful event, like the breaking of a bone, this empathetic neural interaction is to blame [13]. Recent research has suggested that this pain empathy response holds not only for physical pain, but also emotional distress, like that experienced when watching someone else go through something embarrassing. If a waiter drops a stack of dishes in a restaurant, the people watching may not endure the embarrassment firsthand, but may, because of these highly-empathetic neural regions, still feel embarrassment [13].

Another crucial finding of the German study was the role of publicity in modulating the experience of embarrassment. If participants were told they performed poorly in front of an audience, they had significantly higher brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and several other areas previously determined to be involved in understanding the perspectives of others [11]. In the absence of an audience, this brain activity was vastly diminished, and even when rated poorly, isolated participants showed fewer physiological hallmarks of embarrassment, like increased heart rate and averted gaze [13]. Increased amygdala activity was seen only in cases of low performance, indicating that a perceived negative evaluation engages brain centers that positive and neutral evaluations do not [13]. In people with social anxiety disorder, a condition characterized by an aversion to social interactions, the mPFC and other associated regions are found to be significantly underactive in general [9]. This lack of activity is thought to impair an individual’s ability to understand the perspectives of others, potentially obscuring their understanding of their placement in the community, leading to heightened distress. Intriguingly, researchers also observed a concurrent abnormal increase in amygdala activity alongside the decreased mPFC activity in those suffering from the disorder. The increase in amygdala activity is thought to make the patients more sensitive to the overall emotional environment, thus worsening the distress caused by their decreased understanding of others [9]. The fact that these complex social interactions and disorders can now be roughly paralleled to complex network interactions in the human brain is one of the profound ways that advancements in recent years.

These previous studies have revealed an immense amount about which brain regions may be needed for humans to have social awareness and self-conscious emotion. While these researchers have made tremendous progress in advancing our current understanding of embarrassment in the brain, there is still much work to be done until these results can be considered universal. One major shortcoming in the field is that, despite the incredibly social aspect of embarrassment and the other self-conscious emotions, there have been relatively few studies examining the effects of different cultures on these brain processes. Since emotions like embarrassment are socially-influenced, cultural norms are expected to greatly influence when and how different peoples’ brains orchestrate these emotions. More studies are also needed to further classify the potential subtypes of the emotion and tease apart their neural substrates. But because embarrassment, and social cognition in general, is involved in a wide variety of prevalent conditions, from social anxiety to autism, research into these areas is expanding rapidly. One intriguing question to ponder as our understanding of emotion continues to grow is whether or not embarrassment and other uncomfortable emotions should be reduced, if that were someday possible. This question remains a topic of intense debate, one that requires exploring the role that these self-conscious emotions play in our lives today, but also how and why humans may have evolved consciousness and emotion in the first place.

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