Well that was embarrassing….

The Palais de la Decouverte is a science museum located at the Grand Palais and it was at this very spot I was put to shame. Our first destination was the insect exhibit which was located on the first floor. There, we saw glass casings full of ants, termites, and spiders and tons of information about their livelihood. Near the end of the insect exhibit, there was an apparatus with holes large enough to fit a hand. Curiosity got the best of me and I stuck my right hand through. As I was moving my arm farther into the hole, about elbow deep, something suddenly grabbed my hand and started shaking me. I shrieked… and as I jerked my body back, the straps of my computer bag snapped and fell to the floor. Before I knew what was going on, I heard a snicker. Out pops this 12-year-old French girl who points and laughs at me and then runs off. I didn’t know that on the opposite side of the apparatus was another hole where others could insert their hands. The little punk had bested me. I slowly grabbed my bag and walked away with my head down in shame.

Have you ever wondered why you feel embarrassed? It is defined as feeling awkward, self-conscious, or ashamed and it is a state of intense discomfort from a socially unacceptable act. In my situation, I should not have been so easily frightened by a 12-year-old girl. My broken bag is now strewn over my chair and acts as a constant reminder. Embarrassing situations occur frequently to me, or at least I feel more susceptible than the average person. I’m sure there was some traumatizing childhood moment, where I was so utterly embarrassed that now even the little voice cracks seems to embarrass me. Or maybe it’s from an enlarged right pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC). Probably a bit of both, but let’s focus on the later.

In a research study in 2012, Sturm et al. obtained 27 patients with behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD), a neurodegenerative disease that targets the pACC region and is known to decrease self-conscious reactivity. Do not confuse self-consciousness and self-conscious behavior, one being self-awareness and the latter social discomfort which this study is based on. The purpose of the experiment was to find evidence supporting the pACC region playing a role in self-conscious activity. Sturm et al. tested the hypothesis by comparing the bvFTD patients to 33 healthy patients through a self-conscious reactivity test and an MRI scan(Sturm et al., 2013).The patients were instructed to put on headphones and sing-along to “My Girl” by the Temptations without knowing they were being recorded. They were then hooked up to a machine, which measured self-conscious reactivity and shown a video of themselves singing without the music in the background. The machine specifically measured heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, etc., and a score was calculated from the data to determine self-conscious reactivity. Patients were also shown a sad clip to measure baseline activity. The data showed healthy patients scoring a higher self-conscious reactivity score than the bvFtD patients which supported the hypothesis. An MRI scan revealed a higher volume of the right pACC region correlating with a higher self-conscious reactivity score.

The study suggests if I had a larger right pACC region, I would be more susceptible to embarrassment every time I trip in public, or when someone posts an ugly picture of me online. So now that we have located a possible section of the brain that deals with self-consciousness, I am going to have mine removed to avoid feeling any embarrassing emotions in the future. No just kidding. There’s not an overwhelming amount of data associating pACC to self-conscious behavior and the pACC is involved in many brain processes. However, the study provides a deeper understanding of self-conscious behavior.

~James Eun


Sturm VE, Sollberger M, Seeley WW, Rankin KP, Ascher EA, Rosen HJ, Miller BL, Levenson RW (2013) Role of right pregenual anterior cingulate cortex in self-conscious emotional reactivity. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience 8:468-474.

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