April 15, 2011 -- Belting out a karaoke tune and then listening to the cringe-worthy performance afterward gave researchers new insights into how the brain processes embarrassment.
In the study, scientists from the University of California, San Francisco and University of California, Berkeley observed 79 people, 58 of whom had neurodegenerative conditions while the rest had healthy brains. In neurodegenerative conditions, brain cells are progressively damaged or destroyed.
Although not asked to sing karaoke in a club or bar, each volunteer crooned "My Girl" by the Temptations along with the voice-recording device and were videotaped while doing it. They were then asked to watch and listen to their vocal chops minus any accompanying music.
The goal was to embarrass the singers while researchers measured their facial expressions and reactions, including sweating, breathing, and heart rate.
"In healthy people, watching themselves sing elicits a considerable embarrassment reaction," says Virginia Sturm, PhD, a postdoctoral neuropsychology fellow at the University of California, San Francisco Memory and Aging Center, in a news release.
But people who had neurological damage in a region of the brain known as the medial frontal cortex seemed less concerned. "The smaller the region, the less embarrassed the people were," says Sturm.
The study was presented at the 2011 Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Hawaii.
The experiment also used magnetic resonance imaging to gauge the size of different regions of the brain to figure out if these would predict embarrassment.
Doing karaoke as part of a science experiment is unusual, but it allowed researchers to pinpoint a thumb-size area in the front part of the brain's right hemisphere that's necessary for feeling embarrassed.
The more damage participants had in the area of the front part of the brain called the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, the less mortified they were about their singing. Although not self-conscious about their vocal skills, people in this same group did startle and show fear in response to hearing the sound of a gunshot in a second test done as part of the study.
"So, it's not like they don't have any emotional reactions at all," Sturm says. But feeling no shame is a telling warning sign. "Emotions like embarrassment are particularly vulnerable in neurodegenerative diseases that target the frontal lobes.”
Researchers hope that a better understanding of the subtle shifts seen in emotions such as embarrassment in people with thinking and memory problems may give doctors an earlier clue for diagnosis and may help family members and caregivers grasp the behavior changes seen in certain forms of dementia.
This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.