Teenagers are easily embarrassed by their parents and family, especially in front of their friends. They are inclined to blush when dad or mum gets up to jive at the birthday party. So they are at a very self-conscious stage of development. So what? Some brain researchers think that if they understand the biology better they may get some insights into anxiety, depression and eating disorders, which all increase hugely in prevalence after puberty. So they recruited two groups — girls aged 10 to 19, and women aged 22 to 32 — and scanned their brains while prompting them to imagine situations that would cause embarrassment or guilt, which they describe as social emotions, and disgust or fear, which are not dependent on the reactions of onlookers.

Both teens and adults used the same part of the brain when processing emotions such as disgust and fear, but there were marked contrasts when they thought about embarrassment or guilt. It turns out that adolescents engage a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex when considering these feelings, while adults do not. That part of the brain is involved in processing social emotions and planning, say the scientists.

How does this information help parents, educators or health professionals? Already we knew that we had to encourage teenagers to overcome their pre-occupation with self image and accept even their parents’ eccentricities. However, the researchers say they don’t know whether the brain activity is a cause or an effect of teenage embarrassment, which suggests that you just might be wasting your time: if the brain is causing the behaviour then maybe you need to work on the brain more directly — with medication, or some other technique? — instead of appealing to the moral sense of the young person and forming their character.~ Times Online, Sep 29


Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet