Category Archives: Neuroscience

Shyness and reward

Tyler Cowen notes an fMRI study of shyness, which found that:

Shy children… showed two to three times more activity in their striatum, which is associated with reward, than outgoing children, the team reports in the 14 June issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. “Up until now, people thought that [shyness] was mostly related to avoidance of social situations,” says co-author and child psychiatrist Monique Ernst. “Here we showed that shy children have increased activity in the reward system of the brain as well.”

It’s not clear what this means, although the PI for the study speculates: “One interpretation is that extremely shy children have an increased sensitivity to many types of stimuli–both frightening and rewarding.” Now, my natural impulse is to wonder whether this is true about me (as an extremely shy person), but it’s not obvious, for the simple reason that I don’t have any direct experience of anyone else’s internal sensitivity to success or failure. On the other hand, I’ve noticed lately a tendency for my mind to inflate the importance of trivial social interactions if they have a sense of success or failure about them. (For example, individual conversations that were particularly comfortable or awkward.) But I think everyone does this to some degree—we all obsess over embarrassing moments even if they were totally inconsequential. (Dave Barry once wrote a column on this.)
Regardless of whether this is really a hallmark of shyness, one thing that I’ve found useful in my efforts to be less shy has been to take a very analytical look at my past interactions and try to put them in the proper perspective. So instead of getting worked up about a particular conversation that went really well or really poorly, I’ll realize that it was basically an unremarkable event either way. The end result (when this works) is that I stop seeing every interaction as the latest major test of my social skills, and this removes some of the attendant anxiety.

Jorge Cham, New York Times on/as distractions

Jorge Cham, who writes/draws PhD Comics, is doing a book tour and gave a talk at Berkeley yesterday. (He did his grad work at Stanford and is now an instructor at Caltech.) This is one of those comic strips that hits home a little too often, but in doing so is frequently pretty funny. Cham is also funny as a public speaker, with an excellent sense of comic timing. He sometimes played the straight man with jokes appearing on his Powerpoint slides, and sometimes reversed this dynamic.
The talk was about staying sane under the pressures of grad school, and the main theme was that procrastination is a powerful tool for this, both for taking the pressure off and regaining motivation and creativity when one returns to work. Needless to say, I had already figured this out, as the three-plus years of archives on this blog will attest. It turns out that there is also scientific confirmation of a sort: via Chad Orzel I read in the New York Times that distraction is key for relieving dread.

The first study ever to look at where sensations of dread arise in the brain finds that contrary to what is widely believed, dread does not involve fear and anxiety in the moment of an unpleasant event. Instead, it derives from the attention that people devote beforehand to what they think will be extremely unpleasant.

Grad students in the Berkeley physics department have their share of unpleasant events to devote attention to, beginning with the prelim exams and ending with actually writing the thesis. My personal source of dread lately has been the qualifying exam, and maybe my ability to find new distractions lately is related to this. However, I definitely plan to take it next semester. (I’ve been saying this for three semesters now, but that’s the power of procrastination for you.)

Thoughts on neurotheology

I don’t mean to repost all of Pharyngula’s links, but here’s an article about neuroscience experiments into religious experience. One scientist claims to be able to produce religious sensations in 80% of subjects by applying magnetic fields to their brains. This doesn’t surprise me very much; more amusing is that he gave the test to hardcore atheist Richard Dawkins and it had no effect. The article speculates that this might be evidence of a kind of “talent for religion”, but I wonder if it could be the opposite: since Dawkins never goes to church, he doesn’t exercise that part of his brain so it becomes less sensitive. I know I’ve seen experiments that show that certain types of mental exercise will have a measureable effect on brain physiology. But you neuroscience people can correct me if I’m just making this up.
One issue that I haven’t seen raised is that, at least in my experience, the sensations one has in a religious context aren’t unique to religion. Back when I was a believer and a regular churchgoer, I would have feelings of oneness and a kind of glowing happiness that I thought at the time came from the presence of God. But I also get these feelings while out running, or at a good rock concert, or when I have some new insight about physics (either through my own experiments or hearing about some new and interesting result). So is this the kind of feeling that the neuroscience experiments are inducing? The article also mentions a “sensed presence”, which I’ve never had in church or elsewhere (except for sleep paralysis experiences, but I think that’s a bit different). So do most people get the sensed presence in church, and I’m just insensitive to it like Dawkins? It’s an interesting thought, that the experiences of most religious people might be qualitatively different from those I had when I was religious.

Shyness and serotonin

Via Marginal Revolution, Time magazine reports on some recent research into shyness. Apparently a genetic component has been located:

As part of Battaglia’s study, he collected saliva samples from his 49 subjects and analyzed their DNA, looking for something that might further explain his results. The shy children, he found, had one or two shorter copies of a gene that codes for the flow of the brain chemical serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in anxiety, depression and other mood states. Battaglia’s lab is not the only one to have linked this gene to shyness, and while nobody pretends it’s the entire answer, most researchers believe it at least plays a role. “People who carry the short variant of the gene are, in general, a little more shy and reactive to stress,” says psychiatrist Michael Meaney of McGill University in Montreal, who just completed a two-year study of timidity and stress.

Something I’ve never been entirely clear on is, what is the relationship between shyness and mood states like depression and anxiety? Maybe this is still an open question, but they seem to be linked in some way. I guess in a sense shyness is a kind of anxiety, but shy behavior has a very different character from an anxiety attack.