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.