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Individuals with autism experience difficulty in processing embarrassment

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Posted March 7, 2016

We all have been embarrassed at one or another point in our lives. In fact, in teenage years embarrassing situations cause a lot of anxiety or even fear to some. But some people are unable to handle embarrassment very well. For example, now a new study from the University of Amsterdam revealed that people suffering from autism spectrum disorder are unable to process embarrassment efficiently on a neural systems level.

Embarrassment, even embarrassment for others, is something most of us experience on daily basis, but some individuals process it differently. Image credit:  Michael via Wikimedia, CC-BY-2.0

Embarrassment, even embarrassment for others, is something most of us experience on daily basis, but some individuals process it differently. Image credit: Michael via Wikimedia, CC-BY-2.0

Although embarrassment is a very negative emotion, it has an important function in our social lives. It serves as a reminder how we should behave in certain situation in accordance with common norms and moral values. It has several forms, the most common type being vicarious embarrassment, which is experienced when someone else is doing something we consider embarrassing.

This new study focused on a notion that embarrassment is social phenomena that we process on a neural systems level. Surely, researching the processing of a social construct in the brain is not an easy task, which is why the study involved a variety of methods, such as brain imaging, observation of pupil size and eye-gaze behaviour, and analysis of somatovisceral measures.

The author of the study discovered that there are two neural networks involved in processing of the embarrassment and its vicarious form. Research showed that the closer we feel to individuals doing something embarrassing, the more we share their embarrassment. However, study also revealed that individuals with autism spectrum disorder do not process the vicarious embarrassment.

The author of the study, Laura Müller-Pinzler, explained that “increased levels of the trait social anxiety were associated with increased activations of the mentalizing network, thereby corroborating the assumption of heightened attention to social cues and negative thoughts about others’ evaluations in social anxiety disorder”.

Author believes that results of the study might have important clinical implications. She thinks that it may serve as a basis to develop methods to better the understanding of autism spectrum and social anxiety disorders. The difficulties associated with these disorders in social situations can be characterized better by creating particular social paradigms that involve these physiological aspects of embarrassment and neural networks involved in the processing of it. However, more studies have to be completed to collect enough data to create such paradigms.

Source: UVA

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