Sunday, January 20, 2008

I Look Terrible! My Right mIFG Is SO Embarrassed!

Imagine being part of a psychology study in which you are filmed making short speeches in front of a camera. You're told that the purpose of the study is to investigate the eye movements that people make while speaking. You wear a plain black t-shirt and sit opposite the exerimenter, who records you when you talk about three themes related to your own history and experience (e.g., your hometown) for about a minute each.

Then it turns out the real purpose of the study is to record your reactions to less-than-flattering still images of yourself gleaned from the videos! How were these embarrassing images selected?
We established the following six criteria for the "badness" of each image: first, whether the eyes were totally or partly closed (eyes); second, whether the gaze was averted (gaze); third, whether the mouth was unnaturally open (mouth); fourth, whether the lip stuck out (lip); fifth, whether the chin stuck out (chin); and sixth, whether the expression was strange (expression). "Bad" images that met some of these criteria contained awkward facial expressions, such as those in which the participants showed the whites of their eyes or had their mouths wide open. By contrast, "good" images did not meet any of the criteria, and appeared as if the subjects had posed for a photograph rather than the images having been taken from a video recording. These sets of 21 images were used as the stimuli for the SELF condition in the subsequent fMRI experiment. By contrast, in the OTHERS condition, 21 face images that were selected from three gender-matched unfamiliar individuals (seven images per person) were used.
You can see where this is going: the authors (Morita et al., 2008) wanted to see how the brain reacts to seeing a terrible picture of yourself. They were also interested in how this relates to a bunch of hyphenated "self-" words: self-recognition, self-face recognition, self-consciousness, self-conscious emotions, "public self-consciousness", self-awareness, "public self-awareness", "meta self-awareness", self-esteem, and self-evaluation. I think I'll stick to embarrassment, rather than a meta-meta discussion of self-*.

In the scanner, the task was to rate, from 1 to 7, how photogenic each face was, for images of both SELF and OTHER (i.e., other participants in the experiment). After scanning, the subjects performed a self-paced task in which they rated the same faces on photogenic-ness (again), embarrassment, valence, and arousal.

To make a long story short, some of the results were not surprising at all:

Figure 2 (Morita et al., 2008). Relationship between the ratings of embarrassment and the photogenic scores for each face.

People are quite embarrassed by bad pictures of themselves, but of others...not so much. The key fMRI finding was from the SELF vs. OTHERS contrast, as shown below, namely that greater activity in the right middle inferior frontal gyrus (mIFG) was associated with lower embarrassment scores.

Figure 5 (A) Brain activity in the right mIFG negatively correlated with the embarrassment ratings for individuals' own faces. A random effects statistical parametric activation map (SPM{t}) was overlaid on a canonical transverse section. The height threshold was set at p < .01 at each voxel level for display purposes. The light blue outlines indicate areas that were significantly activated by the SELF versus OTHERS contrast.

So really, the title of this post should be "I Look Terrible! My Right mIFG Is SO Embarrassed and Suppressed!" Hmm. The authors have a string of "self-" words to explain this finding:
As the standard for an individual's face appears to be recognized as one's own representative face, it could be the most self-relevant stimulus. Individuals whose own faces are rated as "good" tend to be close to the standard and these individuals experience relatively little embarrassment. Therefore, in the current study, an increase in the right mIFG activity associated with reduced embarrassment would reflect increased relevance to the standard self, which could be regarded as self-relevance. In addition, the activity of the right mIFG did not depend on public self-consciousness; this was in agreement with our finding that the extent of embarrassment was not associated with public self-consciousness. Taken together, our results suggest that the right mIFG is selectively engaged in the self-evaluation, reflecting self-relevance.
OK, then. Did any brain region show a positive correlation with embarrassment ratings? No...

At any rate, the present experiment was conducted with Japanese participants. The cultural contributions to the degree of embarrassment, self-consciousness, self-evaluation, self-*, etc. -- and whether the participants are early rejects from Pop/Pinoy/Deutschland/Canadian/American Idol, and how this influences right frontal activation -- would be interesting topics for future study.

Ashlee Simpson caught lip-syncing on Saturday Night Live.


Morita T, Itakura S, Saito DN, Nakashita S, Harada T, Kochiyama T, Sadato N. (2008). The Role of the Right Prefrontal Cortex in Self-evaluation of the Face: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study. J Cog Neurosci. 20:342-355.

Individuals can experience negative emotions (e.g., embarrassment) accompanying self-evaluation immediately after recognizing their own facial image, especially if it deviates strongly from their mental representation of ideals or standards. The aim of this study was to identify the cortical regions involved in self-recognition and self-evaluation along with self-conscious emotions. To increase the range of emotions accompanying self-evaluation, we used facial feedback images chosen from a video recording, some of which deviated significantly from normal images. In total, 19 participants were asked to rate images of their own face (SELF) and those of others (OTHERS) according to how photogenic they appeared to be. After scanning the images, the participants rated how embarrassed they felt upon viewing each face. As the photogenic scores decreased, the embarrassment ratings dramatically increased for the participant's own face compared with those of others. The SELF versus OTHERS contrast significantly increased the activation of the right prefrontal cortex, bilateral insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and bilateral occipital cortex. Within the right prefrontal cortex, activity in the right precentral gyrus reflected the trait of awareness of observable aspects of the self; this provided strong evidence that the right precentral gyrus is specifically involved in self-face recognition. By contrast, activity in the anterior region, which is located in the right middle inferior frontal gyrus, was modulated by the extent of embarrassment. This finding suggests that the right middle inferior frontal gyrus is engaged in self-evaluation preceded by self-face recognition based on the relevance to a standard self.

Ashlee Simpson walks off the SNL stage.

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