The Neuroscience of Shame
Posted On April 8, 2019
In the previous post, we examined the different types of shame, but what happens in the brain to make shame benign or toxic? What parts of our brains are injured by chronically being shamed by our caregivers, and how does that change who we are?
These are a few of the questions I will attempt to answer in this piece. Some of the terms regarding regions of the brain may be new to you so I will give you a brief description of them, and links so you can research them yourself.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and Shame
The autonomic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that controls and regulates the internal organs without the need to think about it. There are two branches to the ANS, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for connecting the different organs of our bodies to our brains through our spinal cord. When we perceive danger, our sympathetic nervous system causes us to prepare to fight/flight/or freeze by increasing our heart rate, increasing blood flow to our muscles, and decreasing blood flow to organs such as the skin.
The sympathetic nervous system, as we can see, is excitatory to the body.
The parasympathetic nervous system is comprised of nerve fibers or cranial nerves. The primary part of the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve and the lumbar spinal nerves. Upon stimulation, these important structures increase digestive secretions and reduce the heartbeat.
The parasympathetic nervous system, as we can see, is calming to the body.
When faced with shame, the brain reacts as if it were facing physical danger, and activates the sympathetic nervous system generating the flight/fight/freeze response. The flight response triggers the feeling of needing to disappear, and children who have this occur will try to become invisible. They will literally look smaller and their expression becomes blank.
However, the fight response expresses itself as verbal and behavioral aggression by the embarrassed person towards the other who caused them to feel ashamed.
The freeze response is what normally occurs when people are faced with trauma where they feel trapped and powerless. The freeze response allows us to survive situations where intolerable things are happening to us.
The freeze response to shame has negative consequences too.
The freeze response upsets our ability to think clearly, and we decide that we are stuck in a situation where we have no power because we have something wrong with us.
It can cause us to believe that what is happening or has happened is our fault. Clearly, in most cases, situations such as childhood trauma and adult rape are never our fault. We have become victims of violence.
Shame: What Infants Learns
From birth, we humans are hardwired to interact with our caregivers. We seek close connections with them to survive and to aid our brains to develop.
Soon after birth, we begin storing in our brains how our needs are met by our caregivers. These important interactions between our caregivers and ourselves are stored in our limbic system in a structure called the amygdala, allowing responses from our caregivers to be stored in implicit memory.
(I have described the limbic system, the amygdala and the hippocampus in another post (click here). Please follow the links I am providing for further information.)
Through the information we store in our brains about the responses of our caregivers, we develop anticipation of the trustworthiness of relationships based on our early experiences.
In short, we learn to interpret life through the lens of the messages we learn from our caregivers.
Shame is an emotion that can save children from injury or death by engraining into their brain an appropriate response to danger. A good example would be a child running into the street.
When children are yes “no” by a caregiver to stop them from running into the street, the sympathetic system (the excitatory response) is activated triggering the fight/flight/freeze response.
The child (hopefully) will freeze and then because their sympathetic nervous system is on high alert, they will begin to cry.
If the caregiver immediately goes to their child and gives them calming reassurance, the child’s parasympathetic nervous system becomes activated and the child’s arousal will subside.
The child in this scenario grows up with the propensity to follow what they were taught about danger and how to recognize it. When faced with a perceived danger, they will be able to draw on what they learned that day from their caregiver and respond appropriately.
Also, when they feel shame for doing something wrong to someone else, they immediately recognize their actions and do what they need to calm their triggered sympathetic nervous system response.
However, what if the caregiver uses toxic shame to control their child.
In this scenario, the caregiver says “no” often and does so to meet their own needs and not to help their child. To make matters worse, they never or rarely follow up their message with any calming reassurance.
In this case, when the child’s sympathetic nervous system is triggered, they enter a state of arousal. They feel fear and freeze at first, and then begin to cry. However, because there is no reassurance, the parasympathetic nervous system is not triggered and does not do its job of calming them down.
The Threat to Relational Bonds in Adulthood
A child exposed to toxic shame has a conundrum. Their brain experiences the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system and the acceleration of the parasympathetic nervous system at the same time.
The result, that as an automobile, they sit and spin their tires unable to move forward in their understanding of other relationships they encounter later in life. This is because the toxic shame experienced in childhood impacts the hippocampus, another part of the limbic system responsible for consolidating memory.
In childhood, our hippocampi have internalized into our memory how we should respond to situations where we feel uncomfortable or uncertain. If we were mistreated, our hippocampi internalize negative messages about ourselves and what we can expect from others.
The effect is that later in life when we encounter uncomfortable situations that our hippocampi think is in any way similar to what we encountered in childhood, we feel shame. This triggered response then sends us spiraling into a complicated dance of arousal and fear that adversely affects how we form new relationships with others.
The late Dr. John Bradshaw, in his book, Healing the Shame that Binds You stated the following:
“Prolonged shame states early in life can result in permanently dysregulated autonomic functioning and a heightened sense of vulnerability to others. Their lives are marked by chronic anxiety, exhaustion, depression and a losing struggle to achieve perfection.”
The Important Work of the Insula
Toxic shame, a term first coined by Sylvan Tomkins in the early 1960s, can cause many mental health issues because it generates the formation of low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and addiction.
However, recent research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies tell an even larger story.
In a paper published in the journal Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience in 2014, researchers carried out fMRI studies on subjects to determine if and where the brain reacts to shame. The researchers followed an imaging paradigm originally employed by Takahashi et. al. that the research team adapted from Japanese culture to their German culture.
Their researchers showed shame-inducing stimuli to test subjects as they lay in an fMRI machine to see where in the brain they saw activation by measuring blood flow. What they observed changed the way we look at the brain and its response to shame.
The research team found several vital brain regions reacted to shame stimuli, including the frontal lobe which contains both the amygdala and a little known (at that time) brain structure called the insula.
The insula was once believed to be a brain structure that was implicated in emotional responses and part of the limbic system. However, the findings in yet another study conducted at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2014, has shed new light on this formerly misclassified structure.
The insula is now believed to be involved in awareness (consciousness) and play an important role in other functions believed linked to emotion including self-awareness and interpersonal experiences. In fact, research has given new insight into the critical role the insula plays as it is the hub that regulates the interactions between brain regions that regulate the internal focus of our bodies and how we regulate our behavior.
When confronted by an unusual and outstanding event, the insula functions to mark the event for further processing and then initiates the appropriate brain region’s response to it.
Impact of Trauma on the Insula
In a previous series on the effects of childhood trauma, I wrote a post where we examined how childhood trauma changes the developing brain. We saw how trauma causes many portions of a child’s brain to not mature correctly and how this immaturity brings dysfunction and emotional problems later in life.
A study reported in Neuroscience News speaks on a research team’s findings of the developmental changes in the insula of people who had developed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) in childhood.
To refresh your minds, CPTSD develops when children are exposed to traumatic stress, such as child abuse, living in a war zone, or chronic physical illnesses. People living with CPTSD may experience flashbacks, avoidance behaviors, social isolation, and difficulty with sleeping and concentrating.
The study I mentioned above was performed using MRI scans of the brains of 59 children between the ages of 9-17. Thirty of the children, 14 girls, and 16 boys had symptoms of trauma and 29 other children, 15 girls and 14 boys, had no symptoms of having lived through trauma. These latter children served as the control group for the study.
The researchers saw no differences in the brain structures of the boys and girls in the non-traumatized control group, but what they saw in the group of traumatized children shocked them.
The insula structure of the brains of the boys in the traumatized group had larger volumes and surface areas than the control group and was dramatically smaller in the brains of the girls. Their study highlighted two new important new findings.
One, trauma not only impacts the insula of the developing brains of children, but it also impacts boys and girls differently.
Two, since insula value decreases with aging (Shaw et. al., 2008), the reduction of insula volumes in girls with CPTSD suggests that their insula is prematurely aging due to traumatic stress.
Since the insula is known to be associated with the emotions of disgust and shame, one can see why so many women who have survived childhood trauma grow up to have such devastating mental health issues as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and other eating disorders.
Pulling it All Together
I realize that this article has been highly technical and full of unfamiliar terminology. However, there is one important message I want you to take away from reading it. That message is this; you are neither weird because of the emotional problems you may be experiencing from childhood trauma, nor are you without hope.
Although your brain has sustained developmental damage from what happened to you as a kid, that does not mean those problems cannot be rectified.
Thanks to neuroplasticity, your brain can learn and adapt to new ways of thinking and behaving. There is a myriad of different ways to accomplish these brain changes, and our next article will focus on the different types of treatment options available to help you overcome the traumatic events that harmed your brains development.