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No more shame?

Veni winner Mattie Tops is  conducting research into the emotion of shame in children and adults.
Blushing, hiding your face, withdrawing from a social group:  we can all recall occasions when we have felt ashamed.  Shame is a human emotion which is familiar to all of us.  But not everyone is equally sensitive to the threat of social rejection and the shame which this can engender.  What is it that causes a person to experience shame?  To what extent can this tendency be traced back to the early relationship between mother and child?  And what psychological problems can sensitivity to shame cause at a later age?  These are questions which Dr Mattie Tops, winner of a Veni subsidy from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), will be addressing during the coming three years.  Dr Tops joined the Department of Child and Family Education at Leiden University two months ago.

(Un)safe basis for exploration
Schame is an emotion which plays an important role in social interaction.  'If you are judged negatively by your environment, for example because you have done something wrong, this can cause you to feel shame.  The purpose of showing this emotion is to avoid being rejected or abandoned,' explains Tops.  Sensitivity to shame originates in the early interaction between mother and child, he believes. 'In a healthy bonding relationship a child looks at the mother when it is exploring the environment. In such cases the mother forms a safe basis for exploration and is a source of positive reinforcement. But if the child regularly receives negative feedback from the mother, for example in the form of physical or verbal reprimands, this probably leads to a heightened sensitivity to shame at a later age.  This makes particular groups, such as people who were abused in childhood, extra sensitive to rejection.'  

Tops: 'The early interaction between mother and child may play an important role in the development of feelings of shame and psychopathology later in life.'

Stress hormone
Tops has yet to determine the methodology of his research, but he has no shortage of good ideas. Because he has a biology-oriented background, he wants to approach the problem of shame particularly at a physiological level.  'It is, for example, well known that shame causes an increased production of the stress hormone cortisol. We can demonstrate this in the lab, for instance, by having test candidates take part in a simulated interview, in which they are negatively assessed.  By taking a saliva sample, we can measure the cortisol level, to see whether this changes as a result of the threatening situation.  We can determine how stress-sensitive a person is in advance by asking them to complete a questionnaire.'

The relationship between shame and cortisol production is not as clear as it appears at first sight, emphasises Tops.  'Shame normally leads to increased cortisol production. But with atypical depression, a psychological disturbance which is charactised by such aspects as strong anxiety about social rejection, people seem to have a lower level of cortisol.  Precisely the opposite of what one would expect.  We see this same pattern with a small number of other medical syndromes, including chronic fatigue and post-traumatic stress disturbance.  What is the explanation for this? Tops suspects that people who are naturally sensitive to social evaluation, and who as a result regularly experience shame, will in time demonstrate a weaker physiological response in order to protect themselves against over-stimulation.  'It is a natural protection mechanism,' according to Tops.

Using an EEG it is possible to study the response of the brain when a person receives negative feedback on his performance with a computer task.
Brain waves
As well as the hormonal measurement for shame, the originally Brabants researcher wants to make use of brainscanning techniques, such as EEG measurements.  The electrical activity of the brain is measured using electrodes  placed on the head. 'When people carry out a task and receive negative feedback about their performance, this leads to a peak in their electrical brain waves.  With young children we could, for example examine the extent to which their brains show a response when, after pressing a button, they are unexpectedly faced with an image of their mother on a computer screen, looking at them in disapproval. 

Cortisol measurements and EEG are only a small selection of the research instruments available to Mattie Tops.  'My reserach is very complex and is not expected to produce immediate answers to practical issues,' the Veni winner acknowledges.  Nonetheless, his research has considerable potential.  New insights into the physiology of shame responses and the development of these over the span of a person's life, could in time be useful in the treatment of people with psychological disturbances which are characterised by fear of rejection.  That these disturbances can often be traced back to early childhood is one of the main hypotheses which Tops is first going to research.

(8 May 2007/Tristan Lavender)

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