The brains of very shy children show different types of activity in response to hostile faces, suggesting that shy kids may have trouble reading certain expressions, Italian researchers reported on Monday.
According to the group’s findings, the same differences in brain activity were also seen among children carrying variations in genes associated with the processing of emotions, suggesting there may be a genetic side to shyness.
According to Dr. Marco Battaglia and his colleagues, writing in the Archives of General Psychiatry, research shows that children who are shy are at higher risk of anxiety disorders. One of these disorders is social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, a condition marked by an excessive fear of certain social situations.
To investigate further the relationship between shyness, brain activity and genetics, Battaglia - who is based at the Istituto Scientifico San Raffaele in Milan - and his team asked 149 third- and fourth-graders to look at faces with happy, neutral and angry expressions, and measured their brain activity.
The researchers found that, when looking at angry or neutral faces, shy kids showed smaller responses in certain brain regions.
Likewise, kids that carried a specific pattern of genes involved in processing emotions also exhibited a smaller response to these faces.
Overall, the findings suggest that being shy and having a particular genetic makeup may predispose kids to difficulties reading facial expressions.
As a result, it may be possible to pinpoint kids who have a “biased pattern of processing emotional information of social relevance…early in life,” the authors write.
SOURCE: Archives of General Psychiatry, January 2005.
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.