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‘Cringe’ TV triggers pain response in brain

Have you ever wondered why some people cringe at "painful" programmes on television?

Have you ever wondered why some people cringe at “painful” programmes on television? Well,the brain’s pain processing unit is to be blamed,say scientists.

A joint team from Britain and Germany has carried out an experiment and shown that the part of the brain which people use to process pain also lights up when they cringe at other’s actions,the ‘Daily Mail’ reported.

They have based their findings on an analysis of the brains of a group of students who were asked how they’d feel in a series of embarrassing situations and if they thought the person involved would be unsettled by the experience.

The hypothetical scenarios ranged from making a mess of a speech to walking around with an open zip and wearing a T-shirt with a sexual slogan.

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The volunteers said they would feel the most “vicarious embarrassment” when the person realised they were making a fool of themselves. But they would still feel embarrassed for people who were completely unaware of the impression they were making.

The researchers then showed a group of men and women sketches of situations,while scanning their brains. Watching others’ embarrassing mishaps triggered the brain regions more usually associated with processing physical pain.

These areas — the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula — even lit up when watching someone who was unaware they had made a faux pas.


Writing in the ‘PLoS ONE’ journal,the researchers say it appears we are feeling their “social pain” for them – or empathising with their misfortune. And,the phenomenon isn’t just restricted to their lab.

Dr Christopher Cohrs,of Queens University,Belfast,said: “Worldwide,millions of people gather in groups to watch TV shows such as Pop Idol and America’s Next Top Model and collectively enjoy witnessing plights or mishaps happening to the candidates and perceive “vicarious embarrassment” or “embarrassment by proxy”.

“The appeal of observing others’ plights exploited via television or internet seems to be present regardless of whether the person in focus realises the mishap or not.”

First published on: 14-04-2011 at 14:32 IST
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