Saturday, September 24, 2005

Is shyness a strategy?

Out of the limelight, out of harm's way.


Secrets of the Shy

Why so bashful? Science finds something complex -- and cunning--behind the curtain

Jeffrey Kluger

1,699 words
4 April 2005
U.S. Edition

It's hard to get much lower-tech than the laboratory of psychologist Sam Putnam at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. The equipment here is strictly five-and-dime--soap bubbles, Halloween masks, noisemakers--but the work Putnam is doing is something else entirely. On any given day, the lab bustles with toddlers who come to play with his toys and be observed while they do so. Some of the children rush at the bubbles, delight at the noise toys, squeal with pleasure when a staff member dons a mask. Others stand back, content to observe. Others cry.

Those differences are precisely what Putnam is looking for. What he's studying during his unlikely playdates is that elusive temperamental divide between those of us who thrill to the new and those of us who prefer what we know--those who seek out the unfamiliar and those who retreat into the cozy and safe. It's in that divide, many scientists believe, that the mysteries of shyness may lie.

Few things say "forget I'm here" quite so eloquently as the pose of the shy--the averted gaze, the hunched shoulders, the body pivoted away from the crowd. Shyness is a state that can be painful to watch, worse to experience and, in survival terms at least, awfully hard to explain. In a species as hungry for social interaction as ours, a trait that causes some individuals to shrink from the group ought to have been snuffed out pretty early on. Yet shyness is commonplace. "I think of shyness as one end of the normal range of human temperament," says professor of pediatrics William Gardner of Ohio State University.

But normal for the scientist feels decidedly less so for the painfully shy struggling merely to get by, and that's got a lot of researchers looking into the phenomenon. What determines who's going to be shy and who's not? What can be done to treat the problem? Just as important, is it a problem at all? Are there canny advantages to being socially averse that the extroverts among us never see? With the help of behavioral studies, brain scans and even genetic tests, researchers are at last answering some of those questions, coming to understand what a complex, and in some ways favorable, state shyness can be.

For all the things shyness is, there are a number of things it's not. For one, it's not simple introversion. If you stay home on a Friday night just because you prefer a good book to a loud party, you're not necessarily shy--not unless the prospect of the party makes you so anxious that what you're really doing is avoiding it. "Shyness is a greater than normal tension or uncertainty when we're with strangers," says psychologist Jerome Kagan of Harvard University. "Shy people are more likely to be introverts, but introverts are not all shy."

Still, even by that definition, there are plenty of shy people to go around. More than 30% of us may qualify as shy, says Kagan, a remarkably high number for a condition many folks don't even admit to. There are a lot of reasons we may be so keyed up. One of them, new research suggests, is that we may simply be confused.

In a study published early this year, Dr. Marco Battaglia of San Raffaele University in Milan, Italy, recruited 49 third- and fourth- grade children and administered questionnaires to rank them along a commonly accepted shyness scale. He showed each child a series of pictures of faces exhibiting joy, anger or no emotion at all and asked them to identify the expressions. The children who scored high on the shyness meter, it turned out, had a consistently hard time deciphering the neutral and the angry faces.

What's more, when he recorded brain activity using electroencephalograms, Battaglia found that those with higher scores for shyness had lower levels of activity in the cortex, where sophisticated thought takes place. That suggested higher levels of activity in the more primitive amygdala, where anxiety and alarm are sounded. Shy children, Battaglia concluded, may simply be less adept at reading the facial flickers other kids use as social cues. Unable to rely on those helpful signals, they tend to go on high alert, feeling anxious about any face they can't decipher. "The capacity to interpret faces is one of the most important prerequisites for balanced relationships," Battaglia says.

In a similar photo study at Stanford University, psychologist John Gabrieli went further, showing adult subjects not just pictures of faces but also photos of inherently disturbing scenes such as automobile accidents. The shy subjects, he found, handled the car wrecks the same way as the rest of the folks in the group; the difference, once again, lay in how they responded to the faces. "It's not that they were more fearful in general," says Gabrieli.

Faces aren't the only things working against the shy; their genes may be too. As part of Battaglia's study, he collected saliva samples from his 49 subjects and analyzed their DNA, looking for something that might further explain his results. The shy children, he found, had one or two shorter copies of a gene that codes for the flow of the brain chemical serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in anxiety, depression and other mood states. Battaglia's lab is not the only one to have linked this gene to shyness, and while nobody pretends it's the entire answer, most researchers believe it at least plays a role. "People who carry the short variant of the gene are, in general, a little more shy and reactive to stress," says psychiatrist Michael Meaney of McGill University in Montreal, who just completed a two-year study of timidity and stress.

What determines if someone born with a genetic inclination toward shyness turns out to be that way? Environment, for starters. More than 20 years ago, Kagan conducted a study of 2-year-old children to measure their levels of inhibition--a tendency to retreat that often appears in children who later become indisputably shy. In collaboration with psychiatrist Dr. Carl Schwartz of Harvard Medical School, he then followed up on the children in their teens and again when they became young adults. Of the subjects who started off with shy tendencies, a full two-thirds stayed that way, but the rest overcame their inhibitions. "Parenting, environment and social opportunity--all of those had enormous impacts," says Schwartz. Notes Kagan: "If you're born [shy], it may be hard for you to become a Bill Clinton, but you can move toward the middle."

If that's so, should parents of shy children nudge them to be less withdrawn? Some studies suggest that there are real, even lifesaving reasons to try. Bowdoin's Putnam has found that the children in his soap-bubble studies who resist novel situations tend to internalize feelings, which suggests that they are more prone to develop depression and anxiety later in life. Shy children are also at greater risk for developing full-blown social phobia, a serious disorder that afflicted half of Schwartz and Kagan's shy subjects. In addition, a 2003 study of HIV-positive men at UCLA showed that patients who scored high on a social-inhibition and irritability scale may have a worse overall prognosis than their easier-going peers, with a viral load fully eight times as high. While it's not easy to generalize those findings to the HIV-negative population, the study does suggest that shyness may take a toll on the immune system.

For children and adults who feel constrained by their shyness, there are many ways to break free. Parents, first, must respond to their kids' timid behavior with empathy, taking care not to equate being anxious with being bad, says Dr. Regina Pally of UCLA. "They should send soothing signals that say, 'This is hard. I'm going to help you deal with it. You're not being a baby.'" For shy adults, cognitive talk therapy can place anxieties in perspective, lowering the stakes of social situations and reducing the fears associated with them. Behavioral therapy is a good treatment for social phobia, taking the charge out of uncomfortable situations by exposing patients to them gradually.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that therapy can eradicate all shyness--and it would be a bigger mistake even to try. Shy children may have a smaller circle of friends than more outgoing kids, but studies show they tend to do better in school and are significantly less inclined to get caught up in violence, crime or gangs. "Shyness has a risk factor," says professor of social work J. David Hawkins of the University of Washington in Seattle, who, since 1985, has been conducting a long-term study of 808 children from high-crime neighborhoods of Seattle. "But it has a protective quality too."

If lives lived exuberantly can yield grand things, lives lived more quietly may produce something even finer. As Battaglia puts it: "Shyness is simply a human difference, a variation that can be a form of richness." Scientists studying shyness never tire of pointing out that Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were unusually reserved people and may have achieved far less if they'd been otherwise. "There's no question in my mind that T.S. Eliot would have qualified as one of the [shy] kids in our study," says Kagan. "Yet he also won a Nobel Prize."

Reported by Sandra Marquez/ Los Angeles, Mimi Murphy/ Rome, Sora Song/ New York and Cindy Waxer/ Toronto


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