TIME social anxiety

This Is the Brain Circuit That Makes You Shy

Using a new light-based technique, scientists trace the nerve network that lights up when mammals meet

What do you do when you want to study something as complicated as what happens deep in the brain when two strangers meet? You develop a completely new way of tracking nerve connections, and then you test it in mice.

That’s what Dr. Karl Deisseroth, a professor of psychiatry and bioengineering at Stanford University, and his colleagues did. “We know social behavior is complicated, but to be able to delve into the brain of freely behaving mammals and to see the signal in real time predicting their social interaction was very exciting,” says Deisseroth, who published his results in the journal Cell.

Brain researchers have long known that certain chemicals known as neurotransmitters soar or drop depending on what we’re doing and how we feel. Based on these observations, drug companies have developed an armada of medications aimed at mimicking these changes to treat everything from depression, hyperactivity and even social anxiety or shyness. But there’s a difference between observing hormone levels rising or falling and identifying a specific circuit — among the millions that occur in the brain — responsible for how we feel and whether we are friendly at a first meeting, say, or a little more reserved. Studying those circuits has been challenging because scientists simply couldn’t get real-time information about which nerves were firing, and where, when certain behaviors, such as a meet and greet, occurred.

(MORE: The Upside of Being an Introvert (and Why Extroverts Are Overrated))

Deisseroth solved that problem. Using optogenetics and fiber photometry, he was able to tag specific nerves in the brain with light-receptor molecules and connect them to ultra-thin fibers that were tied to a switch. Flip the switch on, and the cells were stimulated; turn it off and they quieted down.

Deisseroth and his team hooked up their show to cells that operated on the brain chemical dopamine. When they turned the system on, the cells would release dopamine, and when that happened, the mice showed more interest in investigating newcomers dropped into their cage — they sniffed, they explored and they engaged. When the dopamine activation was turned off, however, the mice made little effort to acknowledge or investigate the intruder.

(MORE: Study: Nearly 1 in 8 Shy Teens May Have Social Phobia)

While manipulating the social interactions of mice is fascinating in itself, Deisseroth sees his findings as being potentially helpful in treating mental illnesses. The fact that he was able to isolate a single circuit that affected something as complex as social behavior suggests that manipulation of deep brain circuits might be a promising way to treat, or modulate behavior in people as well. What if, for example, it became possible to dampen the social aversion that affects some children with autism? If they could interact with people more comfortably, it might be possible to modulate the other symptoms of their developmental disorder. Or what if hyperactivity could be dialed down? Or depression’s darkest moods lightened in the same way?

Deisseroth stresses that we’re far from even speculating how such therapies might be used, but the possibility that deep brain circuits might be tapped to affect behavior is promising. In the meantime, says Deisseroth, “We know these things are complex. The brain is so mysterious, and psychiatry is so mysterious, so our job for a long time will be to deepen understanding of these complex circuits. If that’s the only thing that comes out of this, that would still be great.”

TIME Social Media

How Facebook Could Sabotage Your Blind Date

Young blonde woman in kitchen preparing food checks laptop
Don Bayley—-Getty Images

Think twice before you cyberstalk—seeing someone online may make face-to-face interactions more stressful

We’ve all been guilty of Facebook stalking – looking up strangers who we might be meeting face-to-face soon – a blind date, a potential employee, or even the friend of a friend. It’s supposed to make us feel a little more comfortable and prepared when the real-life meeting actually takes place.

Or maybe not. Especially if you have mild social anxiety. In a study involving female college students, Shannon Rauch and her colleagues found that surprisingly, a Facebook introduction tended to make some people more nervous during the face-to-face meeting.

MORE: This Is Your Brain on Facebook

Rauch, an assistant professor of psychology at Benedictine University in Arizona, and her colleagues recruited 26 undergraduates and asked them to take a social anxiety test. A week later, the team invited to participants to what they called a facial recognition test – the students were hooked up to a monitor to measure changes in how well the skin in their hands conducted electricity (the more aroused a person is, the better the skin conducts electrical signals) while they looked at either pictures of people or actual people in the testing room. There were four groups: one saw only a person’s Facebook profile page, another saw only a person in the room, another saw a person’s Facebook profile and then saw the person in the room, while the final group saw a person in the room and then perused her Facebook page. For the live encounters, both the participants and the visiting person were told not to interact or talk to one another, which limited the experience to just being in the person’s company.

MORE: The Two Faces of Anxiety

The students who first viewed a person’s Facebook profile and then saw the person in the room showed higher arousal scores than those who simply saw the person, without a prefacing Facebook encounter. That surprised Rauch a bit, since most of the data on digital social interaction suggested the online experience could help to calm the anxiety of meeting someone for the first time in person. “Intuitively we all thought it should help to pave the way a little bit,” she says of her findings, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

MORE: Employers: Facebook Party Pics Don’t Always Reflect Employees’ Bad Judgment

Instead, the Facebook priming made them more aroused. Rauch says the study just measured arousal, and not levels of stress hormones so she can’t say whether the participants were more anxious. It’s possible, for example, that the students were just more excited by the face-to-face encounter, which is a natural response to seeing someone. But Rauch believes that the change was more negative than positive, since it raised arousal, instead of calming it, which is what a more positive effect of the Facebook encounter would have had.

The effect was strongest among those who scored higher on the social anxiety test, which suggests that the real-life encounter was still more arousing than the online one – something that previous studies have shown. Online interactions may feel more safe and comforting to those with social anxiety, since they have more control over the situation.

MORE: How You Deal With Your Emotions Can Influence Your Anxiety

The results go against the idea that online experiences can be a helpful way for some people with social anxiety disorders to gradually get used to real life encounters. “If your goal is to calm yourself for the face-to-face encounter, Facebook is probably not the best strategy,” says Rauch.

Why? The initial online experience could start a process of rumination that leads to expectations and comparisons that the real life encounter may not meet or fulfill. That’s supported by a growing number of studies that show regular Facebook users don’t feel good about themselves, because they are constantly comparing themselves to their peers – on looks, accomplishments and goals.

Rauch hopes the work starts to question conventional wisdom about how social media helps, or even harms, social connections, and plans to study the effect in more detail, by giving participants more choice and control over the real-life interaction, and giving them more opportunity to plan the encounters. “We’d like to start using physiological data to start challenging notions of how social media affects social connections,” she says.

TIME society

Let’s End the Hugging Arms Race

Man and woman hugging.
Getty Images

I am not a hugger. And I am not alone.

It was a lovely party. Really. The wine was exquisite. The salmon canapés were memorable. The people were interesting. Conversation flowed easily through soft notes from the piano.

And then something went terribly wrong.

I sensed movement on my left. Coming at me like a drone strike was a known hugger; a dear friend, but a man who believed that personal space had plenty of room for two.

I could feel my flight or flee hormones surge. But resistance would be rude, and running was out of the question – especially in these heels. So I gave into his embrace, my hands just lightly on his sides. We broke soon enough. “So great to see you. How long has it been?” But for the rest of the evening, I carried his aftershave like a citrusy infection.

I am not a hugger. And I am not alone.

These are difficult times for those of us who are selective in our casual intimacies. Hugs, it seems, have become as common as hellos. Even among those prone to reach out and touch someone, these are also confusing times. A handshake is a handshake. But a hug demands an evolving set of calculations: setting, familiarity and – most dicey of all — reciprocation. Few things are more awkward than a hugger leaning in for a hug, as the hugee reaches out for a shake. The usual simultaneous reversals by both only ups the awkwardness, and sets up the next meeting for a repeat.

Men seem to have adapted well. They have managed to make the hug an extension of the handshake. A grasp of the hand, a quick touch at shoulders (the one-second rule applies, anything longer than that will be noticed), a few taps on the back and… clear.

For women, things are more complex.

Woman to woman, we always have the air-kiss. But that has become a red-carpet cliché – mainly for the most formal of occasions where time and money have been invested in cosmetic preparations. Denied the option of the shoulder-touch/back-tap (we should probably work on a variation of that), we’re left with a binary decision: to hug, or not to hug. The choice is situational, subject to all the vagaries of place and relationship.

Man-women is a whole other kettle o’fish. Awkward can easily careen into inappropriate. I feel my brothers’ pain. The first meeting is a handshake. Clear enough. But unless you’re operating under the rules of international diplomacy, the unease grows with each encounter. New friends become good friends, and at some point the handshake may seem impersonal, an even cold. What is that point? And who makes the call?

There can be a high price for getting it wrong. A male friend – not to my knowledge a high-volume hugger – may carry the scars of miscalculation for life. “I was part of a project team,” he said. “A younger woman and I did a lot of work together on a critical part of it. We got some big news on results. There was a feeling of celebration. I went for the hug. She put both hands on my chest and pushed me back. Didn’t say a word. Every time I see her now, it’s what I think about. So – never again.”

I told him not to take it personally; and to get on with his life. It may be that she was simply following the advice that women should not hug at work – not because it’s inappropriate, but because it looks weak. There are some good rules about body-language and leadership: head tilts can look submissive. Touching your face shows insecurity. Too much nodding in agreement relinquishes power. Hugging, many argue, is covered by the same set of rules. It can take a woman from the office alpha to the office mom.

Like most shows of emotion, that can be situational. In some work settings – nurses and social workers come to mind – hugging can be a useful part of the job description. Young kids in the classroom often need hugs; school boards have been forced to put in policies against them. In a psychologist’s office, it’s a judgment call. Refusing a hug from a patient can feel like rejection. Accepting one can be a big compilation in the patient-therapist relationship. When hugging seems to be a possibility, most therapists would say: set up the rules in advance. My people aren’t big on spontaneity.

All of this comes together to elevate a simple gesture to what some call a state of “hugging anxiety.” A simple gesture has become so imbued with options and so fraught with meaning (or no meaning at all) that we need a universal declaration of rules.

I would love to be able to wear my rules like a campaign button. They’re very simple. I won’t if you won’t. And we’ll like each other just as much.

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