Psychological Basis of Shyness

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Well, no one knows how the mind works. Psychologists have many theories, each of which has spawned a different school of psychotherapy, but these theories are just that, theories. Neuroscientists can’t help either. They can sometimes say that the activity in a certain part of the brain correlates with a particular internal experience, but correlations are just that, correlations.

Fortunately, for our purposes all we need is a simple model of the how the mind works, one that we can use to help explain the ways in which shyness arises and the ways in which it can best be managed (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 – How the mind works

Subconscious in charge

The normal flow of information between the external world and the mind is shown in Figure 2 below by means of the red arrows. Information from the external world is picked up by the bodily senses, such as the eyes and ears, and is transmitted to the brain. We can imagine the brain as being divided up into various low-level processing units that perform particular functions. The first of these, sensory input, is a specialized area that combines the input from various senses and provides a consistent interpretation of what is happening in the external world.

Figure 2 – Subconscious in charge

This interpretation is passed to the subconscious mind to be processed (the mind, be it conscious or subconscious, doesn’t correspond neatly to a particular structure within the brain so we won’t pretend that science can pinpoint the “seat of the soul”). The subconscious mind enriches the information it receives by adding in from its vast storehouse of memories additionally information that it expects to be present given the context. Then the subconscious mind decides how the body should behave in response to this information. The subconscious mind holds a vast collection of habitual patterns and routines that it uses to respond to events in the external world. It picks the most appropriate routine and sends the relevant information to the motor centre within the brain. The motor centre activates muscles in the body, so that the body responds by walking, talking, gesticulating, and performing all those other activities that constitute observable human behaviour.

In addition to muscular activity, chemical messengers, such as hormones, flow back and forth between body and brain, the type and quantity being determined by the nature of the external event and how this event impacts the body and how it is perceived by the subconscious mind.

Now you may have a few questions about this diagram. Perhaps you always envisaged the conscious mind as sitting close to the external world and envisaged the subconscious mind as somehow sitting behind the conscious mind—out of the sight as it were. You may also be wondering why there are no red arrows going to and from the conscious mind—surely the conscious mind is responsible for determining how you respond to external events?

Let’s assume that you walk into a bookshop, approach the counter, and ask the assistant if he has any books on managing shyness (of course, being shy you’re not actually going to ask an assistant anything, especially anything that relates to shyness, but let’s just pretend for the moment). Now to what extent was your conscious mind involved in this process. Did you consciously plan how to place you hand on the door handle and turn it? Did you consciously plan how to walk from the door to the counter? Did you consciously plan how to move you mouth so as to ask your question? Did you consciously plan the exact words that comprised your question? The answers are no, no, no, and no! The only conscious processing involved in this encounter were broad directives from the conscious to the subconscious mind, along the lines of “go to the counter” and “ask where the books on shyness are located”.

The first point to note here is that almost 100% of what you do, you don’t actually do—rather, your subconscious mind does it for you. Almost all of your interactions with the external world are planned and executed by your subconscious mind on your behalf, based on a set of the habitual patterns and routines that it has established over many years.

The second point to note is that while the conscious mind may ask the subconscious to do something, the subconscious mind has a veto on how it will be done and even on whether it will be done at all. Try telling your subconscious mind that it must give a toast at that forthcoming friend’s wedding and you’ll find it responds with a “No way, Jose”.

But even worse, the subconscious mind supplies the conscious mind with a filtered and distorted view of the external world. First the subconscious mind fills in the informational blanks in the sensory input it receives based on its expectations of what might be out there, and then it only passes on snippets of information to the conscious mind. For example, perhaps the subconscious mind told the conscious mind that the assistant in the bookstore looked cross. But the subconscious mind may have just been adding in this information about what it expected to find based on the context—perhaps the assistants in this bookstore have usually been unhelpful in the past, so that the subconscious mind “sees” what it expects to see and passes this misinformation on to the conscious mind.

So, to summarize:

•  How you behave in the external world, including how you appear to
    others, is determined by your subconscious mind.

•  The subconscious mind has a veto on all your actions and will only do
    what it wants to do, not what you want it to do.

•  The subconscious mind filters and distorts the information it provides to
    your conscious mind about what is happening in the external world.

The implication for managing shyness is that changing how others see you and changing how you see others involves changing long established habitual patterns within the subconscious mind, and doing this is going to take a lot of time and a lot of hard work.

Fight or flight

There is a small almond-shaped structure in the brain called the amygdala, named after the Latin for almond, “amugdale”. It is responsible for determining whether a stimulus is emotionally significant, and, if so, for generating the corresponding emotion. In particular, it is responsible for the feelings of heightened awareness and fear in social settings that are so characteristic of shyness.

Imagine that you’re walking through a jungle. You turn a corner on a forest track and there sitting on an unusually shaped bolder is a striped mammal of some sort – it’s a tiger but you don’t know that. The tiger decides that you have the makings of a good dinner and starts to run in your direction. Your subconscious mind takes a moment to decide what’s best to do in the circumstances, concludes that it would be best to beat a hasty retreat, and by a stroke of good luck you make your escape. The flow of information is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3 – Remember this!

During your initial exposure to the tiger information is passed very quickly to the amygdala, but as the amygdala has no previous experience of tigers it produces no output. Information is passed, though more slowly (thinner arrow), to the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind decides that this striped mammal doesn't have you’re best interests at heart and activates the motor output to get you out of there, fast. However, the subconscious mind does something else. It sends a signal to the amygdala saying in effect “This is a dangerous situation—remember it”.

A few weeks later you encounter another tiger on a forest track. Before you are consciously aware of the tiger and well before the information has reached your subconscious mind the amygdala will have caused your body to freeze motionless (the tiger may not have seen you); in addition, it will release chemical messengers that rapidly increase your blood pressure (if he’s seen you, you’ll have to run for it and fast), and it starts pumping out a cocktail of stress hormones (to cope in part with the damaging effects of the raised blood pressure and in part to help your body recover should you fail to escape and get mauled)—see Figure 4. Thanks to the great speed with which the amygdala has reacted you escape once again. This type of automatic response to a stimulus is what psychologists refer to as classical conditioning.

Figure 4 – Action stations!

Unfortunately, the rapid processing performed by the amygdala has an unfortunate side effect. Some weeks after your second encounter with the tiger you round a bend on the forest track and see another unusually shaped boulder. Suddenly your body freezes motionless, chemical messengers are released, and your blood pressure soars.

Why, when it’s only a rock? The problem is that when you initially saw the tiger sitting on the unusually shaped bolder and the subconscious said “remember this” to the amygdala, the amygdala made a note of the entire context of the event: there was a striped mammal and there was an unusually shaped boulder. So the amygdala labelled both as dangerous and stored this information away for future reference. Then when you saw an unusually shaped bolder for the second time the amygdala swiftly kicked up an almighty ruckus—hence your inappropriate reaction to a harmless rock.

The problem with the amygdala is that it works completely independently of both the conscious and subconscious minds. Whereas the subconscious mind may be comparatively slow and ponderous it usually gets things right. Whereas the amygdala works at lightening speed, it often gets things wrong, preferring to work on the “better safe than sorry principle”. Unfortunately this principle is not so useful in modern society where thoughtful consideration leads more readily to happiness than a rapid and perhaps ill-considered response. Because the amygdala generalizes too easily it is likely to conclude, for example, that all social situations are dangerous, whereas the conscious or subconscious mind would conclude that the danger was restricted to a particular one.

Even worse, like the proverbial elephant, the amygdala almost never forgets what it has learnt. Whereas the conscious mind is prepared to constantly adjust its opinions on the basis of rational argument, and the subconscious mind can usually be retrained over some years by persistent effort, what the amygdala has learnt often lasts a lifetime. Because there is no direct communications link from the conscious mind to the amygdala, the conscious mind has no direct influence over the amygdala. This lack of communication explains why it’s no use trying to persuade yourself not to be fearful in a social setting. It’s no use doing a Julie Andrews.

Make believe you’re brave and the trick will take you far; you can be as brave as you make believe you are.

The Sound of Music

That’s just the conscious mind doing the singing. If the amygdala were listening it would conclude that “simply being in a social situation is bad enough, but singing in a social situation would be an absolute disaster”, so immediately you’d find your heart racing and that all too familiar queasy feeling in your stomach—the communications link from the amygdala to all the motor and bodily functions is an always-on, high speed broadband link, and when the amygdala says “jump” body and brain always respond with “how high?”

So, to summarize:

•  Once the amygdala has learnt that social situations are
    dangerous, reprogramming it can be very, very difficult.

Social ineptitude

Shyness is a particular from of social ineptitude. As we can see if Figure 5 below, it can be divided it into three different categories:

•  Perceptual
•  Situational
•  Structural

Figure 5 – Categories of social ineptitude

If the part of the brain that processes sensory input is impaired, then the subconscious and conscious minds will never be quite sure what is going on in the outside world, and this uncertainty can readily lead to inept behaviour in a wide range of social situations—perceptual social ineptitude.

If the amygdala has learnt that certain social situations are dangerous then whenever these social situations are encountered the stress hormones flowing into the body and the jittery motor responses will lead to inept behaviour—situational social ineptitude.

If the subconscious mind has had little experience of dealing with social situations then it will not have developed the habitual patterns that it can rely on for directing behaviour in these situations, so the behaviour that is exhibited may well seem inept to those who are more familiar with what is dictated by custom and practice—structural social ineptitude.

Social anxiety

As we can see in Figure 6 below social anxiety can be divided into two different categories:

•  Situational
•  Structural

Figure 6 – Categories of social anxiety

If the amygdala has learnt that certain social situations are dangerous then whenever these social situations are encountered the stress hormones flowing into the body and the warnings broadcast by the amygdala to the subconscious and conscious minds will manifest as anxiety—situational social anxiety.

If the subconscious mind has had little experience of dealing with social situations then it will not have developed the habitual patterns that it can rely on for directing behaviour in these situations. The persistent negative feedback from people on your behaviour will result in the subconscious mind generating a state of constant low level anxiety—structural social anxiety.

Shy personality traits

As illustrated in Figure 7, the set of personality traits that is commonly associated with shyness:

•  Unadventurousness
•  Foresightedness
•  Empathy
•  Anger
•  Depression
•  Suicidal ideation
•  Trauma
•  Loneliness
•  Existential angst

exist as habitual patterns within the subconscious mind.

Figure 7 – Shy personality traits

These traits may in part be innate and may in part be the result of prolonged anxiety and an inability to cope adequately in social settings.

Singular attributes

As illustrated in Figure 8, singular attributes are of two types:

•  Mental
•  Physical

Figure 8 – Singular attributes

The physical attributes are evident in bodily appearance or in unusual body movement or coordination. The mental attributes are evident in responses that demonstrate departures from behaviour that is regarded as normal in a particular cultural and social setting.