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The Neuroscience of Shame


October 6, 2020

What happens in the brain to make shame benign or toxic? What parts of our brains are injured by chronically being shamed by our caregivers, and how does that change who we are?

These are a few of the questions I will attempt to answer in this piece. Some of the terms regarding regions of the brain may be new to you, so I will give you a brief description of them, and links so you can research them yourself.

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and Shame

The autonomic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that controls and regulates the internal organs without the need to think about it. There are two branches to the ANS, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for connecting the different organs of our bodies to our brain through our spinal cord. When we perceive danger, our sympathetic nervous system causes us to prepare to fight, flight, or freeze by increasing our heart rate, as well as blood flow to our muscles, and decreasing blood flow to organs such as the skin.

The sympathetic nervous system, as we can see, is excitatory to the body.

The parasympathetic nervous system is comprised of nerve fibers or cranial nerves. The primary part of the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve and the lumbar spinal nerves. Upon stimulation, these important structures increase digestive secretions and reduce the heartbeat.

The parasympathetic nervous system, as we can see, is calming to the body.

When faced with shame, the brain reacts as if it were facing physical danger, and activates the sympathetic nervous system generating the flight/fight/freeze response. The flight response triggers the feeling of needing to disappear, and children who have this response will try to become invisible. They will literally look smaller and their expressions become blank.

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