The Neurological Aspect of Cringing

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Cringe-Worthy.”

As we all know, the feeling of “cringe-worthy” is unbecoming. Though it is difficult to articulate, the feeling of cringing can be traced back to the feeling of empathy. Essentially, cringing is vicarious embarrassment. The Merriam-Webster definition of “cringe-worthy” is as follows: so embarrassing, awkward, or upsetting as to cause one to cringe. Despite the definition’s simple facade, it consequently poses two important questions, “What is awkwardness?” and “Is there science behind it?”

Some people say that awkwardness and cringing stem from social constructs — they are actions outside of the norm, for example: hugging someone for too long or forgetting someone’s name. However this type of discomfort can be tied to biochemical reactions in the brain.

S2- Secondary somatosensory cortex

S2- Secondary somatosensory cortex

In a study by psychologists from the University of Michigan, University of Colorado, Boulder, Columbia Univeristy, and the New York Psychiatric Institute, it has been theorized that social missteps activate regions in the brain, more specifically the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterier insula. These are areas of the brain that have been previously associated with physical pain. This is why the feeling of cringing can evoke a physical reaction like chills or shudders — because “Our brains process the breaking of social standards and the breaking of bones through similar neural pathways,” reported Michael Stevens, founder of VSauce.

The Science of Awkwardness video on the VSauce YouTube channel.

The Science of Awkwardness video on the VSauce YouTube channel.

Another neurological aspect of awkwardness, the neurotransmitter chemical oxytocin is a hormone that regulates positive feelings like trust and love. It is a neuromodulator secreted by the hypothalamus gland, and modulates neurons in the central nervous system to different feelings. Thus, it is explicable that a lack of oxytocin increases susceptibility to social awkwardness and vicarious embarrassment and in turn, cringing.




Contrary to popular belief, a little bit of awkwardness in one’s everyday life can be wonderful for how a person is perceived. Embarrassment and remorse have been shown to be slightly related to awkwardness, and people perceive those feelings as correlated to trustworthiness and forgiveness.

Next time you cringe at something or are embarrassed by something, just remember that it’s only a neurological biochemical pathway, and you’ll instantly feel better. If you continually diminish something, you become less affected by it. On a happier note, the act of cringing is a feeling that everybody goes through, and fun fact: a whole branch of comedy has devoted itself to cringing. Shows like The Office (UK and US), Curb Your Enthusiasm, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Mr. Bean are actually considered “cringe comedy”; a sub-genre of comedy that derives humor from social awkwardness.

Leading characters with plenty of cringe-worthy moments.

Leading characters with plenty of cringe-worthy moments.

If you have any questions, comments, or criticisms, feel free to leave a comment and I'll get back to you as soon as possible. Thanks for reading!
-Science Phenomena

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