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A new study has shown that shy people, when confronted with a new face, show more activity in an emotion-related brain region compared with more outgoing types.

Researchers at the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston reported that young adults who had been considered "inhibited" as toddlers had a heightened response in the brain region, called the amygdala, when viewing unfamiliar faces. The study provides a possible physical explanation for some differences in temperament.

They used an imaging technique called functional MRI to take a closer look at the relationship between temperament and brain function. The 22 adults who took part in the new research had participated in a study of temperament when they were toddlers. At that time, researchers determined whether the children were inhibited or uninhibited using a number of tests. One of the tests involved a battery-operated robot. The uninhibited toddlers would walk up and poke the robot in the eye. The inhibited child would freeze or even run to his mother.

For the new study, researchers took brain scans of the 22 participants, 13 of whom had been categorised as shy toddlers - as they looked at a series of photographs of six different faces. Then participants were shown a series of photographs that included the familiar six plus some new ones. While all 22 showed activity in the amygdala when new faces appeared, people who had been labelled shy as toddlers had a greater response in the brain region. Amygdala has an established role in emotion, it is known to have a central role in processing of stimuli and experiences that have an emotional content. This and other research suggests a somewhat broader role for the amygdala in detecting new changes in the environment.

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