The moment when Dad gets up to strut his stuff on the dance floor is a toe-curling ordeal familiar to every teenager. While mothers and fathers take pride in watching their adolescent offspring sing, dance or perform, it is a source of acute embarrassment when the roles are reversed.
An explanation has now been advanced by scientists. The adolescent brain seems to process the emotions of embarrassment and guilt differently from those of adults.
The first brain-scan study to investigate the issue, conducted at University College London, identified clear differences in brain activity when teenagers and adults were asked to think about social emotions.
While both teens and adults use the same parts of the brain when processing emotions such as disgust and fear, which do not involve the opinions of other people, their scans show pronounced contrasts when they think about embarrassment or guilt.
Adolescents engage a particular part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex when considering these feelings, while adults do not, according to the study, led by Stephanie Burnett and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.
The findings, which are published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, offer a potential explanation for the way children who, when younger, would have reveled in exuberant parental behavior start to blush at it after puberty.