The next time you snap the waistband on your panties or enjoy a Speedos moment at the beach, have a moment of silence for the man who made it all possible—Wallace Carothers. The famous DuPont chemist and inventor of nylon (among other ubiquitous synthetic materials) was a very practical person, so much so that he kept a cyanide capsule tucked discreetly into a locket on his watch chain—a comforting, ever-present, portable escape from an insufferably complex mind. Carothers’s thoughts were forever tumbling into the pits of depression, anxiety and—perhaps worst of all—the incessant, worrying anticipation of having to speak about his high-profile polymer research in public.

Although he hated public speaking, you see, it was unavoidable, something required for continued funding from DuPont. After giving a talk at Yale at an organic symposium in early 1932, Carothers wrote to a friend:

I did go up to New Haven during the holidays and made a speech … It was pretty well-received but the prospect of having to make it ruined the preceding weeks and it was necessary to resort to considerable amounts of alcohol to quiet my nerves for the occasion … My nervousness, moroseness and vacillation get worse as time goes on, and the frequent resort to drinking doesn’t bring about any permanent improvement. 1932 looks pretty black to me just now.

Just five years later, on April 28th, 1937, faced with a collapsing marriage to an equally fragile, unsupportive wife, several uneventful stays at psychiatric institutions, and the death of his beloved sister, Isobel, Carothers committed suicide in a Philadelphia hotel room at the age of 41, dropping that coveted cyanide capsule into a glass of lemon juice and ingesting the dissolved poison.

For better or worse, I’ve got something in common with our man Carrothers here (actually a few things, but I’ll save those for another post). I, too, have a lifelong, debilitating fear of public speaking. I much prefer the quiet, private, beautiful manipulativeness of writing alone behind my desk to the jarring, immediate, stony-eyed presence of my peers. And I’d be lying if I said that, on occasion, I didn’t also find myself resorting to “considerable amounts of alcohol” to overcome this paralyzing dread of public speaking. Now, soaking one’s brain in ethanol is not, obviously, the healthiest way to address this particular phobia, but as a group of researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry discovered recently, it does render a satisfying and unfortunately helpful effect.

But not for everyone—only the sons of alcoholic fathers (or at least, those with a history of alcoholism on their father’s side). In their 2009 study in Psychoneuroendocrinology, Ulrich Zimmermann and his colleagues invited 96 German males between the ages of 18 and 27 into their Munich laboratory and, among other things, plied some of them with alcohol before unexpectedly telling all of them that they’d soon be giving an oral presentation to a small audience of critical strangers. Although none of the subjects had yet developed alcohol-related disorders themselves, half of these men (51) came from alcoholic paternal lineages, whereas the other half (45) had no history of alcohol-related disorders on either side. Intriguingly, previous studies had demonstrated that, compared to same-aged controls, the non-alcoholic sons of alcoholic fathers exhibit a different neurophysical stress response pattern to an acute alcohol dose. Essentially, alcohol doesn’t seem to disrupt their cognitive abilities and performance as dramatically as it does in controls, a fact placing them at especially high risk for becoming “functioning alcoholics” themselves. In contrast, a maternal lineage of drinking doesn’t seem to correlate with the brain’s response to alcohol.  

Back to tipsy public speaking, here’s how the general procedure worked in the Zimmerman study:

Subjects reported at the laboratory at 1300 h. At 1315 h, an i.v. line was established and 40 ml/h of 0.9% saline was infused throughout the session to keep the line patent for blood drawings. Drinking started at 1400h. At 1435 h the subjects were instructed about the test procedures and were given 10 min to prepare an oral presentation as for a job interview. At 1450 h, three health care professionals walked into the room to act as an audience, and the stress test was performed by having the subjects deliver a 5 min self-disclosing speech during which they tried to convince the audience to give them a job. Thereafter, they were asked to perform mental arithmetics and were immediately prompted for mistakes by the audience. Immediately after the stress test, subjects rated how stressful the test had been for them.

As you might expect in a controlled study of this nature, all subjects were told that they’d be drinking alcohol, but in fact they’d been randomly assigned to either a placebo condition (plain ice-cold grapefruit juice) or the actual alcohol condition (in which 0.6 g/kg laboratory-grade ethanol was diluted undetectably in the grapefruit juice to give a respective volume of 15%). Subjects drank two equal portions of the drink, each consumed within 5 minutes and separated by a 15-minute break.

Experimenters were blind to the condition to which the subjects had been assigned and who did or didn’t have an alcoholic father, and they used a breathalyzer to verify that those males fortunate enough to have been assigned to receive alcohol that day were indeed slightly drunk. (Blood alcohol level peaked about 45 minutes after the drinking session, and averaged across participants at about the legal driving limit of .08). The continual blood draw and hormonal assays allowed Zimmerman and his colleagues to monitor the subtle physiological effects of the ethanol treatments in subjects across the different experimental conditions (high risk-alcohol versus high risk-placebo versus low risk-alcohol versus low risk-placebo).

The researchers discovered that the sons of alcoholic fathers responded to the stress differently than did those of nonalcoholic fathers—but not in terms of their subjective judgment. In fact, the two groups' verbal self-reports didn’t differ in the degree to which they felt stressed out at having to speak to the audience. Rather, the differences between these two groups were captured only at a neurophysical level, owing their effects directly to the ethanol dosage. Specifically, by looking at the production and fluctuating levels of certain hormones (such as prolactin and cortisol) in response to the ethanol administration, the authors found that, “alcohol drinking significantly reduced reactivity to subsequent stress [giving a public speech] in the sons of alcoholic fathers, but not in the controls.”

These findings imply that the brains of males with a paternal history of alcoholism are genuinely wired differently than those without such a genetic background of paternal alcohol-dependency. Based on the particular axis of neurological factors implicated in these results, the authors believe that these “gene-stress-alcohol” interactions are most likely to be found in some quirky brain circuits that are located above the hypothalamus, brain regions likely in the realm of higher-order social cognition (a finding which links these results to the study I’ll describe next).

So alcohol, in small doses anyway, for some people, reduces the psychosocial stress of public speaking. There’s no moralistic message here. The authors, at least, certainly aren’t advocating drunken speeches. But personally, public speaking at scientific conferences seems as good a reason as any to hydrate with some fast-acting liquid courage. It’s a lot better than drinking while you’re actually conducting the studies that you’re presenting on, anyway. And it’s certainly better than drinking one too many glasses of wine at dinner later that night before driving home. Now of course acting like Anna Nicole Smith at the 2004 Video Music Awards probably isn’t the wisest thing you could do in front of your professional colleagues and I wouldn’t recommend it for job talks. But for me, a carefully calibrated shot or two of vodka or, if there’s a bottle at hand, a glass-and-a-half of Chianti, dispensed precisely 45 minutes prior to going on stage, not only dampens my stress response before giving a nerve-racking talk—that’s all well and fine, of course—but more importantly it dampens the intolerable glare from that burning sea of eyes before me. Alcohol is without rival in its ability to dilute the presence of other minds.  

When standing before a crowded auditorium (or more commonly one that’s mostly empty), I’m frequently reminded of a line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s hell-is-other-people play, No Exit. One of the characters, staring at another, quips: “See how weak I am, a mere breath on the air, a gaze observing you, a formless thought that thinks you.” The character was being ironic, obviously, because she knew very well that this type of “mere breath” can be a deadly miasma for someone with social anxiety disorder. “If looks could kill,” as the saying goes. In fact, recent findings by another team of German investigators reveal that being the center of attention—such as in public speaking—makes us hypervigilant for certain types of faces in the audience, particularly those that betray an undercurrent of malicious thoughts toward us.

In a study published earlier this year in the journal Psychophysiology, University of Würzburg psychologist Matthias Wieser and his colleagues tried to make some evolutionary sense of why public speaking is so many people’s biggest fear. One of the reasons, they argue, is that the state of social anxiety generated by being the center of attention has an unfortunate adaptive effect—we become super-alert to the presence of angry faces. This limbically-driven attentional bias in which angry or unhappy faces are processed especially rapidly by a socially anxious brain would have been evolutionarily adaptive (and probably continues to be so) because it helped our ancestors to avert dangerous social uprisings that had the potential to ruin their reputations, reproduction and very survival. Threatening faces, write the authors, “are considered to be prototypical fear stimuli of an evolved behavioral system related to [other people’s] attack and self-defense.” Furthermore, they say:

The system controls the interaction among individuals in a group by defining dominance and social submissiveness among individuals. Thus, the social submissiveness system serves to avert attack and humiliation from [other people], thereby avoiding physical and mental harm. It is likely that this system is also activated in a situation of state social anxiety like the anticipation of public speaking.

To investigate whether or not public speaking indeed prompts our brains to rapidly scan the audience with a preferential processing bias for angry faces, Wieser and his colleagues invited 50 participants into their lab, randomly assigning half to the anxiety condition (they were told that, shortly, they would be preparing and delivering a two-minute videotaped speech about a controversial issue and that their speaking performance would be evaluated by three experts in terms of appearance, speech content, vocalization, demonstrated confidence, and rhetoric skills). The remaining participants were assigned to the low-anxiety/control condition—these people were told that later on they would be writing anonymously about a controversial topic.

Next, each of the participants entered a “shielded cabin,” the experimenters attached EEG electrodes, the lights were dimmed, and a series of 96 faces showing angry, happy, and neutral faces were flashed randomly on a screen before them. As predicted, the brains of those participants who’d been assigned to the public speaking (anxiety) condition lit up especially swiftly for angry faces compared to the neutral and happy faces. That general effect—this differential processing bias in which early components for visual processing in the brain are switched on more rapidly for angry faces than happy and neutral ones—wasn’t found in the brains of control subjects expecting to write anonymously. The authors therefore reason that the anticipation of public speaking essentially “turned on” the anxiety groups’ amygdalas.

It would be interesting to see if this differential processing bias for angry faces would appear in the brains of slightly inebriated sons of alcoholic fathers who are told to give a public speech, but I suppose that will have to wait for one of these scientists to put two and two together.

Meanwhile, in terms of actually helping people cope with the fear of public speaking, don’t look to me for advice. But there are certainly loads of more clinically oriented approaches available out there. Several researchers have been tinkering with the idea of providing therapy through virtual reality auditoriums—complete with obnoxious avatars booing you on stage.

Then of course there’s always the old “just picture them naked” advice. But that’s particularly problematic advice for me because, as cruel chance would have it, I happen to also suffer from a very rare sexual disorder called laliophilia, in which I tend to get aroused by speaking in public. So imagining a nude audience just makes my problem that much worse. Oh, relax, I’m only pulling your chain … or am I? In any event the alcohol kills my libido, so it’s a moot point. Now I’m rambling...

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed, friend Dr. Bering on Facebook or follow @JesseBering on Twitter and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns.

Bering in Mind is an official honoree of the 2010 Webby Awards for blogs in the category of culture.

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