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Shyness may be Genetic, Study Says

Aired June 20, 2003 - 20:41   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well just about everyone struggles with shyness, some of us more or less than others. But what if it isn't a phase but something genetic? That's the finding of study in this week's issue of "The Journal of Science." Joining us from Boston is Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Carl Schwartz, he is a psychiatrist. Doctor, thanks for being with us. Describe generally if you can the study? Genetic in what way?
DR. CARL SCHWARTZ, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL: Well, you know, the evidence of the genetics is really -- comes from other scientists. The link there has been that -- that what we call temperament, which is the early basic wiring and propensity for infants to act in a very distinctive way at birth, does have, for two of the temperaments that we studied with brain imaging a genetic component. That's the operative word, a genetic component.

COOPER: But the study was done over the course of 20 years. I know you were not involved in it when the children were very young. But you got involved when they were 13 and then again at 20 and used this brain imaging in particular about a region called the amygdala. What did you learn?

SCHWARTZ: That's right. Well what we learned is when we looked at adults who had been characterized when they were just 2 years old as being extremely avoidant of novelty, fearful of novelty, shy. And we compared them with their mates from the same period in time who were 2 who were extremely outgoing and bold and fearless, we could still see the signature of that difference in the amygdala, which is a very ancient, old part of the brain that's buried deep below the frontal lobes. And we could see that difference when they were adults.

COOPER: So is there any way to change -- if there's a genetic component or some sort of built-in brain component, what about through nurture? Can parents help their children become less shy? Is there any way to change it?

SCHWARTZ: Nurture is extremely powerful. I think that that's the sort of danger in when one can show a biological footprint of anything. We assume immediately that this is somehow immutable, whereas nothing could be further from the truth.

With know that for instance that if only a third of the children who are inhibitive in the second year of life when they were adolescents actually developed severe, paralyzing shyness. We're not talking about your average awkwardness that all of us have, or reeling in ability to have and make friends.

That means two of the thirds of the children with the temperament didn't. So nurture is incredibly import.

COOPER: That's good news certainly for parents. It is a fascinating study. Dr. Carl Schwartz, appreciate you joining us tonight to talk about it. Thank you.

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