Cerebral Hemispheres 2
NEUROSCIENTIFICALLY CHALLENGED

NEUROSCIENCE MADE SIMPLER

Neuroimaging and the Social Ladder


Social hierarchies, and the corresponding struggles to move up within them, are ubiquitous throughout the animal kingdom. It is common to observe the attainment of dominant, as well as the relegation to submissive, roles in animal groups. As is so often the case, when we turn our attention to our own species, however, we rarely describe ourselves in such ethological terms as dominant and submissive. To do so causes one to draw an uncomfortably amorphous line between the human and nonhuman kingdom, one that many of us avoid as it has a tendency to tarnish the uniqueness of the human condition, allowing for the propagation of the more comfortable idea that we are separate from “lower” forms of animal life.

But social rank exists, and is as evident in human societies as it is in any other. It affects every aspect of our lives, including our health. A famous study of British civil servants found an inverse correlation between social status and cardiovascular and mental health. This corresponds with numerous animal studies that have demonstrated the detrimental health effects lower social status can result in.

The concept of social hierarchy seems so universal as to suggest it may be an innate behavior, caused by neural architecture evolved specifically to regulate it. A group of researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) investigated this recently using neuroimaging techniques. They were hoping to find areas of the human brain that are activated specifically when assessing social rank, either of oneself or others.

To do so they used an interactive computer game that participants played for a monetary prize while their brains were scanned with functional MRI (fMRI). Throughout the game, a participant would intermittently see the pictures and scores of other players, who they thought were playing simultaneously in other rooms. In reality, the subject being scanned was the only player.

The researchers found a number of brain areas that were activated according to whether the participant felt she was succeeding or failing compared to her imaginary competitors. The reward area of the brain, specifically the ventral striatum, was activated just as highly in response to a rise in comparative ranking among other players as it was to a monetary reward itself, underscoring the importance the participants’ placed on social position. When the participants did worse than a player with an inferior ranking, areas of the brain correlated with emotional frustration were activated more strongly than when they were beat out by an equal, or superior, player. Specific areas of the brain were also activated just in the assessment of other players as they appeared on the screen, before negative or positive results of the game had been achieved. This may involve something of a “sizing-up” process, used to assess potential competition. Additionally, more competitive players experienced increased reward stimulation when they won, but also more emotional pain when they lost to an inferior player.

This supports the concept that our brains are designed to struggle for social dominance, even in a society where pure dominance is relatively rare. It certainly makes sense, however, considering the competitive drives that lie in many of us, and the desperation one can experience when one feels humiliated or reduced in stature. While our competition may be much more subtle than the violent dominance battles of bears, primates, or elephant seals, it still exists, and in a much more palpable way than many care to realize.

YOUR BRAIN, EXPLAINED

Sleep. Memory. Pleasure. Fear. Language. We experience these things every day, but how do our brains create them? Your Brain, Explained is a personal tour around your gray matter. Building on neuroscientist Marc Dingman’s popular YouTube series, 2-Minute Neuroscience, this is a friendly, engaging introduction to the human brain and its quirks using real-life examples and Dingman’s own, hand-drawn illustrations.

  • An informative, accessible and engaging book for anyone who has even the slightest interest in how the brain works, but doesn’t know where to begin. - Dean Burnett, PhD, author, Happy Brain and Idiot Brain

  • Reading like a collection of detective stories, Your Brain, Explained combines classic cases in the history of neurology with findings stemming from the latest techniques used to probe the brain’s secrets. - Stanley Finger, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Washington University (St. Louis), author, Origins of Neuroscience

  • Dingman weaves classic studies with modern research into easily digestible sections, to provide an excellent primer on the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience. - Moheb Costandi, author, Neuroplasticity and 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know

  • ...a highly readable and accessible introduction to the operation of the brain and current issues in neuroscience... a wonderful introduction to the field. - Frank Amthor, PhD, Professor of Psychology, The University of Alabama at Birmingham, author, Neuroscience for Dummies

BIZARRE

This book shows a whole other side of how brains work by examining the most unusual behavior to emerge from the human brain. In it, you'll meet a woman who is afraid to take a shower because she fears her body will slip down the drain, a man who is convinced he is a cat, a woman who compulsively snacks on cigarette ashes, and many other unusual cases. As uncommon as they are, each of these cases has something important to teach us about everyday brain function.

  • Through case studies of both exceptional people as well as those with disorders, Bizarre takes us on a fascinating journey in which we learn more about what is going on in our skull. - William J. Ray, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, author, Abnormal Psychology

  • Dingman brings the history of neuroscience back to life and weaves in contemporary ideas seamlessly. Readers will come along for the ride of a really interesting read and accidentally learn some neuroscience along the way. - Erin Kirschmann, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology & Counseling, Immaculata University

  • A unique combination of storytelling and scientific explanation that appeals to the brain novice, the trained neuroscientist, and everyone in between. Dingman explores some of the most fascinating and mysterious expressions of human behavior in a style that is case study, dramatic novel, and introductory textbook all rolled into one. - Alison Kreisler, PhD, Neuroscience Instructor, California State University, San Marcos

  • Bizarre is a collection of stories of how the brain can create zombies, cult members, extra limbs, instant musicians, and overnight accents, to name a few of the mind-scratching cases. After reading this book, you will walk away with a greater appreciation for this bizarre organ. If you are a fan of Oliver Sacks' books, you're certain to be a fan of Dingman's Bizarre. - Allison M. Wilck, PhD, Researcher and Assistant Professor of Psychology, Eastern Mennonite University