This painting #1 is inspired by a photograph featured in the New York Times capturing a scene from the ongoing protest and revolt in Libya. In the original image, a Libyan man is holding up to his face a stylized portrait of Colonel Qaddafi, the Libyan leader whose refusal to step down from power in spite of massive popular demand has led his nation into civil war. This Qaddafi supporter poses alone in a desolate stadium with darkness and smoke in his background.
The occurrence of a common man standing up for a cause that is in contradiction with his own self-interest is not uncommon. One does not have to go far to find someone whose personal and political convictions stand at odds with the objective reality. The neural mechanisms underlying self-perception can shed light on this phenomenon.
Although it is unclear why people tend to view themselves and their loved ones differently and often with a rosy glow, research from a variety of fields in social sciences has established that the overwhelming majority of people see themselves as being more capable, talented, and deserving of future success in relation to their peers. It seems that people are incapable of subjecting themselves, and the people and ideas that they hold dear to the same standards of scrutiny that they use to assess everything else in life.
Neuroimaging studies have revealed that the activation of Medial Prefrontal Cortex (MPFC) is required for self-reflection. Within the frontal cortex, the increase in activation of the orbital frontal region (OFC) is tightly coupled with the ability to be self-critical. These studies reveal that within our brain, there exists a unique circuitry for processing of self-referential information. Which in pathological conditions such as drug addiction, gambling, persistent emotional abuse, or under perceived threat become re-wired to provide even less capacity for self-insight.
This natural predisposition for us to subconsciously judge ourselves differently than we see others has immense social and political consequences. And I would argue that the continued prevalence of exclusionary political policies and ethnic divides in this age of globalization is partly attributed to this cognitive processing gap.
The portrait of the girl in image #2 is inspired by Diane Lake, one of teenage members of the Manson family, a quasi-commune formed by the now famous American criminal, Charles Manson in the 1960s. Diane was terribly unlucky to cross paths with an insane criminal that took an interest in her, at such an impressionable age. For those of us more fortunate, adolescence is still a period characterized by engagement in high risk activities, and at least one or two car crashes.
The outcome of recent work in the field of developmental neuroscience sheds light on the surge of involvement with risky behavior experienced in teenage years. Neuroimaging studies have revealed that adolescence is a time for dramatic developmental changes in the prefrontal and subcortical regions. Subcortical regions of the brain are involved with motivational behavior, tracking reward, and the prefrontal cortex as discussed before is required for self-perception and self-insight. Lesion studies on OFC, a segment of the frontal cortex have shown that damage to this area results in loss in the capacity of the individual to accurately assess their own actions.
Research in this field has shown that subcortical regions fully mature during teenage years, but the development in the prefrontal region is not complete until the third decade of life. It is this differential development between the subcortical regions relative to the prefrontal regions that may be the underlying cause for engagement in high risk behavior among teenagers.
The implications of these finding can be perceived as worrisome, suggesting that the teenage brain is too immature to inhibit impulse-driven behavior. But knowledge about this differential cortical development is crucial for parents, the public and policy makers, so that we can stop blaming teenagers for making bad decisions, and start formulating policies that minimize the social and individual impact of such actions.
#3: The terrorist attacks of September 11th were a devastating tragedy for the sheer loss of human life, and an unforgettable shock for challenging our sense of presumed global dominance. Individuals have a fundamental need for perceiving their social world as stable and predictable, and the recent terrorist attacks on American soil disrupted our notion of safety due to our position on top of the social hierarchy in the global sphere, hence ensued chaos in our minds.
Despite the progress and extension of human rights across the world, human societies, independent of their form of governance and economical structure, tend to organize as group-based social hierarchies; in which one group enjoys a disproportionate share of positive social values, and negative social values are disproportionally experienced by the subordinate group.
Research in the field of social psychology has revealed much about how human beings communicate social dominance or submissiveness through facial cues and body language, but the neural bases of social status hierarchy remains unclear. Interestingly, research on self-perception has revealed that unlike all other traits, individuals do not favorably exaggerate their place within the social hierarchy, demonstrating the evolutionary advantage quality of this trait.
Social dominance hierarchy is a fundamental organizing principle across a variety of species in the animal kingdom such as ants, bees, birds, and other primates. Due to ubiquitous presence of systems of social hierarchy across species and cultures, neuroscientists find it plausible that the human ability to successfully navigate hierarchical social interaction arises from adaptive neuronal mechanisms.
A recent study on this topic has demonstrated that neural representations of social status shares properties with those of numerical representations. Neuroimaging techniques have shown that social status and number comparisons recruit distinct and overlapping neuronal representations within human inferior parietal cortex.
Understanding and recognition of how our brain perceives social hierarchy, has the potential to allow us to move past the “Us vs Them” mentality that dominates our current social and global perspective, to a place where we view such behavioral inclinations as vestiges of our evolutionary past rather than the governing facts of our present society.
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