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Medical The Amygdala And Social Conformity

  1. Jun 23, 2006 #1
    I met a guy recently at a coffee house who, coincidently, turned out to be pretty interested in neurology, like myself, and he told me about a study that showed that when people stick to their guns and refuse to conform to the group concensus they experience increased activity in the amygdala.

    The amygdala is an important emotional governor, most notable the center of the "fight or flight" response. It triggers anger or fear, apprehension, vigilance for signs of danger. The implication is that people tend to conform because not conforming makes them fearful or angry.

    I did some googling and think I may have found the research he was talking about:



    (The first link is an article, and the second an abstract of a study.)

    If there's anything to this it explains many things: why kids cave to peer pressure to drink and do drugs, why the people who challenge Relativity, or any mainstream idea, seem contentious and angry more often than not, and so on.

    The Amygdala:

  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 23, 2006 #2


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    I think it's dangerous to make inferences of the sort "brain region X is activated, therefore mental event Y must be occurring." Even if we can reliably show that whenever Y occurs, X is activated, that doesn't imply the converse-- that whenever X is activated, Y occurs. "Activation" in this sense is a relatively crude measure of gross neural activity-- we don't really know the particulars of what's going on in that activated region, what exactly is being computed.

    For instance, in addition to internal components of fear, the amygdala is involved with the perception of negative emotions like fear and sadness in others. So when we see the amygdala become more active than normal in situations where an individual refuses to conform, it may be that the amygdala is generating a negative internal response for the individual, or it may be that the individual is perceiving negative emotionality in others. Just observing that the amygdala is active in refusal-to-conform scenarios is insufficient to say which of these two inferences (or any number of unspoken but plausible alternative interpretations) is truest to the reality of the situation.
  4. Jun 24, 2006 #3
    Evidence that "whenever x is activated, Y occurs," comes from direct electrical stimulation of the brain. When electrodes are implanted into a particular spot in a brain, animal or human, each and every time the spot is electrically stimulated the "mental event" is the same. This is as true for emotions as it is for motor responses. Repeated stimulation of a given spot on the motor strip will always, for example, make a person's pinky finger twitch. Repeated stimulation of a given spot in the limbic system will always produce the same result. Animals can be thrown into a rage, over and over, by electrical stimulation of parts of the amygdala, or they can be repeatedly pacified in the face of things that normally agitate them by stimulation of others. I'm not aware there's any controvery over groups of neurons being dedicated.

    You may object to this by saying that electrical stimulation is a special case and a given group of neurons may do other, undiscovered activities, in the non-artificial course of things. That could well be true but I don't recall having encountered this notion as such.

    The danger I see, which lead me to refer to it as an "implication" rather than anything else, is that stimulation of areas as little as .02mm from each other can have very different results. To say "the amygdala is activated" means little in and of itself since the anterior amygdala is a pleasure center. The implication of the study, though, is that non-conformity produces unpleasant emotions, and that most prefer relief from that rather than to assert their own, different observations. It strikes me as safe to conclude it wasn't the anterior pleasure centers becoming activated when not conforming since there was so much caving to conform.
    I'm not sure how much specificity you think is necessary. If it's the amygdala (excepting the anterior part) we know it's a negative emotion. It's not a visual experience or a motor reaction. I'm not aware there's any controversy over the amygdala being the dedicated "computer" of negative emotions.
    My question about this is: how does the amygdala react when negative emotions are percieved in others? It's obvious to suspect it becomes activated in this situation because it's generating "internal components" in reaction to the perception. If you seem angry or sad, I'm going to go on alert as well: "Uh oh, this doesn't look good!" I'll be having my own negative emotions sympathetically, empathetically, or because trouble for you might mean trouble for me (example: we work at the same place and the boss is on the rampage and I learn about this from you first). The perception of negative emotion in others is rarely a neutral emotional experience for the observer.
    There could be some unknown thing the amygdala does that explains why it's activated in this situation but I don't see why you'd hold out for it since the discomfort of non-conformity is something you, yourself, must have experienced uncountable times in your life. I think everyone has. Why you would become overly cautious and warn that things may not be what they seem in this situation, that we don't know "exactly what is being computed" by this activation of the amygdala seems like questioning what exactly the motor strip is computing when we move. I'm fine at the level of saying "Watch the motion. That's what's been computed." and "Feel the negative emotion. That's what's been computed."

    Does the motor strip ever become activated without a resultant muscle reaction (baring muscle or nerve damage, etc.)? Not that I know of. Can the amygdala become activated without the person experiencing an emotion? I suppose, but I'll need more specifics about why you suspect this is something to give us pause.
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