Tag Archives: brain structure

The Male Brain: Demystifying the Divinely Devised Differences

Male Brain. While women don’t often understand or agree, men have—since the dawn of time—had different instincts, emotions, and approaches to situations. Although these approaches can (arguably) be questionable, the varying innate reactions are simply different than those of women: not better, not worse. While both sexes come with their own strengths and weaknesses, we have to wonder: what biological structures underlie the instincts and actions of the male brain? Why are there differences between the male brain and the female brain? And how do the neurophysiological structures within the male brain attribute to the behavior we see in everyday life? Find out more below. 

Male Brain

The Male Brain

Historically, social differences between men and women centralized around physical characteristics and social constructs that defined each gender. As our modern society has progressed to challenge the social roles and labels that have, for centuries, defined men and women, research over the past twenty years has zeroed in on sex-based differences that classify neurological differences between the sexes. While the emerging biological discoveries underline the strengths and weaknesses of both the male and female brain, the overarching goal of research aims to emphasize the divine differences that distinguish sexes—rather than imply inferiority—to better understand how anatomical differences influence behavioral differences between sexes.

General Cognitive Assessment Battery from CogniFit: Study brain function and complete a comprehensive online screening. Precisely evaluate a wide range of abilities and detect cognitive well-being (high-moderate-low). Identify strengths and weaknesses in the areas of memory, concentration/attention, executive functions, planning, and coordination.

While the natural behavioral tendencies of both males and females seem to be unpredictable and bewildering, understanding the neurophysiological dissimilarities between sexes links behavioral differences to a structural root. Although, at times, it seems as though the men and women are from two entirely different planets—as the saying goes:

“men are from Mars, women are from Venus”

Understanding the male brain is fundamental for discovering the neurological and behavioral differences that distinguish the innate tendencies people have based on their biology.

The Male Brain: How It All Started

As a trailblazer in the investigation of behavioral differences between sexes, Nirao Shah, spearheaded research to biological differences in 1998 as he began his postdoctoral fellowship.  While Shah observed the behaviors essential for the survival of each sex, he investigated how this innate behavior is biologically wired in the brain. He hoped to find the root of behaviors by identifying neuronal circuitry unique to each sex, he has since inspired researchers to unearth the inherent differences that distinguish the male brain from its female counterpart.

The Male Brain: Structural and Functional Differences

A Question of Grey Matter and White Matter in the Male Brain

The most obvious difference between the male and female brain is the distinctly larger crania of males. Due to the proportionally larger body size of males, larger craniums allow for a larger brain to develop amongst male brains. While the presence of a larger brains lacks correlation for heightened intelligence, a fundamental size difference is present between the male and female brain.

As research has found that the male and female brain are wired differently, it has been determined that the male brain operates on intrahemispheric communication, contrasting that of the female brain which optimally operates through inter-hemispheric communication. This insinuates that the male brain has stronger connections within a single region of the brain, whereas females have stronger connections between the left and right hemispheres. While this puzzling difference seems to be without reason, the cellular composition of brain tissue accounts for the wiring that makes the male brain unique.

As a result of an MRI study at the University of Pennsylvania, it has been confirmed that male brains have higher percentages of white matter. Found within the cerebellum, which is split into the right and left hemisphere, two types of tissue of the central nervous system are found: grey matter and white matter. The outer layer of the cerebellum, composed of grey matter folds, is made up of tightly packed dendrites, cell bodies, and axon terminals.

CogniFit Cognitive Brain Training adapts to your specific cognitive needs. Train your cognitive skills with this popular tool.

These tightly folded regions are specialized to regulate memory, language, perceptual awareness, and attention—ultimately containing the synapses that communicate messages. White matter, in contrast, is made up of axons—connecting grey matter to one another—creating a fast communication network, like a metro system. White matter makes up important structures, like the thalamus and hypothalamus, which ultimately relay information from the body to the cerebellum.

Together, these tissues work to allow the white matter to communicate between grey matter areas, and for the grey matter to communicate with the rest of the body. While the researchers at the University of Pennsylvania speculated that the higher volumes of white matter are found amongst larger brains because of the further distance for information transference, the research team concluded that the greater amounts of grey matter amongst the female brain facilitates inter-hemispherical computation of information in a smaller amount of space (e.g. a smaller brain).

During development, the male brain is structured to increase activity and connectivity within each hemisphere by creating communication networks that are modular and direct. While this within-hemispheric processing allows linkage of perception to action along the posterior tract of the cerebellum, it also allows the mediation of motor action ipsilaterally. By way of strong within-hemispheric processing and connectivity, the divinely designed male brain allows for strong coordination of actions in males.

As research and functional imaging have suggested, white matter tracts are activated while working memory is in use. Because of the high percentage of white matter within the male brain, it comes as no surprise that men are better equipped to juggle items within their working memory.

The Male Brain and the Corpus Callosum

The Bridge of the Brain

Extending from the University of Pennsylvania study in 2014, the corpus callosum—a white matter cable that connects the right and left hemisphere—is smaller in the male brain. This also led to the observation of heightened bilateral symmetry amongst the brain in females compared to males: as communication between hemispheres increases, greater symmetry in muscle tissue arises. From these observations, the larger corpus callosum in the female brain can account for the greater inter-hemispherical communication observed in females, and why, biologically, the male brain tends to reflect the success of intrahemispheric communication. This anatomical explanation helps debunk why men are easily frustrated when asked to multitask: because the female brain allows multiple tasks and an abundance of information to flow simultaneously, the smaller corpus callosum in men inhibits the same task juggling ability that the female brain facilitates.

The Male Brain and the Limbic System

The Emotions of a Man

Areas of the Brain

Comprised of the hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and various other surrounding areas, the limbic system is heavily involved in emotional regulation. In an issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, which was solely dedicated to sex differences within the nervous system, Larry Cahill discussed how the amygdala in the male brain—which experiences and recalls emotional events—is larger than the amygdala in the female brain. Even as infants, MRI research shows that the male brain has higher activity within the limbic system than the female brain. While men are often stereotyped as “unemotional creatures,” this natural, anatomical difference supports the idea that men are, in fact, more emotional than women, but nurture leads to the masking of emotional expression.

Thought to attribute to learning differences between sexes, neurochemical and anatomical differences between the hippocampi of men and women have also been discovered. Contrasting the left hippocampus activation in females, the right hippocampus has increased activation in the male brain; these findings suggest that when presented tasks that require cognitive thinking, males use fewer verbal strategies than women.

Additionally, despite the stereotype that men think about sex more than women, the limbic system— specifically, the hypothalamus—is responsible for this biological drive for sexual pursuit. While the hypothalamus within the male brain is nearly two and a half times larger than the female brain’s hypothalamus, testosterone fertilizing the Y gene (aka the male gene) attributes to this size discrepancy. This is why males report thinking about sex three times more often than females. While this research serves as a biological basis of male behavior, it does not negate an ability to learn to be civil and controlled. (Just because a man has an urge to act, it doesn’t mean he can’t control it!)

The Male Brain and Visuospatial Skills

The male brain tends to surpass the skills of the female brain when it comes to visuospatial skills that allow them to analyze and mentally manipulate objects. Seen from early stages of development, the superior visuospatial abilities of the male brain exceeds the female brain’s ability when it comes time to track moving objects, aim projectiles at targets, and visualize the rotation of two- or three-dimensional objects. While females exceed at other tasks, such as recalling word lists, the differing brain development between sexes explains the heightened accuracy of males in certain skills, such as spatial tasks and motor skills. In everyday life, these surpassing abilities can be seen in navigational skills: males better calculate their position by direction and relative distance traveled, whereas the female brain relies on landmarks to distinguish location.

The Male Brain and Chemical Differences

While we often attribute the prominence of aggression amongst males with their increased levels of testosterone, there are a variety of uses of testosterone throughout the body. Notably, testosterone, in the male brain, impairs impulse-control and ignites libido. While so many questions where they stand with their partner when they see him checking out the supermodel walking by, rest assure that it is just biology at play! Because of the dampened impulse control and revved libido, it makes it harder for men to suppress their impulse to scope the gorgeous woman walking by.

Questionably unfaithful behavior can also be attributed to the presence of the hormone vasopressin. In a study of mole rats, a species containing the vasopressin gene were more monogamous and committed than their cousin species: the cousin species of mole rats that lacked the vasopressin gene were more promiscuous. When the vasopressin gene was injected into the brain of the promiscuous mole rat, the transient tendencies subsided and the mole rats became monogamous. While we are not claiming that men are (always) like rats, a higher presence of vasopressin in the male brain is attributed to more committed, faithful relationships.

While it often seems that male behavior is dominated by their natural abundance of testosterone, the male brain changes when they become a dad-to-be. Similar to the changing chemicals of an expecting mother’s brain, the male brain decreases testosterone and increases bonding hormones, such as prolactin and oxytocin, ultimately equipping them with more bonding hormones to make them better dads.

In terms of stressful situations, male brains have a unique increase of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine in the basolateral amygdala, while female brains don’t. In the onset of stress exposure, chemical levels change within the male brain, particularly influencing the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, which are associated with spatial and nonspatial memory. This helps to explain why the onset of stressful situations impairs the male brain’s ability of object recognition.

The Male Brain is Different From the Female Brain: Why?

Biologically speaking, the male brain has different sex-steroid hormones than women’s. While females have high levels of estrogen and progesterone, males are dominated by testosterone and androgens. During in-utero development, the male brain becomes heavily influenced by the high levels of testosterone, which are responsible for their masculine body plan; while this naturally attributes to physical characteristics, the surging testosterone naturally shapes the brain, too. Regions, like the amygdala and hippocampus, have an abundance of receptors specific for sex hormones, explaining why these regions differ in size between the male brain and the female brain.

In terms of evolution, researchers break down the neural differences as a result of adaptation to the actions of neurotransmitters and hormones that appease our sense organs and brain. As the female brain has adapted to childbearing and education, the female brain is better adapted for verbal sharing and communication. Evolutionarily, the male brain, in contrast, is adapted for hunting and fighting; as men roamed the land for hunting, their silent pursuits and navigational skills required heightened visuospatial skills and a decreased need for verbal sharing.

Although some behaviors of men are confusing and, at times, unforgivable, nature has equipped men with biological predispositions that are simply different from those of females. Debunking the differences between the biological structures of the male and female brain helps to understand what motivates behaviors. Although testosterone fuels the male brain to strive for sexual pursuit, differing structures between the male and female brain attribute to functional and behavioral differences. While subtle deviations are seen anatomically between the male and female brain, the emerging research of sex-based neurological differences attempts to explain how the male brain approaches life.

Consider checking out an in-depth look at the female brain and how the structural differences result in different behaviors.

Feel free to comment below!

References

Madhura, l., Alex, S., Drew, P., Theodore D., S., Mark A., E., Kosha, R., & … Ragini, V. (2014). Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, (2), 823.

Goldman, Bruce, and Gérard DuBois. “Two Minds: How Men’s and Women’s Brains Are Different.” Stanford Medicine, stanmed.stanford.edu/2017spring/how-mens-and-women’s-brains-are-different.html.

Sex differences in the brain: Is there a male and a female brain?

For many years, science has tried to explain how women and men are different beyond sexual traits. On this matter, research continues on how sex differences in the brain extend to more internal biology, including our brain (how well do you know your brain?). Some studies support the relationship between human brain structure and behavior, personality, cognition, attitudes and gender characteristics. Maybe because of this, there are theories categorizing it into two forms: male-brain and female-brain. Nevertheless, more recent studies cannot confirm the existence of this sexual dimorphic view of human brains.

Sex differences in the brain

Anatomical Sex Differences in the Brain

As mentioned before, everything we are, from behavior, cognition and attitudes to gender expression, have a base on the brain. But it’s important to note that factors influencing brain development in both males and females include, not only biology, but also the environment. By this, we must then consider that culture, and social constructions have an important role in how we build relationships with the world. Let’s see what we know about the biology of sex differences.

Structure and Function

Research related to gender differences in the brain shows us some general differences on brain structure and function in men and women:

  • Sex differences in the brain begin as early as the fetal development. The hormone testosterone plays a role on the “masculinization” of the brain. Although this hormone is present in both men and women, males have it in a bigger proportion.
  • Males, on average, have larger total brain volume than women. Nevertheless, the volume and tissue density differs depending on the region:
    • Men have higher volume in bilateral limbic areas and left posterior cingulate gyrus. Whereas women have larger volume in the right hemisphere of the brain related to language and the limbic structures. (More on the functions of your limbic system)
    • In relation to tissue density, men have higher proportion in the left side of the limbic system, while women’s tissue density is higher in the frontal lobe.
  • Both sexes share the circuitry needed to generate male or female typical behaviors. Nevertheless, it depends on the activation or repression of these circuits, as well as the strategies our brain uses to generate them.
  • Scientists have also studied sex differences in the structure of the brain related to psychopathological conditions. In general, ADHD, autism, conduct disorders, specific language impairment, Tourette’s syndrome and dyslexia prevale on males. Women, on the other hand, prevale on suffering from depression, anxiety and anorexia nervosa.

The Environment

Without doubt, different characteristics need to be analyzed in both genders. Some brain regions are smaller or with higher tissue density in men or women, while others are bigger or have lower density. Of course this may explain why women and men have different skills and may have typical behavior according to gender.

However, it’s very important to understand that this doesn’t make it a rule. These traits are not to be present in every man or woman. Moreover, male’s or female’s typical behavior might also be constructed by society and the environment.

Thanks to neuroplasticity, the brain’s connections can change throughout our lives. This means that, the more we stimulate different areas of the brain, the more connections we’ll generate. If both sexes have the same structures and functions in the brain, it will depend on how often a person puts them in practice. For this reason, the brain’s “use it or lose it” approach is important for cognitive maintenance.

But how to activate your brain? There are many brain gym activities that can help. As you may know, there are many benefits of exercise on the brain, as well as benefits of learning foreign languages. But more importantly: get enrolled in new and challenging activities for you. The brain gets more active when doing tasks you’re not used to. It “forces” the brain to learn new pathways and create more connections between different regions. When performing a certain task, your brain learns the pathway, making it easier to achieve it over time. Brain games can also be a great way to improve neural connections, and luckily there are some programs dedicated to improving brain connections and brain areas ;).

The Brain Mosaic: A new Theory

Considering all this information, professor at Tel-Aviv University, Daphna Joel (2015), has different findings on sex differences on the brain. Her study, along with other scientists, consisted on analyzing the MRIs of 1.400 people’s brains. They observed the differences on the distribution of the gray matter, white matter and connectivity. And what did they find?

  1. Brains cannot be categorized as male or female. They are “comprised of unique ‘mosaics’ of features. Some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females. Some more common in both females and males” (Daphna et al., 2015).
  2. Brains with features belonging to the “maleness-femaleness” continuum are not common. They found low or limited amount of brains considered or categorized as “full male/full female”. The great majority have both “male-female” features.
  3. Variability prevales on these features, rather than consistency. “The forms that are evident in most females, are also the ones evident in most males”. The general characteristics of each sexes’ brain vary greatly, making a classification uncertain as they both share these features.
  4. Quantifying instead of qualifying. “It’s more appropriate and informative to refer to measures of the brain in quantitative ways, rather than in qualitative ways (e.g. “male” or “female” form)”. Describing the size, the density, the amount of connections, etc. of each brain makes it more accurate. At the end, we all have different traits beyond our sex/gender.
  5. These findings open debates about sex/gender differentiation at a social level. Are there tasks that are only appropriate for men or for women? Should education be single-sex?

Watch the following video to find out more about her study, or read her full article here.

Does it really matter?

We might as well ask ourselves whether or not categorizing the human brain is useful. All in all, categories help us understand the world we live in as well as understand ourselves. In medicine, for instance, it’s useful to categorize diseases and disorders in order to treat them. But after all, not everything can be classified and limited: human beings are far more complicated than that. Being so different from one another and expressing our uniqueness is part of idiosyncrasy. Finally, accepting gender as a social construction and not considering behavior as “male-or-female-typical”, can make us more tolerant and open to idiosyncrasy.

Amygdala: The powerhouse of emotions

Our brain is a palace of structures. It dictates everything we do, how we think, how we behave and how we feel. In this article, we will focus only on the amygdala (sounds like a character out of a Star Wars movie): From what it is, functions, neurophysiological aspects of the amygdala, what happens if it gets damaged, and its relationship with other brain areas.  

Amygdala

What is the amygdala?

The amygdala is a structure in the limbic system that is involved directly with motivation: Particularly related to survival and our emotions. It is also responsible for processing emotions such as fear, pleasure, and anger.

The amygdala is the house where all of our emotions are stored. One of its main functions is to help us to recognize potential threats when we encounter them. When doing this, it revs the body up in preparation for a fight or flight response by increasing our breathing and heart rates. It is also responsible for evaluating the emotional intensity of various situations. This is especially important because since we encounter certain situations repeatedly, from emotional memory, our amygdala wouldn’t need to fire up… unless our brains say otherwise.

The word ‘amygdala’ was derived from the Greek word for “almond” since this part of our brain is shaped like one. Like most other structures in our brain and in other animals, we have two amygdalae. Each amygdala is located on each of the left and right temporal lobe. Since it’s in very close proximity to the hippocampus, the amygdala is involved with the influence of memory consolidation. Memory consolidation is the process that stabilizes a memory trace right when it has been obtained.

Amygdala: The limbic system

To understand the amygdala a little bit better, this article is going to give a swift review of the limbic system and why it’s important.

The limbic system is not a separate system, but a system composed of several key structures in the brain including the diencephalon, mesencephalon, and telencephalon. The limbic system specifically includes the amygdala, thalamus, hippocampus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus.

You can find the limbic system nuzzled immediately underneath the cerebrum. The limbic system is important because it is responsible for the formation of memories, and our emotional lives are stored in this area of the brain. The components of the limbic system regulate endocrine and autonomic function in response to any sort of emotional stimuli. In short, the three key functions it is known to deal with are arousal (stimulation), memory, and emotions.

Hemispherical differences

Since we possess two amygdalae, it has been noted that the left and right amygdala serve a different purpose in how we process our emotions. Even though the left and right amygdala have independent memory systems, they still work as a team to encode, store and interpret our emotions.

Studies have reported that electrical stimulations to the right amygdala provoke negative emotions of sadness and fear. When looking at the left side, electrical stimulations induce unpleasant (anxiety, sadness, and fear) feelings, yet also has the ability to induce positive emotions such as happiness.

The right hemisphere is commonly associated with declarative memory. Declarative memory stores various information and facts from previously experienced events which need to be consciously recalled. The right amygdala is also responsible for the retention of episodic memory. Episodic memory stores the autobiographical memory, which allows you to recall sensory and emotional experiences of a particular event.

Development of the amygdala

The development of the amygdalae is an interesting tale that consists of developmental differences between the right and left amygdala, as well as sex differences.

When looking at this area of the brain, there are some observable differences in the growth of the amygdalae. The left is the first to develop, reaching its peak 1.5-2 years before the right. Looking aside from the early growth of the left, the right has a continuous increase in volume for a longer period of time. The right side of the amygdala is often associated with face recognition and fear stimuli. As for the left, it is said that its early development provides infants with the capability of being able to detect danger.

There are also considerable differences in the development of the amygdalae between male and females. In the early stages of development of the brain, it is seen that the limbic system in females grows much more quickly than in males. For males, the structural development of the amygdalae occurs over a longer period of time, while females reach their full growth potential 1.5 years before their counterparts. It is noted that reasoning behind the slower development of the male amygdalae is due to relatively larger sizing.

Sex distinction

In regards to the differences in sexes, this area of the brain is one of the best understood. As briefly described above, we see that the amygdala is larger in male adults and in adult rats.

Adding to size, the functioning of the amygdalae differs in males and females. In one study, participants amygdala activation was looked at by watching a horror movie. Results of this study showed a completely different lateralization in the amygdalae between males and females. They showed that enhanced memory of the film was related to more activity occurring in the left amygdala and not the right. For males, it showed that the memory of the film was related to the right and not the left.

The left is responsible for the recollection of details, which results in more thought than action in response to emotionally stressful stimuli. This can be used to attribute why we see less of a physical response in women than in men. The right has been linked to taking action and has been linked to negative emotions. In this scenario, this is why we see males respond to emotionally stressful stimuli in a physical manner.

Functions of the amygdala

  • Memory – This area of our brain has been linked to the storage of our emotional memory. The amygdala is heavily involved in calculating the emotional significance of events that occur in our lives. Since the amygdala has connections to other regions of the brain, it also has an influence on emotional perception. What this means, is that the amygdala alerts us to notice significant events even when we are not paying attention.
  • Arousal – Sexual desire is largely mediated by the limbic system. Activation of our amygdala can cause sexual feelings, memories of sexual intercourse, penile erections, orgasms, uterine contractions, and ovulation.
  • Hormonal secretions  When experiencing stressful events, our amygdala sounds the alarm by sending a distress signal to our hypothalamus. When this happens, the hypothalamus activates the SNS (sympathetic nervous system) by sending signals through autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. Then, the glands will respond by pumping out epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. The amygdala is also strongly modulated by serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine.

What happens if the amygdala is damaged?

Because there are two amygdalae, if there is a bilateral lesion, there is a reduction in aggression and fear. This may mean you may adopt a superman complex and feel like nothing can hurt you or scare you… unless it’s kryptonite. A study was done on monkeys who had bilateral lesions of their amygdala and researchers reported a huge drop in fear and aggression, just as we see in our human counterparts.

Don’t hold your breath there though. Even though the monkeys showed a significant drop in fear and aggression, humans are faced with a lot more when the amygdala is destroyed. A bilateral lesion can cause an individual to have an impaired ability to interpret emotional facial expression. Kind of sounds like Autism. This type of lesion has actually been linked to autism, with MRI scans detecting an increase in amygdala volume.

Neuropsychological correlates of the amygdala

Advancements in neuroimaging technology have made it possible for neuroscientists to make significant findings related it. Data has shown that the size of an individual’s amygdala can be linked to anxiety, and how size may fluctuate due to antidepressant medication consumption (left). Certain studies have also shown children with anxiety tend to have smaller amygdalae.

Aside from those two interesting facts, data has shown that the amygdala plays a large role in particular mental disorders as well as other mental states.

Fear

A very rare genetic disease known as Urbach-Wiethe disease is responsible for focal bilateral lesions of the amygdala in people. Such a disease results in individual’s showing no signs of fear. This finding of the disease continues to prove that the amygdala plays a large role in triggering the state of fear.

Aggression

Several studies that have looked at animals have repeatedly shown that stimulating the amygdala induces sexual and aggressive behavior. 

Schizophrenia 

Schizophrenic patients are known to have enlarged ventricles, as well as enlarged amygdalae.

Social interaction

It has been said that there is a positive correlation between amygdala volume and the size and complexity of social networks. Size, in this case, means the number of contacts an individual may have, while complexity stands for the number of different groups an individual belongs to.

Data reveals that the larger a person’s amygdalae are the larger amount of social networks an individual has.

It has also been shown that the amygdalae are responsible for processing the violations of personal space. It has been observed in fMRI scans that this region of our brain is activated when it is sensed that a person is standing very close to them. For example, the person who is being scanned is aware when the observer is physically close to them, then when the observer is standing at a distance.

Sexual orientation

In recent studies, it has been suggested that there may be possible correlations between connection patterns in the amygdala, and sexual orientation. It has been reported that homosexual males have a tendency to show more feminine patterns in the amygdala than heterosexual males do. Homosexual females tended to show more masculine patterns in the amygdala than heterosexual females.

Bipolar Disorder

It is well documented that in bipolar disorder, there is great amygdala dysfunction during facial emotion processing. Those who have bipolar disorder have also displayed increased activity in their amygdala.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Patients who suffer from PTSD typically have a hyperactive amygdala in response to various stimuli that are in some way connected to trauma.

Depression

It is also overactive in those who suffer from depression, especially when you present them with sad stimuli. However, when presented with “happy” stimuli, their amygdala is under-active.

Anxiety

It is responsible for setting off a chain reaction for this disorder. It begins to react because some environmental stressor has convinced this area of the brain that you are in danger. However, this is only an issue to worry about when the amygdala is regularly triggered.

Amygdala and other brain regions

It holds some very special connections with other areas of the brain. It is known to make reciprocal connections with the hypothalamus, thalamus, septal nuclei, hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus, orbital frontal cortex, the brain stem, and the cingulate gyrus.

The amygdala receives input from all senses as well as visceral inputs. Visceral inputs derive from the hypothalamus, parabrachial nucleus, septal area, and orbital cortex. Visual, auditory, and somatosensory information comes through via the temporal and anterior cingulate cortices. Olfactory sensory information is received from the olfactory bulb.

Some output pathways of the amygdala include:

  1. Stria terminals
  2. Ventral amygdalofugal pathway
  3. Directly to the hippocampus
  4. Directly to the dorsomedial nucleus of the thalamus
  5. Directly to the entorhinal cortex

Amygdala/emotional hijacking 

Emotional hijacking is an event that occurs when an individual’s cognitions are overpowered by their emotions. You normally see emotional hijacking occur in the context of fear and aggression. A perfect example of emotional hijacking to kick off this section is when Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear. According to Daniel Goleman who coined the term amygdala hijacking, this bad decision on Tyson’s behalf is the perfect example of it.

The neocortex – the “thinking” brain, has been completely overridden, and the amygdala fires up taking over total control of the brain; Thus the name “amygdala hijacking.” Hijacking can cause a person to perform irrationally, making decisions that are destructive. Not only does this take a toll on an individual (people who experience emotional hijacking are very remorseful after they realize and reflect on what they have done), their social relationships also take a huge hit. Emotional hijacking can lead to verbal or physical attacks, and such a surge of rage can easily cause an individual to severely harm a person, giving them the capacity to kill.

Something to keep in mind is that emotional hijacking is a phenomenon that requires build up. Troubling past experiences that are crippling an individual can be the direct link to why someone will have an outburst like this. When a person has an outburst, they don’t last long, but the consequences can be quite damaging as a result.

However, there is no need to worry. Not all emotional hijacks are distressing. Goleman states that there are positive hijacks. He gives an example that if a joke strikes a person as funny, and their laughter is explosive, that is a limbic response.

There are three signs you can look out for if you happen to experience an emotional hijack:

  • Strong emotional reaction
  • Sudden onset
  • Post-episode realization if the reaction was appropriate or not/regret

Areas of the brain are especially fascinating, especially when looking at them in more depth. Learning about them gives us an idea of what’s going on within ourselves, and we are able to give a reason for our behavior.

Is this your favorite part of the brain after reading the article? Do you have a favorite area of the brain? Please let us know in the comments below! We hoped you enjoyed this article. 🙂

Mirror neurons: The most powerful learning tool

Mirror neurons. Imitation has always been a powerful learning tool. The human brain is enabled with different mechanisms that allow us to imitate actions. Babies are capable of reproducing facial expressions, and as adults, we imitate basic behavior. Laughter can be spread, we can cry while watching a sad movie… It seems like we have the capacity to feel what others feel, empathize with them and understand their feelings. What happens in the brain for this to happen? The answer is mirror neurons. In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about mirror neurons. What are they? How do they intervene in education and empathy? Why is emotion contagious? 

What are Mirror Neurons? Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

What are Mirror Neurons?

In humans and primate species there are neurons called Mirror Neurons. These brain cells activate when we see someone doing something. For example, when a chimpanzee sees its mother opening a nut with a rock and then tries to imitate her with another nut. Mirror neurons are related with empathic, social and imitations behavior. They are a fundamental tool for learning.

“We are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.”- G.Rizzolatti.

In the 90’s a group of neuroscientists, directed by Giacomo Rizzolatti from the University of Parma (Italy), discovered something surprising. A hundred group of neurons in the brain in primates were activated not only when the monkey was doing something but also when the monkey saw another one doing that same action.

Mirror neurons can be defined as a group of neurons that activate when we perform an action or when we see an action being performed. 

Mirror neurons are essential for imitation which is key in the learning process. From birth these group of neurons are active and it allows us to learn to eat, dress, speak… Mirror neurons are also important in planning our actions as well as understanding intentions behind actions.

In the next video, Ramachandran a neuroscientist, explains what are mirror neurons and why they are important.

Mirror Neurons and Education

Mirror neurons allow us to learn through imitation. They enable us to reflect body language, facial expressions, and emotions. Mirror neurons play an essential part in our social life. They are key for the child development, as well as relationships and education.

Humans are social beings programmed to learn from others. We all reach our goals working as a group than individually. Seeing a parent, professor or student show a cognitive skill or any other skill, gives us a tangible experience rather than learning from explanation.

How do mirror neurons intervene in our daily lives?

  • Mirror neurons are responsible for yawning when we see someone else yawn.
  • These neurons also act when we see someone sad or crying and in turn feel sad.
  • The same thing happens with smiling or laughing. The way laughter can be contagious.
  • Studies suggest that there is an activation of the anterior insula when we see someone expressing disgust.
  • Another study shows that the somatosensory cortex is activated when we see someone touching another person the same way it activates when we are the ones being touched.

8 tips: How do mirror neurons influence education?

Thanks to mirror neurons the emotions we portray have a direct influence on others. This is why teachers have to make the effort to control their emotions, avoid teacher burnout, in order to use mirror neurons as an asset.

  1. Show happiness and optimism and that way you will transmit that to your students and children.
  2. Control and avoid negative emotions. We all have bad days but teachers have to be sure this doesn’t reflect on the children. However, the tricky part is that this doesn’t mean children should repress these emotions. As a teacher be sure to detect what emotion the child is feeling and help them learn to identify and manage them accordingly.
  3. Use visual signs and imitation any chance you get. Make examples practical with physical demonstrations so that children can imitate you.
  4. Encourage group interactions. This will maximize the use of mirror neurons and therefore the child’s social relationships and empathy.
  5. Use imitation in any activity that you want the children to learn (washing teeth, cleaning up after themselves…)
  6. Run from violence. Children learn what they see. If a child is educated in a hostile environment, his mirror neurons will activate and he might repeat these violent behaviors.
  7. Teach children the importance of how we listen, particularly body language. That way when someone has to share something or needs help the mirror neurons will activate and empathy will be reinforced.
  8. Teach children about emotional intelligence so that they can be able to identify their own and other people’s emotions.

Mirror Neurons and Emotional Contagion

Do you feel happy when people around you are happy? Do you get sad or depressed around negative and pessimistic people? This is due to the emotional contagion produced by the mirror neurons.

Emotional Contagion is a process through which a person or group influence the emotions and emotional behavior of another person or group. This can be done through emotional induction conscious or unconscious.

When people communicate they have the tendency to imitate gestures and facial expressions and in many cases feel what others are feeling. It has been proven the high impact emotional contagion has in our personal and work relationships. We are still not conscious of the influential ability we have in other people’s emotional state and in turn other people on our own emotional state.

Mirror neurons allow us to literally feel what others are feeling and “live” their emotions. Mirror neurons are based on empathy.

Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

This is proof that we are social beings. Empathy has been essential to our species survival and shows how without attachments and protection we wouldn’t have survived.

How can we take advantage of emotional contagion?

The fact that we can interconnect to each other and understand each other’s feelings can work to our advantage.

  • Happiness is more contagious than sadness, so try to surround yourself with happy people. However, don’t avoid people who are sad, we all need support sometimes and giving them love might help them recover faster.
  • Imitate happy and positive people, do what they do. Practice sports and smile more (even if you don’t feel like it, you will later feel better). Keep a healthy self-esteem and stop thinking negatively.
  • Think before acting or saying anything, especially if its negative. Try to say it politely, educated and as calmly as possible since your emotional state can be contagious.

Check out how laughter can be contagious with this video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fM45JMTpkBU

Mirror Neurons and Culture

Does culture influence our brain? The answer seems to be yes. According to an investigation from the University of California, mirror neurons respond differently if the person in front of us shares our same culture or not.

Researchers used two actors, one American and another Nicaraguan to show a group of American participants a series of gestures (some American, others Nicaraguan and others without cultural meaning).

With Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) they investigated mirror neuron activities. They found that participants showed more activity when they saw the American do the gestures in comparison to the Nicaraguan. When the Nicaraguan showed American gestures to the group, the mirror neurons decreased their activity drastically.

It’s possible to conclude that mirror neurons are influenced by culture and in turn have an influence on our behavior. The results from this study show us that we are more prepared to understand and empathize with members of our own culture and ethnicity than those who are not. This also explains why we connect faster and easier with members of our own culture.

Mirror Neurons, empathy, and psychopathy

Psychopathy is a personality disorder distinguished by a superficial charm, pathological lies, and low empathy.

It’s common for psychopaths to lead a criminal life, however, not all become, serial killers or murderers. Some can actually lead a normal life.

If these psychopaths are not capable of empathizing, does that mean their mirror neurons are not working? A recent study answered this question.

Researchers observed the brain activity of two groups (18 psychopaths and 26 healthy people) while they watched short videos. The videos showed images of hands touching, gently, painfully, socially, rejecting each other and neutrally. They were instructed to watch the video and then to try to feel what the people were feeling. The next part of the study the participants were hit with a ruler to register their pain area in the brain.

Scientists found that only when psychopaths were asked to feel something did they actually feel something, mirror neurons even activated the same way as in the other group. However, when no instruction was given, the psychopath’s group showed less activation of the mirror neurons and pain receptors of the brain.

It’s not that psychopaths don’t have empathy, it’s that it’s a switch that can be activated and deactivated, and by default, it is always deactivated.

Mirror Neurons and Autism

Symptoms of autism include a delay in language and strained emotional recognition. They are not capable of perceiving different emotions, including their own.

Scientists, therefore, studied the mirror neurons in people with autism to check if they were “broken”. They found that the system has a developmental delay, where the activity is slower, weaker and less activated than in others. Nonetheless, the activity increases with age and by age 30 it becomes normal and then unusually elevated.

Other studies have discovered that not all people with autism have a delay in these neurons. They can be activated normally by familiar faces.

Hope you found this article interesting. Please leave a comment below!

References

Molnar-Szakacs, I., Wu, A. D., Robles, F. J., & Iacoboni, M. (2007). Do you see what I mean? Corticospinal excitability during observation of culture-specific gestures. PLoS One, 2(7), e626.

Meffert, H., Gazzola, V., den Boer, J. A., Bartels, A. A., & Keysers, C. (2013). Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. Brain, 136(8), 2550-2562.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.

Fetal alcohol exposure affects brain structure in children

Fetal alcohol exposure affects brain structure in children.

Children exposed to alcohol during fetal development exhibit changes in brain structure, brain function and metabolism that are visible using various imaging techniques, according to a new study being presented November 25 at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

Human brain, Internet and Cosmos have same structures

Human brain, Internet and Cosmos have same structures.

The structure and the growth of the Universe may be similar to that of human brain and the Internet, a new study has found. Researchers found that the structure of the universe and the laws that govern its growth share more similarities than previously thought to the structure and growth of the human brain and other complex networks, such as the Internet or a social network of trust relationships between people.