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article imageGrey matter in our brains is increasing – are we evolving?

By Anne Sewell     Feb 25, 2012 in Science
Scientists are finding consistent changes in the amount of grey matter in one specific area of the brain – that responsible for conforming to social pressures.
According to an article on the Psych Central News website, with the world in crisis and with extreme stress on us all, we tend to act, react and adapt to standards given to us by society, and now at a physical level, the results are being shown.
People are constantly presented with different choices in life, from what to wear, what to eat, and who to vote for in elections. Decisions can often be influenced by choices of those around them in their communities.
Although individuals’ tendencies and choices can be influenced by the choices of those around them in conforming to social pressures, previously there has been no anatomical measure linked to the likelihood of individuals conforming to this peer pressure.
There has been much talk of the changing tone in our society. Many people are getting upset at what is happening around them politically and financially, and they are fed up with the corruption, control and greed of their governments at all levels.
People have quite frankly had enough, this is the breaking point and evidence is now being found in the brain.
The Danish National Research Fund and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London), plus scientists at New York University and Aarhus University have funded research and have now identified the specific brain structures which are predicting how and why society is reacting to social pressures.
A technique known as voxel-based morphometry is allowing researchers to measure the volume of grey matter – the nerve cells of the brain where processing takes place – using three-dimensional images of the brain from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
Orbitofrontal cortex of the brain
Orbitofrontal cortex of the brain
Only grey matter volume in one precise brain region - the lateral orbitofrontal cortex – has been associated with this measure of social influence. The linear relationship between grey matter volume and the tendency of individuals to conform was observed in this particular region in both hemispheres of the brain.
"The most impressive correlation we are seeing in brain scans throughout the world is that this grey matter volume is increasing in people of all ages," said neuroscientist Agata Petrova. "This suggests that a greater percentage of populations may reject common social influences," she added.
Many studies have been made on how meditation is facilitating structural changes in areas of the brain that are important for cognitive, emotional and sensory processing.
"What is most fascinating to me is the suggestion that meditation practice can change anyone's grey matter," said Jeremy Gray, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale. More and more people are using meditation to reach spiritual awareness, and their brains are evolving in the process.
Previously UCL researchers had investigated the level of activity in participants’ brains when facing disagreement with experts. The activity predicted the influence the experts would have. By comparing measures from the new study with previous findings, they were able to find that the volume of grey matter in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex also showed how the individuals responded when critics disagreed with their opinions.
Findings of these studies has shown that this region of the brain is tuned to recognizing symptoms of social conflict, for example when someone disapproves of a choice, which may cause the subject to change their opinions accordingly.
Study leader Professor Chris Frith says: “The ability to adapt to others and align ourselves with them is an important social skill. However, at what level is this skill implemented in the brain? At a software (information processing) or hardware (structural) level? Our results show that social conformation is, at least in part, hard-wired in the structure of the brain.”
The first author of the study, Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, explains the implications of their results: “This finding suggests that perhaps we should look at how these individuals learn what is important from the expressed preferences of others.”
"We are beginning to see an evolution of the human brain that has never been studied or historically reported anywhere," said Psychology professor Altan Korkmaz. "This may potentially have very exciting and profound implications in the areas of human behaviour in the future."
Conclusions from this study: Normally we say that a group of people cannot change at once, only individually, one at a time. However, the study’s results are showing conclusive evidence that human brains are changing everywhere, and this is happening simultaneously.
This could be caused by changing thought patterns in society, dropping outdated societal values, or by people embracing the versatile human dynamic.
Whatever the cause, this might possibly change the world.
More about Brain, Human, grey matter, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, Social
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