Evolutionary biology, the prefrontal cortex, and the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver
A 17-year-old Maple Ridge water-polo star, Nathan Kotylak doesn’t fit the profile of a hooligan. However, on June 15, after the Stanley Cup was awarded to the Boston Bruins, this upper-middle-class kid from a good home—the son of a surgeon—was photographed trying to light a cloth stuffed into the gas tank of a Vancouver police cruiser. Later that week, he appeared on Global TV to apologize for his actions. “I was caught up in the moment,” Kotylak declared. Two days later, CBC Radio reported that his family had gone into hiding after receiving threats.
Meanwhile, another rioter, Tim Kwong, wrote an apology on his Facebook page to express his remorse. “I know I deserve all the hate!!” he wrote, adding, “but please be respectful and don’t hate any of my friends or family or co workers since these actions are only caused by ME and ME only!!!!”
A third person, UBC student Camille Cacnio, lost her job after she was seen on video walking out of Black & Lee Tuxedo Suit Rentals/Sales on Richards Street with two pairs of pants. She turned herself in and wrote a lengthy apology.
As the shock of the riot subsides and public anger rises against the perpetrators, a perplexing question remains: why would thousands of mostly young people stampede through the streets of Vancouver after a hockey game? What prompted them, as a group, to shatter windows, loot a London Drugs store, set cars on fire, interfere with police trying to stop the chaos, and cheer as some people were beaten up?
These types of riots aren’t unusual. Vancouver experienced a similar eruption of street violence in 1994 after the Canucks lost the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final. The Georgia Straight’s cover story that week was aptly entitled “Stupidville”.
Riots have also occurred in numerous other cities after championship sporting events. And in December, thousands of British students went on a rampage in the streets of central London to protest tuition hikes. As in Vancouver, stores were looted. One hooligan set a Christmas tree on fire in Trafalgar Square; another smashed the window of a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall.
Observing human group behaviour has caused one Vancouver psychiatrist to ponder whether riots should be considered “normal” when certain extreme conditions are in place. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Dr. Elisabeth Zoffmann said that she and former Vancouver police inspector Dave Jones will present a paper next month on this topic at the International Academy of Mental Health and the Law conference in Berlin.
Zoffmann, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at UBC, combines a keen interest in nature with a detailed understanding of evolutionary biology and the functioning of the human brain. “Fish have highly chemically sensitive lateral sensory strips down the sides of their body that mimic hearing and touch,” she said. “Birds have a similar mechanism in their eyes and ears. Experiments blocking these mechanisms interfere with schooling and flocking, revealing that there is a specific neural pathway that must remain intact for the group behaviour to occur.”
She has observed that during riots and other forms of mass behaviour, crowds become overwhelmed by emotion and act impulsively. Individual members of the group no longer appear to have any critical-thinking skills, as demonstrated by Kotylak’s decision to try to light a car on fire in full view of cameras.
Zoffmann postulates that the brain’s command centre—the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe—which plans, thinks, and inhibits impulses, may cease to function effectively when a large group of people are subjected to a multilevel sensory bombardment. This leaves the limbic system—which is a more primitive part of the brain—in charge. She noted that this area is very tied into touch, sight, sound, taste, and smell, and links these sensory inputs to emotional centres. The limbic system also provides access to the capacity for violent or, in other circumstances, heroic behaviour.
“Once you’ve had your frontal lobe taken out of the equation, you’re kind of driven by your impulses and emotions,” she said. “So the limbic system is quite capable of coordinating a lot of action—some of it not very smart.”
Zoffmann has collaborated with Jones, the VPD’s former district commander for the downtown area, mapping out strategies for crowd control for Vancouver police utilizing these principles. She acknowledged her theory that humans are capable of coming together in mobs and behaving as a collective—according to an emotionally driven “group brain”—needs to be subjected to scientific scrutiny.
“If we turn around our thinking about group behaviour and assume that it is ”˜normal’ under certain circumstances rather than abnormal, the theory can be tested,” Zoffmann said. “It can also lead to new ways of managing crowds that can increase safety and reduce harms to both people and property. This theory needs a great deal more empirical research, which is the main reason for presenting it at the International Academy of Mental Health and Law conference in Berlin.”
Furthermore, she suggested that this group brain is a “holdover from the pathway of evolution”. Perhaps our ancestors’ capacity to stampede and cause havoc is a protective device that helped ward off threats at one time.
“Let’s look at this as normal behaviour, given certain critical factors,” Zoffmann said. “The reason why it’s normal behaviour and hasn’t been extinguished by evolution is that being able to act instinctively is important at times of threat or extreme stress, and this capacity still has survival benefits from an evolutionary point of view. I suggest that we rely on the capacity to form a group brain when we train people for dangerous missions in combat, police work, sports teams, et cetera.”
Zoffmann pointed out that the prefrontal cortex evolved long after the limbic system was in place. She said that this might explain why the brain’s impulse-control system doesn’t prevent the highly emotional group brain from expressing itself. She suggested that this only occurs when there are large, densely populated crowds, a highly emotional event (such as a Stanley Cup final match) that focuses people’s attention, sensory and emotional overload, and depersonalization, which comes from being among a mass of people. These stimuli swamp the brain so that the strongest signals—the noise and the emotion—overwhelm rational thought.
Throw in alcohol, which increases the likelihood of this schooling behaviour, she said, and you could have a recipe for a riot. It probably didn’t help that many in the crowd hadn’t eaten properly for quite some time, further undermining their ability to think clearly.