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.

Comments (37) Add New Comment
J. Van Allen
I agree with Zoffmann's assessment.

Amygdala hijack in which the cognitive thinking processes are bypassed and the emotional brain is in control. A state of dysregulation that is often accompanied with disassociative memory loss. The memories can usually be triggered by smells (tear gas, burning rubber, burning garbage) as the olfactory system is directly linked to the limbic system.

Live with a person with borderline personality disorder and one gets to see this type of emotional thinking and dysregulation on a semi-regular basis from seemingly minor triggers.
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Alice Rossel
If Dr. Zoffmann and Mr. Jones are correct then it would be reasonable to expect that phamaceuticals could be developed to ensure youth stay in their frontal lobes. There would of course be many other educational, policing and correctional uses for such medicines not just crowd control for developing minds. They would be suitable for any situation where emotions override rational thinking, when people deindividuate and depersonalize, or when imitative effects of the group brain need to be prevented.
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Scott Blackstone
These young criminals only rioted in the street for a sporting event because there isn't a violent enough political movement aiming to destroy the state for them to get behind. These kids sociological standing is meaningless. They came well-to-do families? So what. So did Pol Pot and Hermann Goring and look how they turned out. Wealth and ethics are not at all tied together.

"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."

I give this part of the argument points for originality, if not coherence. If these people hadn't had eaten to the point where they had become hungry, they'd seek out food, and would lack the energy to riot, not be more prone to it.

"Compounding the problem for young people is the time it takes for the prefrontal cortex to mature."

So you need a fully developed prefrontal cortex to understand that burning cars and looting stores is immoral? No wait, a 5 year old could tell you that. Also, if that's true, then how did the White Rose ever stand up to the Nazis without fully developed prefrontal cortexes? It should be evolutionarily impossible.

This constantly deflection of blame away from the perpetrators might make us feel good about ourselves, about the truth that we don't want to point out: that evil people live in our midst and that given the opportunity, they will turn on us and society. That's what made the Nuremberg trials so fascinating: the guilty knew what they were doing was wrong, they just thought that they could get away with it at the time. Sound familiar?
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Claire


Beware of the neuro-police and their middle-left media organs.
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Frankette
Very interesting article but perhaps many of these rioters have undiagnosed ADD? I think we need more info about this misunderstood and controversial condition and I believe that we will be a safer world once people with it are properly diagnosed and treated. See this interesting interview by Dr Amen http://www.wellnesshour.com/index.php?Itemid=11&id=46&option=com_seyret&...

Dr Gabor Mate has written a wonderful book (as usual), “Scattered Minds” about ADD. “Delivered from Distraction” and subsequent books by Hallowell and Ratey also provide helpful info on this topic.

I absolutely agree that we must be looking at those on the city payroll to explain why a riot was allowed to happen a second time.
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gale
Interesting. So next time let's set up some watering/snack/yoga stations with chirpy distracting females?
One aspect of human behavious I would've liked to have seen tied in to this essay: desensitization to violence, esp. among youth.
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Mike Puttonen
"....their prefrontal cortexes weren’t fully developed..."

That must be it.
The Mayor, the Council, The Vancouver Police Board, and the City Manager's office.
This seems to be the only pre-riot document that any of them read...

http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/20110419/documents/a2.pdf















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Eunice Begonia
So, are we saying that those that participated in destroying property haven't evolved? I would agree! I would also argue that the only reason they apologized was because they got caught. I hope they are made to pay restitution, and they should also have to perform community work which might, but I doubt it, make them think of something other than themselves for a change. I love the public shaming they have been subjected to as well. Oh and when they are looking for a job in the future I hope the prospective employers google them. Have they thought of that?
I guess if you are born stupid ya stay stupid!!!!!!!!
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Richard H.
In the aftermath of riot 2.0 last week, the prognosis that is was caused by malnutrition, booze and, poor things, underdeveloped frontal lobes sounds condescending and ridiculous to the rest of us Vancouverites that felt and feel no need to set cars ablaze, destroy or even egg it all on. The sympathetic article by Charlie Smith felt like it was trying to excuse what is frankly, an UNFORGIVEABLE and UNFORGETFUL event.
I don’t want to be told by people to just “get over it” and “move on” (most likely by those involved). I don’t want to be told it’s a mob mentality to wish those culprits be brought to justice either.
We need to see repercussions and then we can move on because the city is tired of this.

Thank you Gary Mullins for setting the record straight on the issue. No anarchists. Not even really a riot. One needs a political or ideological motive for those. Here there was none, just Rebels without a cause. Countries in Europe are on the verge of meltdown; the Middle East is going through perpetual social upheaval and yet here, a hockey GAME, is enough”¦ for the world to see.
Whatever provisions are necessary to prevent this from happening again, we have to adhere to them. I imagined the city had grown up in the interim years since the first sad incident but have brutally been shown we have far to go.
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Leanne
And what was going on in the brains of all the young kids who chose not to riot, thought it was wrong and decided to leave as soon as possible and those who tried to stop the looting and violence and were beaten for it? What was going on in their brains? This article forgot look at that side of the story, what makes the good samaritan brain different from a rioters brain, that would be fascinating to know but it was neglected completely in this article....
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Marc L'Esperance
It is unfortunate that the Georgia Straight chose to grace this weeks cover with a lurid photo of a rioter on a burning car, rather than depicting and supporting something positive that starts in our city tomorrow ie: The Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
The article is interesting, but isn't it really last weeks news by now? The city and public would be better served with some support for the cultural events that make Vancouver a better place.
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Pat Crowe
Is it possible that they rioted just because their assholes?
Once again...stick your degree's up your ass!
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Charlie Smith
Marc L'Esperance,

I feel there is tremendous value in helping to educate the public about brain biochemistry and riots. I strongly believe that this warrants the cover story, given that many people were caught up in this situation.

We have given enormous space in the paper over the past two weeks to the jazz festival--far more, in fact, than we've given to the riot.

We had a special section last week. We followed it up with several articles this week, including interviews with Wynton Marsalis, Madeleine Peyroux, and Lucinda Williams.

I don't think we can be accused of shortchanging our coverage of the jazz festival. We'll have more coverage next week, too.

Charlie Smith
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Marc L'Esperance
Charlie - it's good to hear the Jazz Fest has been getting generous coverage inside the Straight. My comment was not an accusation of shortchanging your coverage, however.

I still think it's a shame to give the cover over to further riot coverage. I venture to say it will probably be a popular issue, in large part due to the cover, as a RIOT2011 souvenir.

As mentioned, i found it was an interesting story that presented a more scientific perspective. I agree with the previous poster Leanne, that the story was somewhat incomplete without addressing how some people are able to 'buck the crowd' and resist getting pulled into the violent hysteria.
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Jaded in Vancouver
It's the Neanderthal recessive gene making a comeback.
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MY BODY IS READY
WHAT HAS SCIENCE DONE? You guy's totally ignored the power that is 5hrs worth of malt liquor tall cans. Almost every rioter I saw was epic wasted and acting straight out of the party scene in Jackass the movie.

Sit down one night, and drink a dozen cans of Canterbury swill while listening to Twenty Pints by the Macc Lads over and over and tell me you don't wake up in the drunk tank with no memory of anything and a dozen different assault and disorderly charges.

Cops should ban booze and hand out weed to huge angry crowds. Throw away the 'superorganisms collective' pseudoscience kk
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Read Atlas Shrugged!
What a lovely, touching and revealing article!
So the individual is no longer held accountable for his criminal activities if he was lucky enough to be associated with a "mob". How sweet! What is classified as a mob, anyway? Are two persons a mob? three? five? a thousand? I believe Nazis were just peaceful protesters with very delicate brains and fuzzy souls. It's the "mob mentality" that has turned them into monsters, right? Oh, that explains everything. Now I feel much better. Attila, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Mao - all nice people, just stuck with the wrong crowd, or, just crowd; no, mob! Plus, they were never diagnosed with ADD or any other fashionable quasi illness. Poor guys! One can't help but just feel sorry for them. And they were hungry all the time, as well. And they were victims of family abuse. And...
No! They had chosen the path they wanted to follow. They were responsible for their actions. They were fully aware of what they were doing with such great pleasure. They just happened to hold different values. And - oh, yes! - their philosophy doesn't value an individual's life, it is only concerned with the welfare of their tribe. This philosophy is called altruism, statism, collectivism. This is the path Canada has chosen, and here are the inevitable results.
If people are told since birth that private property is not to be respected, that a human being is born only to serve others and doesn't have a right to sustain his own life through his own effort, if he is refused the right to excercise his own judgement, if he is born a SLAVE - what do you expect, other than destruction and death? You get what you have asked for. Everybody hates everybody because their lives do not belong to them, they belong to the tribe, comminity, society, state. And the almighty state knows all the answers and is a universal remedy for all sorts of troubles (which it itself creates).
Amen.

P.S. Let's sue the inventor of hockey - it is such a violent game! And God should be called to court, too, for creating humans, who are so violent! Let's pile up Satan for good measure, for his mischief with Eve. Didn't I forget anyone?
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Incredulous
Are you f'ing kidding me??? Boo hoo they were overstimulated, whaa whaa they were hungry and young - it's the city's fault??? This article enrages me almost more than the violent, inexcusable destruction of the riot itself. Shame on you.
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Brettro
Most of the little creatons were snot nosed suburban brats under the age of 18. So I keep asking myself...where were their parents? All of them have cell phones. Why weren't their parents calling or texting them once they saw that the game was going awry or when they first heard of riots breaking out? My god! If I knew my kid were anywhere near that mess, I'd be freaking out! "Get your ass home, now!" Because I wouldn't want them anywhere near danger. But then again, maybe all the suburban moms and dads were in their own mob state of mind and unable to text or call. A sad society indeed.
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And The Other Side of the Coin
So if humans are subject to losing their inhibitions and are likely to disregard secondary impulses of consequences and morals when they contend with the excitement of the overstimulated limbic system, what does that mean for our police services? Shouldn't we turn that question around on them as well? Isn't the question of 'how to keep people from rioting?' the same as 'how to keep police from brutalizing people during demonstrations?' They're subject to the same stimulus and they get equally as emotionally worked up, living in the group brain when they dress up in riot gear, bang on their shields and grunt.
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