Evolutionary biology, the prefrontal cortex, and the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver

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      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.

      Jones, a security consultant who formerly commanded the VPD’s crowd-control unit, told the Straight by phone that he was on Richards Street on the night of the riot when police showed up and fired tear gas. He compared the crowd’s reaction to a school of fish travelling in unison down the street. “Always with the police, the issue is to get people back into the frontal lobes of the brain,” Jones said.

      This can be accomplished by having friendly officers in the crowd dispersing groups before they form, reducing stimulation, and providing distractions for those in the process of switching off their thinking. The blueprint for the Vancouver Police Department has been a 2008 British report called Adapting to Protest—Nurturing the British Model of Policing.

      Zoffmann said that Vancouver police have an outstanding track record of doing this in recent years, most notably with cops in yellow jackets mingling with the crowd. “That technique has worked really well,” she commented. “The really big problem, as I see it, is the amount of people who were allowed to cluster.”

      Jones said there was a sufficient number of officers on Granville Street early in the evening to prevent things from spinning out of control. However, he added, when the crowd flipped out in the Hamilton Street area and set a vehicle on fire, police were forced to redeploy resources. And troublemakers then migrated to areas where police weren’t present, shattering windows and overturning cars.

      Jones estimated that one percent of the people who came downtown were intent on causing damage. He described them as thrill seekers who wanted a “destination-adventure riot”. He believes that another 20 percent stared at the chaos in wonderment.

      “Then there was a huge component that were egging them on and just racing around,” he said. “It was like they had lost their minds. The minute that fire went on, they just became animalistic.”

      Zoffmann and Jones are not the first to suggest that groups of people can behave collectively, like other species. Australian scientist Tim Flannery’s recent book Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet (HarperCollins) points out that human beings—like ants, wasps, and bees—create civilizations in which different members have specialized roles. In effect, these species have evolved into “superorganisms” with a collective intelligence that enhances their survival.

      Meanwhile, British author and neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor has studied how cruel behaviour—which was on display in the Vancouver riot—is often driven by emotions and beliefs when people are under extreme conditions of stress and time pressure. In her 2009 book Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain (Oxford University Press), Taylor writes: “Aggression, however sudden, never erupts without prior preparation in the brains of those who perpetrate it—yet until the eruption their actions may appear quite unremarkable. Thus extensive brain changes may occur undetected, allowing apparently minor causes to trigger ferocious violence.”

      She goes on to write that neurons in the brain are enveloped in cerebrospinal fluid, which she likens to the brain’s bathwater. “Substances in the blood, like alcohol, can seep into this fluid, changing its molecular makeup, and thus affect the brain,” she states in her book. Therefore, Taylor adds, “even neurons processing the most abstract of cognitions can be disrupted by a sudden change in body chemistry, whether that change comes from food, drink, or drugs, infection or illness, or a brain-commanded surge in adrenaline.”

      Dr. Stephen Kiraly, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at UBC, told the Straight by phone that he was shocked to hear of the riot. However, he also mentioned that famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung noted that “archetypal primitive behaviour” can be triggered by certain stimuli. As an example, Kiraly said that children and monkeys have an automatic fear of snakes, even if they’ve never seen them before. It’s as if this fear is embedded in our brains. Kiraly suggested that flames also elicit certain archetypal reactions. “Fire has been associated with ritual warrior behaviour, as well as fear,” he said.

      In 2008, Kiraly wrote a self-published book, Your Healthy Brain: A Personal & Family Guide to Staying Healthy & Living Longer, which describes short-term changes in the brain when people are under stress. The limbic system becomes disconnected from the hippocampus, which is involved in the processing of information and creating memory.

      “The increased glucose in the blood stream gives a metabolic boost, the adrenaline in the system increases arousal and the cortisol changes your patterns of emotions and cognition,” he writes. “Simply speaking, the brain becomes hyper: hyperfocused, hyperalert and hyperresponsive.”

      Compounding the problem for young people is the time it takes for the prefrontal cortex to mature. “People think that it happens around adolescence or puberty, but that’s not really true,” Kiraly said. “Females tend to mature a little sooner, socially, by a couple of years. In men, 25-year-olds are still pretty impulsive. It’s not fully developed until about 25, on the average.”

      In Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain, Taylor notes that members of a mob “may literally not think consciously” about their actions.

      “The pressured individual will make more use of the strongest [neural] networks available, paying less attention to weaker, conflicting ones,” she writes. “He or she will be less likely to override initial impulses, more likely to disregard information about consequences or moral prohibitions, less likely to resist suggestions or commands of others, and more likely to show stereotyped behaviour.”

      Now, think back to the young people at the outset of this article who apologized for their behaviour during Vancouver’s recent hockey riot. Many kids will end up with criminal records. Others have lost jobs. Some may lose educational opportunities.

      Keep in mind that city officials, in partnership with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, encouraged the public to come downtown to watch hockey games on huge public-viewing screens. In effect, the city was inviting young people to enter an environment in which their senses were going to be bombarded with stimuli. There was a high possibility that they would lose their individuality in an incredibly dense crowd of 100,000 for an emotionally charged final showdown between the Canucks and Bruins. After the game, these young people were exposed to wanton vandalism. There may have been some instigators who planned to set fires, further heightening the crowd’s arousal, triggering the release of cortisol and adrenaline in their bodies.

      Add to this the impact of alcohol and poor nutrition that day on the functioning of their prefrontal cortex, which exercises judgment and inhibits impulses. Then consider that for the teens in the crowd, their prefrontal cortexes weren’t fully developed to better contain dangerous impulses.

      Keep in mind that city manager Penny Ballem—the boss of the city staff who organized public-viewing sites downtown—is a medical doctor and a former deputy minister of health who has taught in the UBC school of medicine. One of the Vision Vancouver councillors who govern the city, self-described “party planner” and professional biologist Heather Deal, told CBC Radio hours before the riot that there was “contingency plan upon contingency plan upon contingency plan” to prevent trouble after the game. Another Vision Vancouver councillor, Kerry Jang, is a professor of psychiatry in the UBC school of medicine.

      Consider the extensive research that Vancouver police conducted into crowd control leading up to the city hosting the Olympics. Also recognize that Vancouver police chief Jim Chu is part of the city’s senior management team.

      After taking all these variables into account, ask yourself: who’s responsible for these kids going on a rampage after the Canucks lost to the Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final? Do the partygoers bear all of the blame, or should the hosts be held partially accountable?

      It’s a question that rioters, their parents, insurance companies, city lawyers, researchers, and politicians will no doubt be debating for quite some time.

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      J. Van Allen

      Jun 23, 2011 at 4:54am

      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.

      Alice Rossel

      Jun 23, 2011 at 5:57am

      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.

      Scott Blackstone

      Jun 23, 2011 at 7:35am

      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?


      Jun 23, 2011 at 8:11am

      Beware of the neuro-police and their middle-left media organs.


      Jun 23, 2011 at 9:05am

      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.


      Jun 23, 2011 at 9:43am

      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.

      Mike Puttonen

      Jun 23, 2011 at 10:25am

      "....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...


      Eunice Begonia

      Jun 23, 2011 at 12:04pm

      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!!!!!!!!

      Richard H.

      Jun 23, 2011 at 1:13pm

      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.


      Jun 23, 2011 at 3:59pm

      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....