Neuroscience, paleo-mammalian thinking, and racism

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      I'm not a neuroscientist and I won't pretend to know all the inner workings of my neural pathways.

      But for quite a few years, I've had an amateur's interest in the structure and functioning of the human brain.

      This hobby has been stimulated by the plethora of brain research taking place in Vancouver, where I've lived for 30 years.

      A former director of the UBC's Brain Research Centre (now the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health), Dr. Donald Calne, initially piqued my curiosity about neurodegenerative diseases. He was the first to use synthetic dopamine in treating Parkinson's disease.

      In the 1990s, Calne was suggesting links between Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease. It was a controversial hypothesis.

      Not long afterward, I was fortunate to interview Canadian Medical Hall of Fame member and neuroscientist Dr. Max Cynader for a story in the Georgia Straight. For more on his research into brain health, I recommend a 2009 article by Gail Johnson. It will likely leave you with more empathy for troubled folks living in the Downtown Eastside.

      UBC a leader in psychopathy research

      Vancouver is also home to some intriguing research into psychopathology. Dr. Robert Hare was a pioneer in developing deep understanding of psychopathy.

      I learned from Hare that people with this disorder have no empathy and act entirely out of self-interest, often preying on unsuspecting victims. They can be capable of unspeakable cruelty.

      "A lot of my friends thought I must be somebody after all when my picture graced the front page of the Georgia Straight several years go," Hare quipped in a profile posted on the UBC website.

      More recent research by UBC psychology prof Michael Woodworth is shedding intriguing insights into the language of psychopaths. It's too bad that this isn't being relied on more heavily in the criminal-justice system and in civil lawsuits.

      Another UBC academic, Kerry Jang, specializes in personality disorders. For more on his research into borderline personality disorder, check out this article, which appeared in the Straight in 2011.

      Stephen Kiraly's book examined brain's evolution

      Geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Kiraly is another expert who heightened my interest in the structure and functioning of the brain. His book, Your Healthy Brain: A Personal & Family Guide to Staying Healthy & Living Longer, included a fascinating section on how our most important organ evolved. He also opened my eyes to the likelihood that we'll see a wave of dementia in our society.

      Kiraly's book noted that first, there was the reptilian brain. It's the oldest and most primitive part. It regulates breathing, heart rate, and other functions of the body. It's in the brain stem and the cerebellum.

      Next came the paleo-mammalian brain, a.k.a. the limbic brain. It contains the brain's emotional centre and is responsible for human beings forming deep bonds with loved ones.

      The paleo-mammalian brain is associated with motivational processes. This part of the brain includes the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and amygdala. Here, we make our value judgements.

      The final part of the brain that evolved was the neocortex, also known as the neo-mammalian brain. It oversees sight, hearing, logic, language, spatial reasoning, and conscious thought.

      The prefrontal cortex has been called the CEO of the brain because it overrides impulses that might originate in the limbic system.

      Neuroscience explains addiction

      Vancouver physician Dr. Gabor Maté has relied heavily on brain research to help explain the roots of addiction.

      His 2008 book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, pointed out that a great deal of brain development occurs in infants after they're born.

      He suggested that these children can develop better impulse control and lessen susceptibility to addiction if they experience "attunement" with caregivers on a regular basis as their neural pathways are developing. 

      According to Maté, poor attunement inhibits the development of dopamine receptors. They are associated with receiving messages of incentives and rewards.

      The cerebral cortex needs to develop a sufficiently strong network of neural pathways to provide emotional self-regulation. 

      Maté was influenced by Los Angeles child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, who has spoken in Vancouver about what he calls the "mindful brain".

      In an interview with the Straight in 2008, Siegel explained how one person can align his or her internal state with another person. This makes them receptive to the other person's feelings.

      "That receptivity allows them to pick up signals that create a state of what's called resonance," Siegel said.

      In the case of infants, it plays a crucial role in the development of their neural pathways. If this process of attunement doesn't occur, the structure of the brain doesn't develop in the same way.

      Poor brain development after birth inhibits the prefrontal cortex's ability to curtail impulses originating in the limbic system.

      Stanley Cup riot linked to brain biochemistry

      In 2011, I sought the assistance of a local psychiatrist, Dr. Elisabeth Zoffmann, to understand why so many young people engaged in looting during Vancouver's Stanley Cup riot.

      I recognized that many perpetrators might lose job opportunities after being caught up in something beyond their conscious control.

      Zoffmann postulated that during riots, people in crowds appear to lose their critical thinking skills.

      Furthermore, she suggested that the prefrontal cortex ceases to function effectively in these situations when rioters are "subjected to a multilevel sensory bombardment".

      A more primitive part of the brain, the limbic system, takes charge.

      “Once you’ve had your frontal lobe taken out of the equation, you’re kind of driven by your impulses and emotions,” Zoffmann said. “So the limbic system is quite capable of coordinating a lot of action—some of it not very smart.”

      SFU researcher Ehor Boyanowsky has researched whether there's a relationship between temperatures and the likelihood of riots. It's worth noting that the 2011 Stanley Cup riot occurred on an extremely hot day. 

      The prefrontal cortex, which is supposed to control dangerous impulses, doesn't fully develop in males until they're about 25 years old. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that most of those charged in connection with the riot were younger than that.

      Amygdala linked to racism

      Last year, Mother Jones published a provocative article, "The Science of Your Racist Brain". It reported on neuroscientist David Amodio's research into subconscious racial prejudice. He's also focused a great deal of attention on what's happening in the limbic system.

      "When we look at faces of individuals of a different race, a part of our brain called the amygdala often gets active," wrote journalists Indre Vikontas and Chris Mooney. "The amygdala is involved in learning and, specifically, in a type of learning called fear conditioning—tracking what kinds of things predict bad outcomes, much like a rat learning that a specific tone will lead to an electric shock. Essentially, its job is to figure out what parts of the environment are threatening and remind us to stay away from them."

      Psychology Today has also reported on the link between the amygdala and racism. This piece was inspired by the work of New York University cognitive neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps.

      Phelps coauthored a paper called "The neuroscience of race", which appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Neuroscience in 2012. It, too, noted the role of the amygdala in racial biases, citing brain imaging techniques.

      Nowadays, there's a great deal of concern being expressed in Vancouver about people from mainland China buying homes, particularly on the city's West Side.

      Researchers are scurrying around making the case why or why not this should be a concern to the public.

      This controversy, like the Stanley Cup riot, also has me pondering about the links between the evolution of the brain and people's reactions to what's happening.

      A long, long time ago, it served human beings well if they could identify "the other" quickly and efficiently.

      During the Paleolithic Era, this could make the difference between life and death.

      As has been demonstrated by modern neuroscience, spotting "the other" is rooted in a more primitive part of our brain.

      What does this have to do with real estate?

      The high housing prices in Vancouver are creating stress for many people, triggering a wave of media coverage that serves to whip up an even stronger emotional reaction.

      Foreign investment is being lumped in with immigration, which is being connected to Canadian-born residents' capacity to live the life they desire in Vancouver.

      I'm hoping a neuroscientist examines the links between the brain's inner workings and the super-charged media coverage of the housing market.

      That's because I get the sense that there's a lot of paleo-mammalian thinking going on around our town.