Super fans across the globe have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new series of “A Game of Thrones” (adapted from the George RR Martin novels of the same name). The focus of the story is on a civil war in which several noble houses are battling over who should rule the kingdom. Whilst the premise might sound relatively simple to those who’re unfamiliar with the show, in fact it is littered with a wealth of complicated and well-developed characters. The personas range from the stoic and loyal Eddard Stark, through to the manipulative and villainous Joffrey Baratheon, and the witty and intelligent Tyrion Lannister. These multi-dimensional characters can be extreme and vastly different, meaning that their brains may provide a wealth of interesting information about personality development. What drives a person to be sadistic and evil like Joffrey? Why is Eddard devoted almost to the point of naivety? Why is Arya Stark so fiercely independent? This article aims to explore the role of neuroscience in shaping the way in which these characters have developed and how they interact with one another.
Eddard, fondly referred to as Ned, is the head of House Stark and serves as the Warden of the North from his seat at Winterfell. He is a lifelong friend of Robert Baratheon, ruler of the seven kingdoms, and so obligingly follows Robert’s orders to move to King’s landing and serve him as the King’s Hand. Ned is a devoted husband and father, and a strikingly loyal friend. He has little regard for his own well-being, but will do almost anything to protect the people he loves. For example Ned falsely admits to treason against Joffrey because of his own desires to seize the throne in order to protect his daughters from harm. Ned is an altruistic person, and it is possible that there are underlying differences in his brain structure which result in him acting this way.
Researchers from Georgetown recently studied the brains of kidney donors (altruists) and non-organ donors (control) whilst viewing a range of emotional expressions . Altruists displayed greater neural activity in the right amygdala (a brain region associated with emotion) whilst viewing fearful expressions compared to controls; and further the volume of the right amygdala was larger in altruists. Altruists were also seen to identify expressions of fear quicker than control subjects. Altruists showed clear structural and functional brain differences which made them more sensitive to other people’s distress. Ned may have this increased volume and activity in his right amygdala when interacting with other people, which may explain his tendencies toward loyalty, devotion and protection.
Arya is the younger daughter of Eddard Stark. She is extremely headstrong and independent, resenting traditional female pursuits and typically preferring to engage in sword-fighting and training her direwolf. Arya is in total contrast to her sister Sansa who is regarded as feminine and cooperative. Arya’s preferences for such typically male-oriented recreations lead to the regular mistaking of her as a boy. She eventually uses this misconception to her advantage in order to escape King’s Landing disguised as ‘Arry, an orphan boy. It is possible that Arya’s tomboy nature can actually be explained by brain differences which developed as a result of higher than normal levels of testosterone present in the womb when her mother Catelyn was pregnant.
Researchers in Washington measured pregnant women’s levels of testosterone and later evaluated the behaviour of their children at age 3.5 . The greater the maternal testosterone level was, then the more likely the girls were to engage in “masculine-typical” gender-role behaviour. As the pregnancy hormones influenced basic processes of brain development in the womb, they were also able to exert permanent influences on later behaviour. These findings have also been replicated in rats and rhesus monkeys who showed male-typical play behaviour as juveniles when exposed to increased testosterone levels when in the womb. It seems likely that Arya’s developing brain was exposed to high levels of testosterone, meaning she prefers wielding her sword ‘needle’ to knitting with Sansa.
Tyrion is the youngest son of Lord Tywin Lannister and was born a dwarf. To compensate for his small stature and the prejudice he faces Tyrion regularly employs his wit and intellect. An example of Tyrion engaging his wit is during the Battle of Blackwater in which plays an essential role in the defeat of Stannis Baratheon’s forces because of his well-thought out strategies. It is his idea to utilise the power of fire that helps to wipe out a large proportion of the opposition, although he is seldom thanked for his services. It is possible that Tyrion’s intelligence is not only a result of his environment and attempts to curb prejudice, but also because of his brain.
Human intelligence is not confined to a single area of the brain, but is the result of several brain areas working together . A large review of 37 brain imaging studies suggests intelligence is not a result of brain size, but rather how efficiently information travels through the brain. The Parieto-Frontal Integration Theory (P-FIT) suggests that intelligence levels are based on how efficiently the brain areas clustered within the frontal and parietal lobes communicate with one another. Unsurprisingly some of these areas are related to attention, memory and language skills. It seems that whilst Tyrion may be small, his brain is a very efficient and communicative machine.
Joffrey claims the Iron Throne to rule over the Seven Kingdoms after his legal father King Robert Baratheon dies. Unbeknownst to some of the characters he is actually the bastard son of Cersei and Jamie Lannister, the product of an incestuous relationship between the pair. Joffrey is known for being sadistic and manipulative, and he particularly delights in tormenting Sansa Stark during their betrothal. A particularly striking example of his torturing of Sansa is when he refuses to show mercy to her father Ned after his betrayal, and orders his beheading, before proceeding to parade the severed head in front of a distressed Sansa. It is possible that Joffrey’s lack of empathy towards the feelings of others actually has a neural basis.
A recent study has shown that when those with psychopathic tendencies are shown images which typically evoke empathy there are weaker connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and other parts of the brain including the amygdala as compared to individuals with a psychopath diagnosis . The amygdala is associated with emotion, memory and fear; and interactions between the vmPFC and amygdala are thought to underlie emotional regulation. In Joffrey’s case these two brain regions may not be communicating efficiently, meaning he is less likely to show heightened emotions towards others or appropriate social behaviour.
Daenerys is the sole surviving heir of King Aerys II Targaryen, who was exiled from the Iron Throne by Robert Baratheon. As Daenerys is the last Targaryen she intends to claim the Iron Throne as her birth right. She is often referred to as the “Mother of Dragons” as she is raising three young dragons to aid in her quest to return the Targaryens to the throne. Throughout her quest to build an army she regularly shows compassion, mercy and understanding towards those who need her help. Compassion is defined as having an emotional response when perceiving suffering, and then harbouring a genuine desire to help. She is regularly appalled by the mistreatment of slaves which she witnesses on travels. Eventually she makes her way to Slaver’s Bay where she observes thousands of slaves being horribly abused. Daenerys endeavours to break their chains and then asks them to follow her freely. It is likely that Daenerys’ heightened level of compassion actually stems from inherent differences in her brain.
Research has shown that those trained in compassion showed differing brain activations compared to a control group when viewing images of human suffering. The compassionate group had increased activity in their inferior parietal cortex, which is a region involved with empathy and understanding others. They also showed increased activity in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which is communicated with the nucleus accumbens. These brains are heavily involved in emotion regulation and the experience of positive emotions. It appears that Daenerys’ compassion towards others, particularly when viewing them suffering, is a result of such increased brain activity.
It seems that Westeros is full strange and interesting characters with complex and beautiful brains. If only the MRI scanner had been developed in this fantastical and primitive realm…
Saturday, 11 April 2015
Wednesday, 5 November 2014
Children and adults alike are digging out those spooky costumes ready for a celebration. We’ve reached that time of year again: Halloween. October 31 is dedicated to remembering the dead.
We’ve all experienced fear, but Halloween is the particular time of year when we look for that rush that usually accompanies feeling scared. Are you in need of a “scare-specialist” for this year’s Halloween celebrations? Then you need not look further than your very own brain.
Perhaps you’ll be spending Halloween watching A Nightmare on Elm Street with your hands over your eyes? Or maybe you’d rather wander around a haunted house waiting for ghouls and critters to pop out of unseen annexes? Whatever your tastes may be, when faced with such spine-tingling situations your brain enters into fight-or-flight mode. This mode is a primitive survival mechanism in which your body undergoes a stress response to a perceived threat in your surrounding environment.
While this reaction originally developed to help our ancestors circumvent predators in a world filled with danger, it is more common today for us to experience such feelings in response to mental threats. Mental threats are threats which are unlikely to harm us physically, but those which are more likely to cause some psychological distress.
The fight-or-flight response is handled by your amygdala – the part of your brain involved in the experience of emotion. This ancient brain system is an integral part of fear processing, but it is unable to distinguish between a physical or a mental threat. So while sweaty palms and anxiety may make more sense in the presence of a hungry bear, they also manifest in undesirable scenarios such as during job interviews or scary films.
There is plenty of evidence to support the involvement of the amygdala with fear processing. Impressively, when this brain region was completely removed in rats they no longer displayed fearful or avoidance behaviours towards their sworn mortal enemy – the cat.
So when that creepy atmospheric music in your horror movie starts to get louder and louder, and the sudden appearance of the masked murderer makes you jump, this will act as a stimulus which will trigger a signal in your amygdala. In response to a perceived threat, it releases a brain chemical called glutamate, which acts on two other regions of your brain. The first signal is sent deep into the base of the brain, into an area called the mid-brain, which we have little control over. This makes us freeze or involuntarily jump, which isn’t great if you’ve got a box of popcorn in your lap.
The second signal is sent to the hypothalamus, a section of the brain responsible for producing hormones. The hypothalamus triggers our autonomic nervous system – which is how our fight or flight instinct starts to kick in. The heart rate and blood pressure go up, and adrenaline and dopamine (the brain’s “reward hormone”) are pumped throughout the body. This helps our bodies to prepare for deadly combat or for the run of our lives, and it is why you feel such a rush whenever you’re scared.
Why some people like it
Some people actually enjoy these experiences of fear and the accompanying rush more than others. Perhaps you’re one of those individuals who watches terrifying films throughout the year or seeks out extreme sports or risky activities.
There is emerging evidence that our underlying brain chemistry may also be responsible for individual differences in the enjoyment of being afraid. David Zald and colleagues from Vanderbilt University showed that people differed in their chemical responses to thrilling situations.
We know that dopamine is released in response to scary and thrilling situations, but in those who reported enjoying such terrifying situations, their brain lacks a “brake” on the dopamine release and re-uptake in the brain. This means that they experience more pleasure and reward in spooky or risky situations from even higher levels of dopamine in the brain. While some of you may cower at the mere mention of Freddy Krueger, others will feel the bubbles of excitement beginning to brew.
So if you get your kicks from ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, this is probably why.
Kira Shaw is one of the Sheffield NeuroGirls @Shef_NeuroGirls
Wednesday, 27 August 2014
by NeuroGirl Rebecca
Recently, I was asked to give a talk at a University of Sheffield summer conference on public engagement as part of my work as a Sheffield NeuroGirl.
I began my talk by asking everyone to get to their feet. With some muttered confusion, everyone did as they were asked (I still love how that works!). I then asked anyone who either had, or knew someone with a mental illness to sit back down again. Amazingly, only two people were left standing. This is by no means an unusual state of affairs. We know that one in four people will experience some kind ofmental health problem in this year alone including 10% of all children. A breakdown in a healthy brain is also indiscriminate in who it targets too, mental health problems can affect rich and poor, all races and both sexes. The sad case of the recent suicide of Robin Williams shows that even celebrities, who have tangible proof of how their lives touch so many and give much joy, can take their own life when struggling with ill mental health.
Why then, is there still so little education on the brain and how it works in schools? Why are there not lessons that teach children what our brains do and why they might go wrong? Surely, if mental health is going to be an issue that will touch us all at some point throughout our lives it behoves the government to educate the future generations that will have to deal with this on this problem? That way, they will have the best chance and the best tools for being able to cope with the issues they will almost certainly face. As a neuroscientist, I’m only too aware of all the problems a brain can face throughout its lifetime, but along with that awareness comes a sense of normality about mental ill health. I know that depression could be caused by a deficit in a neurotransmitter called serotonin. I know that problems with an area of the brain called the caudate putamen can cause OCD. I also know that these failures are biological failures that can be caused by a wide variety of factors, psychological and physical. But the main point is, many people and many children do not know. Believe it or not, some people still believe that ill mental health is a punishment from God. Or that if ‘they’ just tried hard enough, ‘they’ could snap out of it. And ignorance about mental health can lead to bullying, prejudice, fear and heartache. It can lead to resistance in those suffering to seek the help that can be given and to those around the sufferer feeling scared and worried about talking about the problems that they see.
A simple program of education in schools could help to bring about a real change in society. It could help to provide a long term solution to the problem of ignorance about mental health. I will continue to go into local schools and talk to children about the brain and mental health but unless I can crack time travel once and for all, a better national solution is required. It’s time for the brain itself to go on the curriculum.
Find out more about the Sheffield NeuroGirls by visiting our website:
or following us on twitter @Shef_NeuroGirls
Find out more about the Sheffield NeuroGirls by visiting our website:
or following us on twitter @Shef_NeuroGirls