Wednesday, 16 July 2014

"The One With All The Brains" - A Brain's-Eye View of the Friends Characters

The Boys

Joey Tribbiani
“Speak First, Think Later”
There are many examples of Joey behaving impulsively and “without thinking” throughout the series. Joey is a very lovable and loyal character, although he is portrayed as rather dim-witted and unintelligent. He often behaves with no reservations, ignoring typical social conventions and just reacting impulsively. The classic example is “Joey doesn’t share food!” Joey goes on a dinner date with one of Phoebe’s friends, who reaches to take some of his meal; ignoring social standards which demand we remain polite, Joey proceeds to shout at his date for “trying to take food off his plate”.
Joey may naturally react more impulsively than other people as his brain may have to work harder to rein in his inappropriate behaviour. This reputation for speaking before thinking and poor decision-making is often attributed to immaturity, however there is also a neural explanation for Joey’s lack of impulse control. He may have reduced activity in his ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). The vmPFC is involved in the top-down control of behaviour, meaning it can act as a brake to stop a person acting on their rapid initial thoughts, allowing them to behave in a more socially appropriate manner. If a person has reduced activity in this area of the brain, then they’re unable to “turn on the brake” to stop themselves behaving in line with their first instinct, meaning they can act impulsively and without thinking.

Ross Geller
“The Romantic”
Three marriages and counting… Ross is an optimist and a perpetual romantic. He is the smartest of the group, and is also known for his misfortune in the dating department. Ross goes through a series of doomed relationships throughout the show: divorcing his first wife when she reveals she is a lesbian and has had an affair with another woman; sabotaging his love-affair with Rachel over the confusion surrounding their decision to “take a break”; and humiliating Emily when he refers to her as “Rachel” during their wedding vows. Ross is a serial monogamist, and flits through romantic relationship after romantic relationship, constantly searching for “the one”.
It is possible that Ross has this obsession with love and finding his ideal match because he has certain brain differences which lead him to behave this way. Romantic love can affect the brain in the same way as drugs, targeting the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is involved in the reward pathway of the brain. In this sense, perhaps love is as addictive as drug taking, and Ross has an addictive personality? It is also possible that Ross has reduced activity in his amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear and aversive learning. If activity in this area is diminished, then Ross will not be able to learn from his past mistakes. Consequently, he will continue to make the same errors in his romantic relationships over and over again.

Chandler Bing
“Could he BE anymore sarcastic!?”
Chandler prides himself on his good sense of humour, and he is well known for his sarcasm. He is frequently the friend cracking jokes and mocking others. The show is filled with hundreds of classic examples of Chandler being sarcastic. In Series 3 (“The One with All the Football”) Joey chastises Chandler for “never wanting to do anything” since he and Janice broke up, and Chandler is quick to quip “I wanted to wear my bathrobe and eat peanut clusters all day. I wanted to start drinking in the morning. Don’t say that I don’t have goals!”
Chandler is funny, intelligent and witty, all traits which compliment his sarcastic nature. However, there is also a neural explanation behind Chandler’s passion for sarcastic humour. This can be attributed to increased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). The language areas which are located on the left side of the brain are equipped to interpret the literal meaning of words; however it is the vmPFC which is involved when understanding the social and emotional context behind words and phrases. This means that someone with increased activity in their vmPFC may be much more attuned to sarcasm, as they are able to distinguish easily between the literal and intended meanings of sentences.

The Girls

Rachel Green
“The Egotistical One”
Rachel has a passion for clothes, accessories and make-up. This focus on vanity often comes at the expense of the development of her domestic skills and her general knowledge. Particularly in the early series, Rachel is portrayed as a spoilt daddy’s girl, who is substantially self-centred. One example which highlights Rachel’s vanity is the storyline surrounding the plastic surgery she had on her nose for a supposed ‘deviated septum’. In the flashback episodes Rachel can be seen sporting a much larger nose; and following the birth of her daughter, her sister Amy even asked her “Do you ever worry that Emma’s going to get your real nose?” Whilst Rachel does develop throughout the later series into a much more likeable and caring character, she perpetually remains concerned with fashion and looking good.
It is possible that Rachel has an innate drive to be concerned with her appearance due to certain structural abnormalities in a region of the brain previously linked with feelings of empathy. Rachel may have less grey matter in her left anterior insula, as a reduction in the number of brain cells in this area have been found in individuals with narcissistic personalities. The insula is known to influence emotion regulation and the control of social emotions. This reduced activity in the left anterior insula may therefore lead Rachel to experience feelings of low self-esteem and inferiority, whilst also displaying the traits of arrogance and vanity.

Monica Geller
“The Clean Freak”
Monica is the mother-hen of the group. She is a neat-freak who loves to clean and organise her belongings. Her obsessive cleanliness becomes more exaggerated throughout the series, for instance in the episode “The One with the Embryos” Monica decides to stack her towels into eleven categories (including “Everyday use”, “Fancy”, “Guest”, and “Fancy Guest”). Monica becomes so manic over her cleaning rituals in fact, that she even fantasises about cleaning her cleaning supplies – using a smaller vacuum to clean her regular-sized vacuum.
It’s possible that Monica suffers from a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which can again be attributed to certain functional brain differences. A person who suffers from OCD becomes trapped in a cycle of repetitive thoughts and behaviours. Obsessive thoughts can include the ever-present fear of germs, and compulsive behaviours may include the rituals employed to tackle these fears, like excessive cleaning. It is likely that Monica has increased activity levels in her anterior cingulate, nucleus caudate, and orbital frontal cortex. These three regions work alongside the thalamus to create a “worry circuit”. This means that these areas are responsible for detecting threats in our environment (e.g. “germs”) and sending a worry signal to the thalamus. Once this worry signal has been sent typically a “brake” will be applied to stop the worry re-circulating. In OCD this “brake” does not work efficiently, and the worry signal will continue to fire repeatedly, meaning the person is continually aware of the external threat.

Phoebe Buffay
“The Musician”
Phoebe is the kooky, eccentric friend. She is passionate about animals, her friends, and art. Music is one of her great loves, and she can often be spotted singing and/or playing her guitar. One of Phoebe’s more popular songs is “Smelly Cat”, which she regularly performs at Central Perk. The song is about a lonely cat shunned from society due to its stench (“smelly cat, smelly cat, what are they feeding you?”) Phoebe’s penchant for music can be explained by her ‘musical brain’.
The brain structure between musicians and non-musicians is distinctly different. It is likely that Phoebe has more grey matter volume in her motor, auditory, and visual-spatial brain regions. This means that through all her repetitive rehearsals in which she practised the guitar and her vocal scales, Phoebe was physically able to change the structure of her brain. Her motor cortex will thus be more adept to perform the fine motor skills needed to form chords and strum on the strings; her auditory cortex will be more attuned to hear harmonious musical notes; and her visual-spatial regions will allow Phoebe to integrate all her musical skills together to sing and play the guitar concurrently. 

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