Saturday, 11 April 2015

Brain of Thrones: A brains-eye view of your favourite Game of Throne Characters

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.

House Stark

Eddard Stark
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 [1]. 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 Stark
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 [2]. 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.

House Lannister

Tyrion Lannister
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 [3]. 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 Baratheon 
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 [4]. 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.

House Targaryen

Daenerys Targaryen
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…


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