Friday, 4 March 2011

Psychology Friday: My Friendly Amygdala

Are you the sociable type? You know, life and soul of the party, love people, like being the centre of attention? Or maybe you prefer to take a back seat, staying out of the limelight and having a one-to-one with a trusted friend. Either way, have you ever stopped to wonder why?

Most people seem to think they're either born that way or they're not, and new psychological research might just be about to prove them right. Apparently a small part of the brain known as the amygdala is larger in more sociable people than others. In fact, both the number and the complexity of a person's relationships correlates to the size of this small bundle of nerves hidden deep in the cerebrum.

But - and here's the $64,000 question - which comes first? Are you sociable because this part of your brain is bigger or does it become larger if you're sociable? Is it nature or nurture? Are gregarious people born with big amygdala, or do they grow - like 'social' muscle - as they use it?

This is the kind of question that strikes at the heart of most psychological research. There are many examples of a strong correlation between two variables like this (the Maguire study into the size of taxi drivers' brains is another good example) but how - if at all - are the two factors linked? That's the kind of answer many psychologists would give their eye teeth to discover. But science seldom provides such simple explanations.

Mind you, neither does life. The causal/correlation puzzle is a bit like the old chicken and egg conundrum, which is precisely what Charlie and I happened discussing yesterday morning. The conversation started innocuously enough with the simple question of whether or not I laid eggs. Well, I played that one with a straight bat. 'So does mummy lay eggs'. Er, no. 'Do I lay eggs then?' No, Charlie, you don't; hens lay eggs, not people. From there it was a simple step to the 'which came first' question, but I don't think we reached any meaningful conclusions.

But what do you think? No, not about the chicken and the egg situation (although feel free to add to the discussion!) but the $64000 amygdala question? Are we born with the ability to make lots of friends, or is it something we learn according to the opportunities we're given?

Would a gregarious person be unhappy on a desert island. Or would their amygdala just shrink?

Here's the link to the Guardian article describing this research in more detail.
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