Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Arab Spring, Twitter, Facebook and the brain

A great deal has been written about what has come to be known as the “Arab Spring”. Two factors have reportedly been instrumental in enabling it. One of these is hardly credible, at least to me; the other is of profound neurobiological interest.

The first is that this is a social network media revolution, through channels such as Facebook and Twitter. I find it hard to credit this oft-repeated belief. Both Tunisia (where the revolt started) and Egypt are very poor countries, 40% of the population in the latter living below the beltline of $2 per day. I do not suppose that, apart from a tiny percentage, many have the means to acquire computers and mobile ‘phones. Indeed it is hard to believe that Mohammad Bouazizi, the young man who tragically and in despair over his poverty immolated himself, had the means to have access to social media networks at all. Television, commonly available in cafés for communal watching, is likely to have played a more significant role. This is not to say that Twitter and Facebook did not facilitate communication. Of course they did, just as (in a much slower world) the horse facilitated communication during the French Revolution.

The second – loss of fear - is of greater significance and of much neurobiological interest. We have been repeatedly told that the masses who are revolting, commonly against much better equipped security forces, have lost their fear. Fear is associated with certain physiological activity, and especially prominent among brain structures contributing to such activity is a complex nucleus called the amygdala, buried within the temporal lobes of the brain, and consisting of many subdivisions. I would not wish to imply that the amygdala alone is responsible for so complex a state, for the amygdala is connected to many other brain structures which, collectively, are responsible for generating and maintaining the state of fear, as a defensive mechanism to protect the individual. Whatever the role of the different brain structures, the central role played by the amygdala was shown many years ago when scientists described how damage to it results in a loss of fear by animals and humans.

The amygdala has extensive connections within the brain. It is believed that there are two routes to the amygdala, an “immediate” one from the sense organs, which by-passes the cerebral cortex, and a more “leisurely” one that relays signals through the cerebral cortex. The amygdala is also connected to centres, such as those of the sympathetic nervous system, which regulate activity to mobilize the individual for appropriate reaction in response to fearful events or stimuli.

I suppose that the default state is activity – whatever its exact nature - within this system, activity within the amygdala that is relayed to other centres with which it is connected. I also assume, perhaps somewhat simplistically, that de-activation of this system is what leads to the condition that we describe as “loss of fear”.

This raises the interesting question of what triggers the de-activation and what dictates how long-lasting the de-activation and therefore the change from the default state is.

It is obvious that a long set of grievances reaches a point where individuals defy willfully the physiological state and care no longer about the consequences of their action. In the case of the Arab Spring, there was also an emotional trigger – the self immolation by Mohammad Bouazizi. The amygdala is part of the brain’s emotional and social system and the relative influence of the emotional component compared to the more cognitive component in regulating its activity is interesting to determine.

I am of the view that, in Egypt, a trigger, which was far more significant than Twitter and Facebook messages, was the emotional breakdown of Wael Ghoneim on Egyptian TV, an episode that was played and replayed, and presumably seen by masses in the many cafés in Egyptian cities. The episode was actually accompanied by music, hence fortifying the emotional message.

The fear system has been studied largely in animals, but the events of the Arab Spring and other similar events raise important questions about the organization of the fear system in humans, ones which are amenable to study.

One question relates to the time course of the de-activation. Judging by events in the Arab Spring, it can be very long lasting indeed; indeed it may even be permanent. This may yet turn out to be an interesting example of brain-plasticity.

A second question relates to the trigger. There seems little reason to doubt that an emotional trigger was just that, a trigger coming on top of much discontent. This in turn raises the question whether there is a threshold for triggering an amygdalar de-activation, and what the neural mechanisms for maintaining it may be. It also raises the question of how the system returns to its de-fault value, assuming that the change in the brain is not permanent. Finally, it raises the question of how the two routes to the amygdala – the direct one and the cortical one – regulate one another.

A third question is about the potentiating effect on this de-activation caused by group action. There seems little doubt that the involvement of many in the uprising had a facilitating effect but how this works no one knows.

As I said above, the system regulating fear is not confined to the amygdala and an enquiry into the neural mechanisms involved in the loss of fear would no doubt have to extend much beyond it. But the amygdala is a good place to begin.

The Arab Spring is an example of other events where loss of fear is a powerful engine for initiating change. Hence the lessons that it provides for experimentation and the results of such experimentation will have important, general, implications.


Mimi said...

Marx must have instinctively understood amygdala activation/de-activation (albeit without scientifically knowing it) when he said “you have nothing but your chains to lose”. I wonder if oppressors around the world are now putting something in the water to maintain a state of fear (amygdala activation) so that they can do what the hell they like. Is there something one can take to reverse this and get amygdala de-activated?

S.Z. said...

Interesting thought. I don't know of any antidote to maintaining the state of fear through amygdalar activation.