May 20, 2009
Brain Scans Can Detect People Persons?

People who like to engage more with other humans have more tissue in certain parts of their brains.

Cambridge University researchers have discovered that whether someone is a 'people-person' may depend on the structure of their brain: the greater the concentration of brain tissue in certain parts of the brain, the more likely they are to be a warm, sentimental person.

Why is it that some of us really enjoy the company of others while some people are detached and independent? In an effort to explore these questions, Maël Lebreton and colleagues from the Cambridge Department of Psychiatry, in collaboration with Oulu University, Finland, examined the relationship between personality and brain structure in 41 male volunteers.

The volunteers underwent a brain scan using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). They also completed a questionnaire that asked them to rate themselves on items such as 'I make a warm personal connection with most people', or 'I like to please other people as much as I can'. The answers to the questionnaire provide an overall measure of emotional warmth and sociability called social reward dependence.

The researchers then analysed the relationship between social reward dependence and the concentration of grey matter (brain-cell containing tissue) in different brain regions. They found that the greater the concentration of tissue in the orbitofrontal cortex (the outer strip of the brain just above the eyes), and in the ventral striatum (a deep structure in the centre of the brain), the higher they tended to score on the social reward dependence measure. The research is published in the European Journal of Neuroscience.

Ten or twenty years from now this research will lead to the identification of genetic variants for personality types and then the ability to choose these genetic variants for their children.

Once people gain the ability to choose brain genes for their future children will they choose genes that make their kids more personable and socially adept?

On a similar note some small fraction of people excel at face recognition.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 19, 2009 – Some people say they never forget a face, a claim now bolstered by psychologists at Harvard University who've discovered a group they call "super-recognizers": those who can easily recognize someone they met in passing, even many years later.

The new study suggests that skill in facial recognition might vary widely among humans. Previous research has identified as much as 2 percent of the population as having "face-blindness," or prosopagnosia, a condition characterized by great difficulty in recognizing faces. For the first time, this new research shows that others excel in face recognition, indicating that the trait could be on a spectrum, with prosopagnosics on the low end and super-recognizers at the high end.

The research is published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, and was led by Richard Russell, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, with co-authors Ken Nakayama, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard, and Brad Duchaine of the University College London.

The research involved administering standardized face recognition tests. The super-recognizers scored far above average on these tests—higher than any of the normal control subjects.

So will people choose to give their offspring great skills at recognizing faces? Will future humans become more able to perform at face recognition?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 May 20 12:19 AM  Brain Society

Mthson said at May 20, 2009 1:34 AM:

I can think of some parts of my brain that I wouldn't mind minimizing in exchange for more 'neural real estate' devoted to my professional endeavors.

Lou Pagnucco said at May 20, 2009 7:45 AM:

My bet is that we are just at the beginning of identifying causal connections between brain physiology and psychological traits.

I wonder what other desirable, or undesirable, traits sociability correlates with, and whether there are tradeoffs, and I am also curious just how plastic brain areas like this are (e.g., Do Dale Carnegie courses increase the volume of this part of the brain?)

Interesting that this brain area was the one surgically cut in lobotomies.

My guess is that a lot of this type of research will be cordoned off as political incorrect.

Andy said at May 20, 2009 10:40 AM:

Take a look at this video, Randall, it's right up your alley.

Lono said at May 21, 2009 9:13 AM:


I agree with you - and I think, eventually, a sophisticated society will decide to select for children who have greater empathy and and a more altruistic inclined phenotype.

As our population continues to grow and as we branh out in the solar system we simply will need to have psychological profile that favors a collective, shared, connectedness.

At it's extreme - this would lead to a hive mind mentality - but I think there can be a balance struck between interpersonal loyalty and individual autonomy.

At least that is my hope for a better future for our species.

Fly said at May 21, 2009 11:34 AM:

Summary of GoogleTalk on Mindfulness Training:

Areas in the prefrontal cortex form a critical hub for the integration and control of emotional information from the amgydala, sensory information from the outside world (sight) and, by way of the insula, the body (visceral nervous system). Mirror neurons in specific regions, e.g., the insula, help us "feel" what another person experiences and thereby increase empathy.

An example mindfulness training exercise is focusing attention on a body process such as breathing for ten minutes each day. This causes simultaneous activation of prefrontal cortex areas and brain regions that act as gateways for body sensory information (insula, thalamus) and brain regions that process emotion (amgydala). Simultaneous neural activation strengthens connections between these brain regions which leads to better whole brain integration. (Brain scans show local area size changes correlated with training.)

Benefits are better awareness of internal mental states, better control of emotional responses, better inhibition of automatic responses, and increased empathy. Children exhibit less bullying and better self control.

The speaker is a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships. He keeps up with recent brain science research and relates it to his own field of expertise. In my opinion his interpretations go well beyond the science. The speaker is also acting as a salesman promoting mindfulness training. The information he presents contains significant simplifications and distortions as well as conjectures masquerading as facts. (His attempt to use "math" to explain mind health was farcical.)

Advances in brain science will lead to mental training exercises that improve mental health and mental performance. In that sense I support the speaker's long term goals. However, the speaker overstates and distorts what is presently known while going far beyond the science.

David A. Young said at May 24, 2009 1:52 PM:

"People who like toe engage more with other humans. . . ????"

That's my problem! I've always been a butt man, myself.

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