Why Conformity Is About Group Norms

Have you ever thought one thing and done another? Have you ever changed your mind when in a group that had different ideas?

I know I have and it made me feel like a wimp.

Being an HSP means that my positions are not the norm, and I am always seeking ways to bridge the difference. Often that cannot be done and I feel bad when that is the case.

I am an introvert but I still care about people and relationships. So where does the need to conform against our best instincts come from?

Our Brains Help Us Cop Out

According to an article in Spero Forum, researcher Vasily Klucharev of Erasmus University in the Netherlands, conducted a study which demonstrated that

“when people hold an opinion differing from others in a group, their brains produce an error signal.”

“If you make an error, if means that something [wrong is going on]. And, whenever we experience an error, it means this error signal pushes us to change behavior,” Klucharev said. “And, we see it looks like we quite automatically produce this signal when our opinion is quite different from other people.”

“The researcher examined two brain areas,” said Klucharev. “The first, a zone of the brain popularly called the ‘oops area,’  becomes extra active signaling an error; while the ‘reward area”‘is less active, making people think they made a mistake.”

This explains why people are likely to conform and why in doing so they are responding to what their brain is telling them even if their instincts or “better nature” tells them something else.

This research tells us a lot.  It explains why:

  • people act against their better judgment
  • people are afraid of differences
  • people are afraid of what they perceive to be dangerous mindsets
  • people are more afraid of being different that the pain of giving up their authenticity.

Conformity’s Survival Value

Conformity has been necessary for us to survive. The human race would not have developed without the willingness of individuals to sacrifice their differences to create cultures that supported their survival need. You can say therefore that conformity has served our survival.

Our brains have developed in a way that supports our survival as well. As a result it has supported our conforming to group norms because groups have been the basis of an individual’s survival. Children know only too well how they must conform if they are to survive since they are unable to survive on their own.

The Down Side Of Conformity And Group Norms

This research also suggests that we can have difficulty when our brain’s error signals conflict with a need for change. Our brains may fight our intentions even when they serve our best interests. We may then suffer from ambivalence and procrastination.

Sometimes when we do not understand what is going on, we will feel bad about ourselves when in fact there is nothing wrong with us. Our brain is supporting our survival among others whether those others are right or not. Our group is our group.

Can We Become Mindful About Conformity?

It is not helpful to fight our brain’s attempts to protect us, not is it helpful to fight necessary change. Therefore we need to become extremely mindful about what we allow group norms to become because there are serious consequences if those norms are destructive.

Whatever group norms we choose need to be considered temporary to allow for changing circumstances. When group norms can become flexible as needed then our brain’s desire to protect us will not fight our needs for change.

Is that too much to ask for?

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life!


Thoughts really do create our lives.

New research by Fred Travis, Maharishi University of Management in the US, Harald Harung, Oslo University College in Norway, and Yvonne Lagrosen, University West in Sweden on the brains of musicians demonstrates the potentially for highly developed brains that are open, curious, learning, playful and holistic in their thinking.

The study findings were reported in Consciousness and Cognition and Science Daily. The research compared the brains of professional and amateur musicians matched for age, gender and education on a number of brain tests: the Stroop color-word test which measures the ability to direct attention, brainwaves during a variety of paired reaction-time tasks, responses on the Gibbs Socio- moral Reflection questionnaire, and the subjects’ self-reported description of the frequencies of peak experiences.

The study, which evaluated the brains of musicians who were at the top of their profession vs. the brains of amateur musicians, defined success as combination of talent and practice or experience. They found that those who practiced the most had the most success.

As Dr. Fred Travis writes in his report, “The relation of practice to top performance is consistent with what is known with how the brain learns. The term neuroplasticity is used to describe the brain’s ability to adapt and change as a result of training and experience over the course of a person’s life. Through repeated experience we create neural circuits that support smooth, automatic flow of behavior.”

Interestingly, moral reasoning skills were better developed in the more skilled musicians.  Our brains are apparently improved by our working at something over the long term. When we acquire advanced skills in a subject like music, we have developed brain functionong that we can then apply to other areas of our lives with the expected superior results. What you do with your time and thinking becomes strengthened in the brain.

As Dr. Travis says, “If you are a very envious, angry, mean person and that’s the way you think about people that’s what’s going to be strengthened in your brain. But if you are very expanded and open and supportive of others, there will be different connections,” says Fred Travis.

This is very optimistic news for all of us. It suggests that work is good for our brains and supports higher performance and moral reasoning.

I suspect that we need to become very mindful about what we are doing with our brains.  What is the point of using our brains poorly, and then doing affirmations?  Better just to learn how to use our brains well.

Child Abuse Affects The Brain

Article first published as Child Abuse Affects the Brain on Technorati.

The December issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine has reported the findings of a Yale University Study which shows that child abuse, physical and emotional impact many areas of the brain. The study included the results of the self-reported Childhood Trauma Questionnaire and brain scans of 42 teenagers, with equal numbers of caucasian and African-Americans.  Four multiracial teenagers were also included in the study.

The research showed that the volume of gray matter in the brain was diminished in the teenagers who had suffered the abuse or neglect.  The number of regions of the brain affected was substantial:

According to MedPageToday which reported the study findings these are the regions of the brain and some of their functions that are affected:

  • Physical abuse: left dorsolateral and left rostral prefrontal cortices (executive function), right orbitofrontal cortex (emotional regulation and sense of the self), right ventral striatum (emotion and motivation), right insula (emotional intelligence), and right temporal association cortex (memory)
  • Physical neglect: left rostral prefrontal cortex (executive function), right parietal association cortex (spatial perception), and bilateral cerebellum (balance)
  • Emotional neglect: certain portions of the hypothalamus and midbrain, bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex(executive function), bilateral rostral prefrontal cortex (executive function), bilateral dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (cognitive function), right superior frontal gyrus (self-awareness ), right orbitofrontal cortex (emotional regulation and sense of the self), bilateral striatum, bilateral amygdala (processing emotions) and hippocampus (emotions and memory), bilateral cerebellum (balance), and left parietal (perceptual difficulties and problems with speech, writing and math), right temporal (visual memory), and left occipital association cortices (integration of visual information).

Girls showed more brain deficits in areas governing emotional processing and boys were more challenged in areas of the brain responsible for impulse control.

It is apparent that substantial and comprehensive brain damage is created as a result of child abuse. When you consider all the brain regions suffering damage from the abuse, it is inevitable that the individual will have developmental difficulties if not worse.  Sense of self, integration of sensory inputs, executive functioning and impulse control are all vital to effective daily functioning and human development.

It might be time to ask ourselves whether it is worth the cost in health bills, law enforcement and social problems as well as lost human capabilities to continue to ignore child abuse.  Better yet, if we eliminated child abuse, what would our world look like?

Suffering The Human Blind Spot

I am human and I have a blind spot.

We all do.

It has been called a lot of things: reactiveness, shortsightedness, mindlessness, ignorance. The labels really do not matter, because labels do not help us understand ourselves better. In fact, if we react to the labels, they may make our situation worse.

What Is Our Blind Spot?

Like all other animals, we are all vulnerable. Our brains are organized to discern and respond to threats. When we are not being vigilant, we are pleasure seeking creatures. Most of the time we operate in one or the other way of being, trying to minimize threat and maximize pleasure. We, therefore, turn the world into one or the other: a source of potential harm or potential pleasure.

Our vision and brains can keep us stuck in the vicious cycle of going back and forth between pain and pleasure. Our minds categorize everything according to our desire to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. This is why wise people tell us that our desires can create problems for us.

It is not so much that our desires are a problem, it is what we do about them.

What We See Is What We Get

Our vision is the beginning of our perceptual system. Our vision system is one of the largest systems of the brain. It sorts everything in our environment and processes the information. It is not clear at what point visual inputs turn into cognition. However, it is clear that our visual system is the beginning of our perception.

Our visual system may be more important than we realize. According to MyBrainWare, vision is responsible for 70% of what we learn. That is a lot of our learning!

Our visual cortex is thought to be a part of the brain which plays an important role in visual cognition. It stores information, which we then retrieve as we interact with our environment. Scientists believe that once we identify something, we respond to it based on our expectations which derive from past conclusions about something in our environment. The way our vision and brain is structured, it would seem that we are not naturally open to new views and perceptions. Perhaps our brains do not want to rethink every conclusion on a moment to moment basis.

Perceptions And Identity

Changing perceptions is, therefore, difficult. When we form an opinion or conclusion, that information is stored. In a way you could say that we own what we perceive. It is probably also true that we personalize our perceptions. They become my perceptions. My perceptions eventually turn into my identity.

They have become solidified.

Are Perceptions Fixed?

Our perceptions when they become fixed become our way of relating to the world. We take in perceptions, create a model for the world, and then act on that model. Our perceptual model becomes our reality and we treat it as fixed.

It is likely that our perceptions will remain fixed until we put them under the microscope. We need to examine and be open to changing our views because our perceptual model does not take into account an ever changing world. That is its blind spot, its achilles heel and ours.

Culture And Perception

How role does culture have in all of this? It seems to me that if we want to be open to changing our perceptions, we need time to do so.

When we are willing to go slowly and reconsider our perceptions with care, then we have the ability to continually refresh the perceptions that are the basis of our actions. However, when we act quickly we inevitably acting based on past conclusions. Therefore, we are reinforcing those perceptions and  any biases and prejudices they contain. Therefore, if you want serious change, you really need to be open to moving slowly and deliberately.

The Bias In Favor Of The Status Quo

Our perceptions, cultural structures and a high speed culture all serve to reinforce the current system we live in. The overstimulation and demands for instant gratification serve mindlessness. It is a heroic act to move in the direction of mindful living.

Rethinking our perceptions is just part of life, a necessary and responsible activity as part of our participation in this world. It is how we overcome our blind spot. When a few brave people venture into being present and mindful, it becomes easier for others.

It is a great way to participate in society in a gracious way and to be compassionate toward ourselves and others.  It is really just doing one’s part.

New Study Results In Successful Treatment Of Major Depression

A new technique healing major depression is succeeding in improving symptoms in individuals with Major Depressive Disorder. Medical News Today  reported on October 20, 2011, the new approach which is based on brain studies conducted at Cedars-Sinai Hospital and published in CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics.

“Recent imaging studies show that depressed patients have reduced functioning in the regions of the brain responsible for optimism,” said Jennice Vilhauer, PhD, study author and clinical director of Adult Outpatient Programs for the Cedars-Sinai Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences. “Also, people with depression tend to have fewer skills to help them develop a better future. They have less ability to set goals, problem solve or plan for future events.”

Generally therapy treatment for depressed patients is cognitive therapy where the negative thoughts of the patient are challenged and the patient is expected to reconsider their negative thoughts. However, the study demonstrates that the negative thoughts are not simply a bad mental choice.  The depressed patients do not have access to the mental support for a more optimistic way of thinking.

Cedars-Sinai has developed a different form of therapy for those suffering from major depression called Future Directed Therapy (TM), which helps the patients to shift their attention from the negative thoughts to what they do want and supports them in obtaining the skills necessary to reach their goals.

The study was conducted with 33 patients, 16 in the Future-Directed Therapy (TM) program and 17 in regular therapy. The Future Directed group met twice a week for 10 weeks.  At the end of the process, they were evaluated for depressive and anxiety symptoms. The Future-Directed Therapy group showed significant improvement in both depression and anxiety test scores.

The doctors cannot create a new brain for the depressed patients.  However, they have found a way to help depressed patients develop new cognitive pathways that will enable them to improve the outlook and perhaps in time will be able to acquire the feeling of optimism they desire.  The study indicates that a better outlook for depressed patients is possible and that major depression can be improved.

New Findings On Depression And The Hate Circuit

Article first published as New Findings on Depression and the Hate Circuit on Technorati.

New information has emerged from a study conducted in China illuminating the relationship between depression and the “hate circuit” according to an October 6, 2011 article in Medical News Today. Professor Jianfeng Feng from the University of Warwick in the UK, in collaboration with six other scientists, led the study which shows that depression causes an uncoupling of the hate circuit in the human brain.

The hate circuit was discovered in in 2008 in a study by UCL Professor Semir Zeki. He found that three regions of the brain were activated when individuals were shown images of people they hated.  The three regions are located in the cortex and subcortex of the brain and are the superior frontal gyrus, insula and putamen. As a result of his study, these regions have come to be identified as the hate circuit.

Professor Feng’s study was an exploration of brain activity differences in 39 depressed patients and 37 non-depressed individuals. The depressed group included participants who were both first episode major depressive disorder (FEMDD) and resistant major depressive disorder (RMDD).

The scientists created a template of the neural connections in 90 different brain regions from the healthy participants and identified 6 different functional systems of the brain that became the basis of their exploration of the depressed patients. The greatest difference they found was the uncoupling hate circuit although major changes occurred in circuits related to risk and action responses, reward and emotion, attention and memory processing. The neural differences are called uncoupling to describe the disconnection in normal brain functioning which in depressed patients occurred over 80% of the time or more in the depressed patients.

The published report of the scientists is uncertain about the meaning of their findings although they make the observation: “Depressed patients … have problems in controlling negative thoughts and so a potential hypothesis is that the functional uncoupling in this circuit may be contributing to impaired cognitive control over pervasive internal feelings of self-loathing or hatred towards others and/or external circumstances.”

It is not clear from the study whether or not there was a genetic basis for the depression in the study participants. However, since much of our behavior is adaptive, depression may be as well.  This study may show that in very negative situations, some people chose depression as a coping mechanism and that the depressive coping mechanism may actually change brain function.

Study Reveals Bias Toward Optimism

Article first published as Study Reveals Bias Toward Optimism on Technorati.

Nature Neuroscience published on October 9, 2011 the findings of a study conducted by researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London on the question of pervasive optimism. The scientists wanted to understand why people maintained optimism in spite of negative information and found that humans have “faulty” processing in their frontal lobes.

The study evaluated the MRI brain scans of 19 volunteers, who were tested on a wide range of 80 negative life events including family tragedies, major illnesses and violence. The volunteers were expected to estimate the probability of the event occurring to them, after which they were given the average probability. All participants recorded their final answers on a questionnaire.

The study showed that participants changed their initial estimates if the averages provided them with optimistic information.  If the average probabilities were worse, the participants made few to no adjustments in their initial estimate. The frontal lobe provided a clue. When participants were given optimistic probabilities their frontal lobe was very active in processing the information.  However, when presented with less favorable information, the frontal lobe was not as engaged. The frontal lobe governs emotions, impulse control and problem-solving.

Wellcome Trust’s press release offered this observation from Dr Sharot, one of the study’s researchers: “Our study suggests that we pick and choose the information that we listen to. The more optimistic we are, the less likely we are to be influenced by negative information about the future. This can have benefits for our mental health, but there are obvious downsides. Many experts believe the financial crisis in 2008 was precipitated by analysts overestimating the performance of their assets even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.”

Although many conclusions can be drawn from this study based on one’s inherent optimism of pessimism, pervasive optimism suggests an inherent bias towards our own survival.  It may also suggest that our bias may also be towards problem-solving rather than data.  If a participant thinks the less favorable averages are wrong, inapplicable or can be overcome then ignoring the negative average information makes sense.

Human optimism may be why we have come so far against great odds to create what we have.  Although there is no question that inappropriate optimism can be harmful as the study suggests, we are probably better off for being optimistic.

ADHD, Autism and Schizophrenia Link

A study out of Great Britain has shown that there is a link between, ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia. Scientists have demonstrated that these diseases have a genetic basis, that there are differences in the brain structure which lead to these developmental disorders.  The study published in The Lancet and reported in Science Daily in September, 2010,  “found that children with ADHD were more likely to have small segments of their DNA duplicated or missing than other children.”

These segments are called copy-number variants.  Copy-number variants are defined by Wikipedia as “are alterations of the DNA of a genome that results in the cell having an abnormal number of copies of one or more sections of the DNA.”  Apparently, these segments overlap in ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia, which means that ADHD can now be classified as a genetically based disorder like autism and schizophrenia.

Highly sensitive people often have genetically based diseases caused by abnormal fetal development.  Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between the stress experienced by the mother during pregnancy as the creation of an HSP with genetic disorders.  Many genetic diseases have existed for a long time in the human race, and as a result, they can be inherited as well.

There are many different kinds of copy-number variants or CNV’s some adding or deleting sections of the DNA. Apparently, individuals with ADHD had many unusual CNV’s in the DNA.  Changes in chromosome 16 are the cause of many brain disorders according to scientists and it is the presence of changes in this chromosome that have enabled scientists to propose that ADHD shares a genetic basis for its existence with other brain disorders.

Although these finding will call into question theories about ADHD being caused by food allergies or poor eating habits, it does not mean that ADHD sufferers cannot help themselves with healthy eating.  It may be even more important for ADHD sufferers to keep their bodies as toxin free as possible to minimize aggravation to their systems. Meditation, healthy food and herbal supplements may help facilitate a nervous system lifestyle and help bring ADHD problems under control.