The brain science of being uncommon

Do suburban tract homes make your skin crawl?

Does it annoy you that so many people tend to do the exact same things, buy the same cars, dress the same way?

Are you a fish swimming against the current?

Deep within us there’s a strong impulse to conform, but it affects some people more than others.

On a good day, it allows us to bond and form tight groups so we can stay safe and content while curbing selfish impulses.

But there’s also a dark side, ranging from extreme examples of conforming to violent or self-destructive groups, to more benign experiences like staying within the lines even when you know you want something different.  

 

If you’re somebody that prefers to avoid trends rather than follow them, you’re left scratching your head about why others seem so comfortable with conformity and why you’re so different.

Or at least that’s how I felt … and why I’m so fascinated with this topic and the constant tug-of-war between pilot and autopilot that happens within each of us.

Until recently, not much was known about how this all plays out in the brain, but two studies from the past decade have finally shed some light.

 

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Our nonconformity can be observed

In 2009, Dr Vasily Klucharev of the FC Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging in the Netherlands used fMRI brain scans to show increased activity in specific centers of the brain (the rostral cingulate zone and the ventral striatum) when test subjects decided to conform, and less when they did not.

The subjects were asked to rate the attractiveness of faces seen in photographs, and then they were deliberately encouraged to change their minds based on what the majority of the group thought. 

The researchers expected to see a “prediction error” signal in the brain – which has been witnessed in studies of reinforcement learning and happens when there’s a difference between the outcome you expect and the outcome you witness – and that’s exactly what they saw.

 

Those that conformed the most had the strongest conflict-related signals. They expected their opinions to be similar to everyone else, and quickly altered their answers (and possibly their opinions) to realign to their expectations.

 

Our nonconformity can be manipulated 

In 2011, our crusading neuroscientist Dr. Klucharev was back and leading a group from the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

This time, they showed that you can actually manipulate the tendency towards conformity by using Transcranial Electromagnetic Stimulation (TMS) in the posterior medial frontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with reward processing.

 

Test subjects exposed to the magnetic pulses were less likely to conform when presented with a “face attractiveness” conflict like the kind created in the 2009 study.

The researchers think that by inhibiting this part of the brain, subjects felt less affected by the conflict, allowing them to think and behave differently.

 

What this means for us

To sum up, Dr. Klucharev is quoted as saying, “Individuals differ in the strength of the error signal – which is why some people are more conformist than others.”

He believes that we can now focus on uncovering “behavioral techniques that modulate activity … without any physical intervention. Hopefully, with help of these, techniques someone would be able to partly immune themselves to ‘group pressure'.”

Figuring out those techniques and using them to fully develop our 'uncommonness' is a huge part of what we're doing here at The Uncommon Way. 

 

Here's to an inhibited error signal,

Jenna

 

P.S. What are your favorite techniques for lessening the effects of group pressure? Leave a comment so we all can benefit and discuss!