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Scientists discover a switch in your brain that turns you into a big, bad alpha male

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Gary Ogden
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All these things currently describe me: big shot, cock of the walk, big man on campus, head honcho, big cheese, Hogen Mogen, big enchilada, high muck-a-muck, top dog, big time operator, the hoomy-homy-honk-a-bonk donkey. Basically I’m saying I’m an alpha male – I walk into the room and everyone else evaporates. I have certainly never done anything awkward or beta like accidentally saying “beers” as I left a job interview because I couldn’t decide whether to say “bye” or “cheers”, no siree. I’m supremely confident and always know exactly what to say and do in any given situation.

Anyway, do you want to know why I, and other alpha males, are like this? Well, it’s all to do with our heads. And there’s hope for all your Negative Nancys out there – scientists have found a “switch” in the brain that “turns on” dominant capabilities in test subjects. 

The research, published in the journal Science, involved putting two mice, facing each other, in a small plastic tube and forcing one to push the other out, therefore asserting their dominance. There’s a hierarchy present in mice communities – usually alphas lead the way, and lower-ranked members follow – however, the scientists discovered how to usurp this. A brain region, called the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) was known to light up during social situations which required dominance and assertion, and as Professor Hailan Hu, a neuroscientist at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, says:

“We stimulate this brain region and we can make lower ranked mice move up the social ladder.”

So basically, they artificially activated this region (shone a bloody laser into their tiny mouse brains, if you’re asking), and BANG, mean-machine mice that will most certainly come and have a go because they think they’re hard enough.

Hu added: “It’s not aggressiveness per se. It increases their perseverance, motivational drive, grit.”

So they buzzed the wet mice, stuck ‘em back in the push-tube, and would you have it – the previously wussy ones were now badmen. The hitherto subordinate mice won the game 90% of the time against the original OG mice that would have beaten them before.

The other interesting thing is, even after calming down following their big win in the kiss-cylinder, some of the mice remained dominant outside of the game – the scientists noticed that they were strutting around, jutting their heads forward at the lower-ranked mice, sometimes even squeaking “nerd” at them. Hu said:

“We observed that not all the mice returned to their original rank. Some mice [did], but some of them had this newly dominant position.”

But so what? Who cares if mice are getting above their station now?

Well, it could help understand the human brain too, particularly psychiatric conditions where people exhibit overly dominant behaviours, or lack motivation to compete socially. Of course, mice have different brains, and different social constructs to us humans, but the way that certain neural circuits relate to social behaviour can be explored off the back of this (it’s called optogenetics, FYI).

It could also help fuel the hypothesis that success in certain areas of life could lead to rewards in others – confidence builds, basically. It’s called the “winner effect”, and it’s certainly something I’m very familiar with. I’ve certainly never shut down a computer game and never played it ever again because the very first enemy surprised and killed me, nope, no way. I just-a-keep on winning, baby.

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Gary Ogden

Shortlist writer and "the least woke person in the office", Gary Ogden, likes horror movies, Cheestrings, tapping his leg under the desk, "having a drink", PDAs, not having eczema anymore, hiding from responsibility, screaming into the mirror whenever he is alone, and assorted other things. Mainly the eczema thing though. @garyblogden

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