White matter matters
Quantifying the living human brain isn’t an easy task, particularly when it comes to elusive and difficult to measure high cognitive functions such as behavior, empathy, humanity, and humility. (Yes, I am referring to Meghan Markle). Recently, scientists used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to examine how individual differences in behavior might compare to white matter structure and connectivity.
White matter is the tissue through which messages pass between different areas of grey matter within the brain.
A team of researchers from China came to an intriguing conclusion and published the findings in the International Journal of Neuroscience. The team matched 19 young males (median age of 18 years old) who scored high on the Pathological Narcissism Inventory (PNI) test, with similar age young males scoring low.
The PNI is a self-reported test to measure dimensions of pathological narcissism. You can access and test (link) your narcissistic score on a scale of 1 to 40 to determine whether or not you score high on Entitlement Rage, Exploitativeness, Grandiose Fantasy, Self-sacrificing, Self-enhancement, and Contingent Self-esteem Hiding the Self Devaluing.
Researchers found that the integrity of white matter microstructure in the corpus callosum (CC) — the most prominent white matter structure in the human brain that connects the right and left hemispheres — appears to predict PNI score. Individuals scoring high on PNI have decreased brain white matter microstructures and connection pathways of white matter.
The abnormal white matter brain regions may be one of the neuropathological basis of narcissism.
The connections of white matter develop early in life. The first three years of a newborn’s brain’s life go through increased myelination and axonal packing. This timeframe encourages rapid microstructural white matter development of an infant. By the age of 25, normative brain development is almost complete. White matter development is fast in the first two years and progresses more slowly to as late as 30 years in humans. How the process will go on is presumably defined at birth; however, specific training may interfere with the process. Newborns can not speak, but the neural basis for learning how to communicate is assumed to be present at birth.
One of the most frustrating features of narcissism is a narcissist’s inability to self-reflect on their behavior. The narcissist is unable to have an objective view of him or herself. Introspection (ability to examine one’s conscious thoughts and feelings) about self-performance has been linked to white matter microstructure in the prefrontal cortex.
An abundance of white matter is a striking feature of the brain’s frontal regions. Here are some “higher” cognitive functions that the white matter processes. The frontal lobe is ultimately responsible for executive functions that include planning, organizing, initiating, and self-monitoring. Some well-known tests exist within cognitive psychology to subjectively measure executive functions. Eriksen’s flanker task, for example, is designed to tap into mental ability to have cognitive control. Exploring individual differences in the white matter of corpus callosum showed a correlation between the white matter structure and cognitive ability.
The good news is that certain activities can restore the white matter connections. Royal Air Force pilots and matched populations without flight expertise were tested using the flanker task. According to the article coming from the University of Cambridge, juggling exercise in inexperienced individuals improved white matter connectivity and influence cognitive ability. At the baseline, the white matter was significantly different between pilots and the controls; however, after a six-week training period on juggling, a significant increase in white matter microstructure was found.
Maybe taking a drumming class or getting juggling practice will be enjoyable and also be helpful in reconnecting with humility, humanity, and disengaging from the high narcissistic tendencies our society is struggling with?