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Born To Lead? Monkey Brains Give You the Answer

13/01/2015 16:10 GMT | Updated 15/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Why do some people turn into leaders while others prefer to take orders? While human-beings have asked themselves this question for decades, monkeys could turn out to be the ones holding the key. A recent study from Oxford University now reveals that monkeys have specialised brains reflecting their position in the social hierarchy, but one question still remains: Are the dominant monkeys born with their special abilities or do they take form as a result of the environment in which they were born? An interesting question -and not just for monkeys.

A scientific study from Oxford University made an interesting discovery about macaque monkeys, their brains and its relation to their position in the social hierarchy. According to the study, monkeys seem to have specialised brains that indicates whether they are a leader or a follower, which means that particular brain areas were bigger in dominant monkeys while other areas were larger in submissive monkeys. Furthermore, social position affected the monkeys' brain activity. Those findings could mean that primate's brains can be specialised for life in either end of the hierarchy. So what's so interesting about this knowledge?

Animus Dominandi: When animals wants power

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Image courtesy of Sonja Pauen

Until recently scientists have had a lot of knowledge about the mechanisms of social status in species such as mice. However, primates have until recently been a mystery. Of course, we all know about the pecking order, a phenomenon that has been studied in many animals and which is painfully visible in school yards across the world with queen bees and bullies keeping their classmates in place. Even among adults a pecking order is not far away. All animals have hierarchies and for humans it's all around us; the work place, social groups, families, governments and militaries. But what if people at the bottom want power?

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Image courtesy of FosterFoto

'Animus Dominandi' is a Latin saying used by old political scholars to describe humans' desire to dominate their surroundings in order to obtain power - a job that is far more difficult for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Sometimes social orders can be so dominant that it requires unique skills to climb from one position to another, which is why strategic planning and intelligence is a must. Among monkeys ones position determines which mates are available and it affects their access to food - so if a monkey wishes to fight their way up they need to be tough. And if we are to believe the new study from Oxford, the fight and the after-match is related to parts of the brain, as leading and following requires a different set of skills; powerful monkeys are strong strategists, their followers might not be.

What drives social status?

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Image courtesy of Magnetismus

Brain science can be tricky and is far from easy to understand. However, let's learn a bit more about the recent study and its relation to primates and social status. Dr MaryAnn Noonan from Oxford University led a research team and spent time with 25 macaque monkeys learning all about their behaviour and fascinating social structures. When monkeys are navigating around a complex hierarchy, social cognitive functions are required in the brain for strategic social behaviour. These are mediated by specific neural circuits.

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Image courtesy of Liz Henry

The goal of the study was to find out more about how the brain is organised when it comes to individual social status within groups in order to learn more about what drives social status. Surprisingly, the brains turned out to be seemingly different among the monkeys across the social hierarchy. A particular network of brain areas were bigger in dominant animals compared to those at the bottom of the pecking order. Whether these differences were a result of heritance or something that develops as result of their social position still remains uncertain.

This is only first step

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Image courtesy of Kevin Dooley

So we have now established that dominant hierarchies affect primates in ways beyond imagining, leading to psychical changes in the size of brain networks. But we don't know why. There are still major questions to be answered if we are to discover more about social status and its effects on primates. How do these brain networks contribute to our social lives? Answering this question could help develop new innovative treatments for social disorders, but it could also unlock secrets about the animal kingdom as a whole. One thing remains a fact: Hierarchies and dominance is something that all animals must deal with, but its existence might have consequences in our brains.

The findings were published on the 2nd of September in the journal 'PLOS Biology'. Read the full report here.

Fancy doing your own surveys in the animal kingdom and experience the complex hierarchies on your own? Then volunteer in wildlife conservation all over the globe and gain more knowledge whilst helping endangered species survive.

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