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The neurological basis of aggressive behavior

The neurological basis of aggressive behavior

June 12, 2024

Every day in the media there are scandalous cases of crimes, aggressions and excessive violence . Today we know that the environment in which a person grows and evolves and the same systems that shape it directly condition their development, but, and if we ask ourselves, what happens at the neurological level for a person to develop more aggressive behaviors than another maid and educated in the same environment? In this article we answer this question

An aggressive person shows activity in certain areas of the brain

The hypothalamus, testosterone and serotonin have starred for years the main avenues of investigation in relation to aggression, but to this day Different works have shown how the stimulation exerted on the amygdala activates aggressive emotional reactions in the subject , as well as inhibition of them when acting on the prefrontal cortex.


At the ontological level, the maturation of the prefrontal cortex is posterior to that of the amygdala, which leads the individual to acquire, in a later stage, the necessary competencies for abstract reasoning, to make changes in the attentional focus or even to develop the ability to inhibit inappropriate responses, such as the control of aggression, among others.

The greater the volume of the prefrontal cortex, the less aggressive behavior

Already in the late 1990s it was suggested that greater activity in the amygdala led to greater negative behavior, including increased aggression, while a decrease in the activity of the prefrontal cortex offered less ability to exercise control over one's emotions .


It was a study conducted by Whittle et al. (2008) in adolescents, which finally concluded that the greater the volume of the prefrontal cortex the less aggressive behaviors were perceived in the boys and contrarily in the case of the amygdala, a larger volume responded to offer more aggressive and reckless behavior at the same time.

When Anthony Hopkins plays the character of Hannibal Lecter in The silence of the lambs, shows an unusual temperament for a murderer, far from transmitting an impulsive and emotional personality, it stands out for having a profile, calculating, cold and extremely rational, which escapes the explanation we are offering.

The white matter in the prefrontal cortex and its relation to aggressiveness

So far we have seen an increase in the activity of the amygdala and a decrease on the prefrontal cortex is ideal to describe a more impulsive personality, little reflective and even with little capacity in emotional management itself but how can we explain the typical characteristics of Hannibal?


In 2005, Yang et al. found that a decrease in the white matter of the prefrontal cortex responded to a decrease in cognitive resources , both to persuade or manipulate other people, and to make decisions at specific moments. Keeping intact the white substance would explain why Hannibal and other murderers with their same characteristics are able to control their behavior so masterfully, to make appropriate decisions in complex situations, always for their own benefit and to the point of getting rid of the authority .

Serotonin is key to understanding aggressive behavior

As we said at the beginning, serotonin also has a fundamental role in this topic, specifically, a decrease in their activity is directly related to the aggression and with the implementation of risk behaviors. In 2004, New et al. showed that treatment with SSRIs (selective inhibitors of serotonin reuptake) increased the activity of the prefrontal cortex, and at the end of the year the aggressive behaviors of individuals were considerably reduced.

In summary, we can highlight how an increase in serotonergic activity would increase the activity of the prefrontal cortex, which would cause the inhibition of the activity of the amygdala and consequently the aggressive behaviors.

We are not slaves of our biology

Even knowing that the brain is not a determining factor in the modulation of aggression and of such behaviors by itself, it is thanks to the advances and numerous studies that we can explain its mechanism to what the neurological process is concerned. Guido Frank, scientist and physicist at the University of California, points out that Biology and behavior are susceptible to change and that, by combining a good therapy process and adequate individualized control, the progress of each individual can be modified.

Ultimately, as neurologist Craig Ferris of Boston's Northeastern University in the United States points out, we must keep in mind that "we are not completely slaves to our biology."


The Chemical Mind - Crash Course Psychology #3 (June 2024).


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