The Science Of Protest: How Our Brains Are Wired To Fight For Our Rights

(Credit: Reuters/Robert Pratta/AP/Charlie Riedel)

The recent tragic events surrounding the deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the NYPD officers have struck a chord in a us all. However, today’s millennial generation of young people have taken to the streets more so than any other generation in recent history to express their feelings. Motivations, people’s beliefs, identity and emotions are key in generating a person’s willingness to protest. With or without social media, people who are deeply angry about an unjust situation, or who feel strongly connected with a particular issue, will always take to the streets.

Protest is defined as a form of collective action and as participation in a social movement. What is it that drives young people to protest? Why are young people prepared to sacrifice a comfortable and carefree lifestyle, or sometimes even their very lives for a common cause? The research team at NuSkool has found some scientific reasons why we fight for our rights that may have more to do with brain science than we realize. Science can’t always explain what’s in our hearts, but it can help us understand what motivates one of the greatest youth movements in history.
We are the risk takers and the rule breakers
Science has proven that teens and college students are really ‘bout that life. Scientists have used brain scanning methods to study the changes that occur in the teen brain. Recent discoveries have shown that teenagers have well-developed emotions and feelings and are more willing to do dangerous things an adult would avoid, this is due to the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for weighing risk and consequences in the teen brain. When experiencing an emotionally-charged situation like a tragedy in the community like Ferguson, the brain is handicapped in its ability to gauge risk and consider the consequences. In most situations, teens can evaluate risks just like adults. But in emotionally heightened real-life scenarios, this rational part of the brain gets overridden by the reward center. Racism, oppression and injustices in the community are definitely triggers for this kind of reaction. Our brains have a reward center, involving the nucleus accumbens, which lights up with dopamine whenever we find something exciting, interesting or meaningful. In a study comparing the brains of teens to adults, scientists found that teens need extreme situations in order to get excited.
We are natural born followers
News flash: peer pressure is actually a thing. Oxytocin receptors in a young brain makes teens highly responsive to the opinions of their peers. Studies find that the brain’s receptors for oxytocin has a strong influence on social bonding and affects our emotional and behavioral responses to social encouragement or peer pressure. When our peers become angry or emotional over a situation, this activates our own brain’s prefrontal areas in response to emotional and social stimuli. During this time, we also have heightened awareness toward the opinions of our friends, so much so that we imagine that our behavior is the focus of everyone else’s concern and attention.

According to a study, which examined brain scans of teens using fMRI data, the presence of friends activated certain regions of the brain that were not activated when they were alone that increased their willingness to take part in antisocial behavior. Being in the presence of friends also doubled risk-taking among young people in their 20’s, increased it by fifty percent among teens, but had no effect on adults, a pattern that was identical among both males and females. So the moral of the story is…choose your friends wisely.
We are a living, breathing social network
One of the strongest emotions in a teen’s life that pulls someone into joining a gang, a sports team or joining a social cause is the need to be a part of something bigger than oneself…joining a movement.

Chris McGrath—Getty Images

Research suggests that people who experience both personal and group oppression are the most strongly motivated to take to the streets. Being part of something bigger than yourself is very important to today’s generation. Any events that harm that group by definition harm the individual, and they find themselves experiencing emotions on behalf of the group. The more people feel that group’s interests or values are threatened, the angrier they are and the more they are prepared to take part in protests to express their anger. Collective anger moves people to challenge the authorities and subdue other emotions such as shame, despair and obedience. Participating in protests strengthens the collective power of that group, and feelings of unity and support empowers people to stand together against the authorities. However, taking action doesn’t always mean people expect that group-related problems can be solved by their united efforts. Protesters find a way to overcome their defeated hopes to eventually protest again and raise consciousness to create solidarity. Is it science?… eh, maybe not. Is it real?…you bet. Does it change the world?… absolutely.

Before you decide to join a protest and put yourself at risk to fight for a cause, ask yourself the following questions:

Who or what caused the event?
How does the event influence my goals?
Do I have control and power over the consequences of the event?
Who can I call for help if I’m in danger or if I get arrested?

Media

Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Lesson Plan

It is important for students to put the recent, racially charged events in a proper context. Students should understand the science behind why they feel so compelled to protest and voice their anger and frustration in response to recent injustices.

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Lesson tags: Baltimore, Black Lives Matter, Eleventh, Eric Garner, Featured, Ferguson, Freddie Gray, History, Pop Culture, racism, Science, Social Studies, Tenth, Twelfth

The NuSkool Team

The NuSkool Team The NuSkool editing team is made up of highly qualified educators, researchers and pop culture experts. The team works collaboratively to critically deconstruct pop culture and find the teachable moments in all forms of media and entertainment.