Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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What's Buggin You Now?





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Social butterflies of the human kind

a group of butterflies

If you have a bigger amygdala than other people you might just be the kind of person known as a social butterfly. At least that is what recently reported research from Northeastern University in Boston suggested.

I'll admit it - I didn't even know I had an amygdala! Oh, I might have learned about in some human anatomy class years ago, but if I did I have forgotten. At any rate I certainly didn't have any notion of whether my amygdala is any bigger than that of anyone else.

So what is the amygdala anyway? Well, it is one of two very small almond-shaped and pea-sized groups of nuclei hidden deep within the folded hemispheres of the brain cortex. And what does it do? It appears that the amygdala is associated with aggressive behavior and what has become known as the "fight or flight" response associated with fear.

And that is why there is a connection between the amygdala and the behavior of people who are sometimes called social butterflies. Social butterfly is a term often used to describe folks who are extroverted and comfortable in social situations. The Northeastern University research shows that such individuals possess a large amygdala. Larger, at least, than the same structure in people who clearly are not as social - the wall flowers among us.

Exactly how the concept of social butterfly came about is not clear. However, the descriptive terms social butterfly and flapper appear to share similar origins. Historically, the word flapper has been used to describe the wing action of fledgling birds learning to fly. But relative to humans, flapper has a negative connotation. As far back as the 1600s the term flap described a young prostitute, a depiction that continued into the 1900s in England. Dr. R. Murray-Leslie of England tied the two terms together when referring to women in the World War I workforce: "the social butterfly type...the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper..."

The word flapper gained widespread usage in the United States in the 1920s, beginning with the movie “The Flapper” starring Olive Thomas. Flappers were brash young women who flaunted their disdain for acceptable behavior by the way they dressed and acted. At the same time the term social butterfly surfaced in reference to a person, normally a woman, who gained success and popularity by being in the right place at the right time. In the case of a woman it might also have meant dating many men.

Why was the concept of a social butterfly applied to women more than to men? It probably reflected the attitude of the times relative to the role of women in society. The term flapper was used exclusively in reference to women who obviously were bending the gender restrictions of the times. This was frequently the case with women who were called social butterflies as well. However, when the term first came into use, it applied to both men and women.

One example of a man being called a social butterfly is a 1910 book by Indiana author George Barr McCutcheon. The book “The Butterfly Man” features Sedgewick Blynn, a man described as one who "…gossiped delightfully and never promiscuously. He knew all the scandal, but he was wise enough and strong enough to whisper it into one ear at a time." The butterfly man in McCutcheon's book is a vamp who goes from party to party and charms the women as he goes.

The human social butterfly is an analogy of a real butterfly flitting from flower to flower. So how accurate is the analogy? Butterflies do flit from flower to flower as they seek nectar for their food. This behavior is obvious to anyone who has watched butterflies in a bed of flowers or in a field of clover blossoms. On the other hand calling a butterfly a social creature is an error. There are some types of insects that are social - some bees, some wasps, and all ants and termites - but not butterflies.

So if it is the size of the amygdala that determines social butterfly behavior of humans, how can some insects be social when they don't even possess an amygdala? Something for you social butterflies to ponder!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox