Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Andrea Kuszewski - Your Brain on Politics

Andrea Kuszewski writes for Discover Magazine, where this article also appeared, and she is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a researcher investigating the neuro-cognitive factors behind human behavior. This is interesting stuff - when people first began to identify general personality differences between liberals and conservatives, the idea received a lot of derision. But it's harder to refute neuroscience and brain differences.

Obviously, these are generalizations, but there is an emerging pattern here.

Your Brain on Politics: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Liberals and Conservatives

Andrea Kuszewski

The Intersection

Posted: Oct 7, 2011

Can neuroscience provide evidence for a liberal and a conservative thinking style?

It may seem like a stretch to say that one could predict whether you lean left or right by looking at a brain scan—no questions asked, no opinions voiced—purely based on your neuroanatomy. However, this might not be too far from reality—at least insofar as predicting thinking style, which has been shown to be somewhat distinct based on party association.

Does brain structure determine your beliefs, or do your beliefs change your brain structure? What about those who switch parties at some point? How do they fit in to this model? We’ll be discussing all of this. It’s a complicated issue with lots of variables in play, so we’re going to take a pretty deep look into this topic from all angles, so we can draw the most accurate conclusions.

Please keep in mind from the beginning that this is not an endorsement of any one political party. This is science—we’ll just be discussing the data. Ready?

Let’s begin…

Recent converging studies are showing that liberals tend to have a larger and/or more active anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC—useful in detecting and judging conflict and error—and conservatives are more likely to have an enlarged amygdala, where the development and storage of emotional memories takes place. More than one study has shown these same results, which is why I felt it was worth investigating.

A few questions to keep in mind: If these differences do legitimately exist, how can we—or, better yet—how should we use this knowledge? How can insight gained from research of this kind prove helpful in the quest for more effective communication across party lines? Can empathy and understanding of personality differences, without judgments or stereotyping, aid in the productivity of political debates around topics such as climate change or evolution?

A Few Clarifications

The idea of a genetic or a neurological difference between liberals and conservatives is a hot topic of debate. Chris Mooney has already covered quite a bit of it on his blog. Consequently, there has been a lot of thorough criticism of these converging studies—the methods, types of subjects, error bars, the flaws in design, sample size, etc, etc, ad nauseam, ad infinitum. But more research keeps cropping up that shows this same trend, so I feel at this point we should be thinking a little more about what this all means in the big picture.

Maybe each study has some flaws—I can probably find a few things in every study that could be improved upon. I also know the danger of over-applying and over-generalization of results like these to an entire population, or assuming that a group tendency necessarily applies to every single person in that group. Correlations are also not the same as causation. So I get it. I don’t want MRI scans to become the phrenology of politics any more than you do.

But let’s not lose sight of the big picture here.

Like Chris has mentioned, some of these correlations between brain function/anatomy and specific political party are consistent across multiple studies, of varying design and methodology, over years of research. That tells me something. The exact analysis or interpretation of the individual studies might not be 100% correct as stated in those papers, but there is obviously apattern, and that’s what I’m most interested in. In cases like these I tend to look more at the data and pay less attention to the analyses, drawing my own conclusions from the data across all the studies. One paper may not have all the answers, but I think there is enough mounting evidence in the stack of literature that we can start (carefully) drawing some conclusions.

The study-specific nitpicking already has been done—quite marvelously, I might add—so I won’t be doing that here. What I will do is look at the pattern across several of these papers and talk about what this implies in the larger scheme of things.
This is only the introduction to the longer article, so go read the whole thing.

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