Thursday, January 22, 2015

The differences in liberal and conservative brains


Is political affiliation determined by biology?

Since humans first walked upright, we have been disagreeing on how to hunt, how to raise our children, and who should be the tribal chieftain. The answer to how we identify with different political ideologies and different religious beliefs may be literally in our heads.
New scientific studies using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans reveal much of what we think is important politically may be greatly influenced by the physiology of our brains. Using these fMRI brain scans and observing what areas of the brain people used during stressful tests, researchers were able to predict what a person's political affiliation was with 71% accuracy.
With the new scientific discoveries, we may be some day be able to understand why some people seem to be ruled by fear, why some people seem to lack compassion for others, and why we all just can't seem to get along.
Remember, these people in these studies were self-identified as conservative and liberal, not Democratic or Republican. Not all conservatives are Republicans, and not all Liberals are Democrats.


How  does the amygdala influence political ideology?

The shaded area is the amygdala. It is part of the
 social brain which regulates fear
The amygdala consists of two almond shaped regions in each hemisphere of the brain. (Amygdala is Latin for almond.) The left amygdala is associated with cognitive thinking and the right amygdala is linked to a persons perceptions of fear and pleasure. The size of the amygdala is directly proportional to the amount of aggression in animals and humans. The larger the right amygdala, the more aggressive an individual is.
Scientists studying the brain found people who identified themselves as conservatives had a larger amygdala on the right side, the area of the brain which is associated with disgust and susceptibility to fear.
According to researcher Kanai of the Kanai/Colin Firth study (Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, 2011), "Conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions..."


Does size matter? (The amygdala's size, that is.)

Rose McDermott is one of the people who researched the link between a person's fear level and his political beliefs. The study revealed that people who identified themselves as more conservative tended to be more fearful and less tolerant of people who were of another race. They were also more tolerant of inequality, and reacted with more emotion when exposed to threatening pictures.
McDermott clarifies, "It's not that conservative people are more fearful, it's that fearful people are more conservative."
Is the larger size of the amygdala in self-identified conservatives responsible for this greater fear and xenophobia?


Which came first, the fear or the enlarged amygdala?

One researcher at the University of Exeter in the U.K,, Darren Schreiber believes that the size of one's amygdala may be related to one's life experiences. That is, experiencing fear and traumatic experiences may increase the size of the amygdala. If that is the case, having a larger amygdala may be the result of a person being fearful through some part of his life, probably childhood or young adulthood. The enlarged amygdala may be the symptom, not the cause.
If, on the other hand, the size of a person's amygdala is determined at birth, that means that life experiences and education will probably not affect a person's level of fear perception.
The exaggerated level of imagined threats may be why conservatives are big on defense, anti-immigration, anti-gun control, and anti-gay rights. Conservatives may see the world as a scary, threatening place, liberals not so much.


What influence does gray matter have on the thought processes?

Sagittal MRI slice with highlighting indicating
the location of the anterior cingulate cortex.
 Liberals have more gray matter.
Source: Geoff B Hal
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is one of the four main divisions of the cingulate cortex. The ACC performs many functions from regulating heart rate and blood pressure to regulating our conscious decisions regarding decision making, empathy, impulse control, and reward anticipation. During times of stress, the ACC regulates how much emotional arousal a person exhibits.
People who suffer from schizophrenia have abnormally functioning ACCs, and are unable to process the "importance" of information received by the brain. When all information is treated as equally important, rational thinking is impaired. Psychopaths in general have abnormally small ACCs.
During the fMRI study, participants who identified themselves as liberals had more gray matter in the ACC. It is theorized that the greater size of the ACC helps the individual to make calmer, more rational decisions in chaotic situations, and to be less aggressive. The liberals were more flexible and able to adapt when confronted with change in the experiments.

So, what does this all mean?

By analyzing the data, we can theorize that liberals are more likely to accept analytical data and scientific proof, and to reason problems out. Conservatives are more emotion based and more resistant to change, seemingly unshakeable in their beliefs.
Much more research is needed before we know if our political beliefs are formed early in our life, or if it is a physiological based ideology which cannot be changed. What scientists do know is that are brains change even tiny bits every time we do something active, be it thinking, reading, reading or exercising.
Is this why liberals tend to be more educated then their conservative counterparts? Or does education make people more liberal? Can a conservative's belief in a strict definition of morality and patriotism be related to their upbringings? With the advance of imaging machines which allow us to "peek" inside people's heads, we may someday know the answer.


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