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Why Politics Makes Your Head Hurt

How do your brain functions affect your politics?

Image: Brain activity

It’s pretty clear there are times when liberals and conservatives simply do not comprehend what the other side is saying. It’s as if they are unable to mentally process their counterparts' words. And recent research by groups of political and neuroscientists indicates this may not be too far from the truth.

Click here to see the video of this blog.

The Tried-and-True Approach

The conventional perspective on where we get our political orientations (e.g., our liberalism and conservatism) says that our parents play the primary role. As little ones we run around the house and hear our beloved/admired/respected mom and/or dad talk to the TV, to themselves, or to each other about “those darned blankety blanks” from the other political team and/or “our completely reasonable leaders” from our political team.

Not that we know what the political teams or issues are, just that we know one political team is preferred by people we love and want to grow up to be like. This is the long-held and conventional idea of parental political socialization, which suggests our brains are clean slates that become etched with the political values of our parents through their intentional and unintentional teachings.

The Young Whippersnappers

But evidence is emerging for a couple of perspectives indicating that our brains are not that clean a slate. I told you last year about research suggesting a connection between political ideology and right-brain/left-brain interconnectivity (i.e., “cerebral interhemispheric interaction”), which seems to manifest itself by how consistently a person uses only one versus either hand for ever day tasks (fascinating research, see my PT post “On One Hand You’re an Authoritarian, on the Other Hand You’re Not”). At least part of the logic was that the physical structure of the connection between the two hemispheres makes a difference.

Other recent research also suggests there’s a difference in the structure of brains of liberals and conservatives. Ryota Kanai at the University College London and colleagues in 2011 found the structures (i.e., amount of gray matter) of brain regions involved in the processing of risk and uncertainty (the right amygdala, left insula, right entorhinal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex [ACC]) differed in liberals and conservatives. In other words, liberals and conservatives seem to possess different infrastructures for processing risk and uncertainty (specifically, liberals have a more powerful ACC and conservatives a more powerful amygdala).

The latest perspective to emerge looks at brain function. A group of political and neuroscientists led by Darren Schreiber at the University of Exeter looked at the processing that occurs within the structures identified by Kanai’s research group. They had research subjects play a standard risk-taking game (i.e., a gambling-like game) while imaging their brains with an fMRI. Risk taking is thought to be one of the key distinguishing features between the two political ideologies.

They found that although liberal and conservative subjects demonstrated the same level of risk-taking behavior, liberal (actually Democratic) subjects showed greater brain activity in their left insula (see Panels A and B in the figure below), while conservative (actually Republican) subjects showed greater activity in their right amygdala (see Panels C and D in the figure below).

Image: Schreiber et al. (2013) brain image with locations.

How Do They Measure Up?

With three explanations for the source of our political ideology (parental political socialization, brain structure, and brain function), it's reasonable to compare them to get an idea of which one makes the most sense. We political scientists love party identification (it’s amazing how much of our political behavior it predicts), so Schreiber’s team reports how well their brain-function approach predicts their subjects’ partisanship versus how well the brain-structure and political socialization approaches predict it.

They say political socialization, as measured by mom’s and dad’s party identification, predicts a person’s partisanship with 70% accuracy. They also note the Kanai team found brain structure predicts with 72% accuracy. And finally, they report their brain-function approach predicts, drum roll please, with 83% accuracy.

It’s pretty clear measuring the brain activity of lots of voters is not going to be an everyday tool for political organizations and operatives, at least for the foreseeable future. But that is a fairly large increase in predictive accuracy. More importantly, this research does provide reasonably compelling evidence that liberals and conservatives experience distinct biological processes when completing a politically related task. Further, it gives us more insight into what exactly we mean when we talk about a person's ideology, which may be slightly different than the standard view of involving the realms of economic and social issues.

Aha, My Brain Pain!

Now I think I have an idea about why my brain hurts when watching politics. It’s not that my neurons are being assaulted by screaming liberals and conservatives, although that doesn't help, it's that I’m a fairly middle-of-the-road political guy with my right amygdala fighting with my left insula for control of my brain…

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For more information see:

Schreiber et al. 2013. "Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans." PLoS ONE 8(2): e52970. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052970.

Kanai et al. 2011. “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults.” Current Biology 21(8): 677-680.

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