Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Republican Brain Smash Risk!

Republicans and Democrats don't just think differently, they actually use their brains differently:
We explore differences in brain function in liberals and conservatives by matching publicly-available voter records to 82 subjects who performed a risk-taking task during functional imaging. Although the risk-taking behavior of Democrats (liberals) and Republicans (conservatives) did not differ, their brain activity did. Democrats showed significantly greater activity in the left insula, while Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala. In fact, a two parameter model of partisanship based on amygdala and insula activations yields a better fitting model of partisanship than a well-established model based on parental socialization of party identification long thought to be one of the core findings of political science. These results suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when they think about risk, and they support recent evidence that conservatives show greater sensitivity to threatening stimuli.
That's from "Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans," by Darren Schreiber, Greg Fonzo, Alan N. Simmons, Christopher T. Dawes, Taru Flagan, James H. Fowler, and Martin P. Paulus. Just to be clear, the finding is that Democrats tend to use the insula, which is used in the monitoring of one's internal feelings, when assessing risk, while Republicans tend to use the amygdala, which is the brain's threat response center, for the same task.

Chris Mooney explains the causality involved:
Current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences and changes your brain. The causal arrow seems likely to run in both directions—which would make sense in light of what we know about the plasticity of the brain. Simply by living our lives, we change our brains. Our political affiliations, and the lifestyles that go along with them, probably condition many such changes.


  1. But isn't this an over-explanation of sorts to contemporary American political divides? "Liberal" and "conservative" denote something very specific ideologically within our current context. Go back more than one generation and they have significantly different meanings. Go to another society besides the US and they have majorly different resonances, associations, and attributes as well. Neuroscience is too general and can't account for those historical, cultural, and local differences. Is the implication really that Americans have a certain sort of brain chemistry because of their particular interaction between environmental experiences and genes -- one that significantly different from 1950s Americans or contemporary French or Japanese people, etc.?

  2. I would say it's okay to conflate Democrat/liberal and Republican/conservative for such a study in modern (post-1990) U.S. politics. They match up quite well. But you're right -- what they're really looking at here is ideology rather than party, and these labels wouldn't map well onto another country or an earlier U.S.

  3. What about black religious fundamentalists? Or an entrepreneur and is upset by government regulation and high business taxes but is pro-choice? It sounds like they started with the assumption that "liberal" and "conservative" are logical and moral groupings that could be represented in the brain differently. I think it's a great concept that will sell a lot of books. After all, how would they come up with this idea and go to all the trouble of doing the research if they did't start with a notion of doing a story and selling books. It doesn't seem like something they could have discovered it by accident. But then again I haven't read the book.