Lizard brains

I don’t know that it’s this cut and dried (after all, look how optimistic the neocons were about the results of invading Iraq), but yes, I’d say that on the whole, the conservatives I know seem to be real bedwetters:

Political opinions are considered choices, and in Western democracies the right to choose one’s opinions — freedom of conscience — is considered sacrosanct.

But recent studies suggest that our brains and genes may be a major determining factor in the views we hold.

A study at University College London in the UK has found that conservatives’ brains have larger amygdalas than the brains of liberals. Amygdalas are responsible for fear and other “primitive” emotions. At the same time, conservatives’ brains were also found to have a smaller anterior cingulate — the part of the brain responsible for courage and optimism.

If the study is confirmed, it could give us the first medical explanation for why conservatives tend to be more receptive to threats of terrorism, for example, than liberals. And it may help to explain why conservatives like to plan based on the worst-case scenario, while liberals tend towards rosier outlooks.

“It is very significant because it does suggest there is something about political attitudes that are either encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that our brain structure in some way determines or results in our political attitudes,” Geraint Rees, the neurologist who carried out the study, told the media.

Rees, who heads up UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, was originally asked half-jokingly to study the differences between liberal and conservative brains for an episode of BBC 4’s Today show that was hosted by actor Colin Firth. But, after studying 90 UCL students and two British parliamentarians, the neurologist was shocked to discover a clear correlation between the size of certain brain parts and political views.

He cautions that, because the study was carried out only on adults, there is no way to tell what came first — the brain differences or the political opinions.

But evidence is beginning to accumulate that figuring out a person’s political proclivities may soon be as simple as a brain scan — or a DNA test.

6 thoughts on “Lizard brains

  1. Now there’s a use for the Genome Project. Identify the ‘Lizard Brain’ gene in utero and rid humanity of this plague.

  2. On a more serious note, it’s amazing and scary to realize that medical research is demonstrating that conservatives really are zombie mutants. Probably the reason conservatives hate science.

  3. I think that what is saying is that people who tend to respond more fearfully generally want things to stay the same and not change. Their reaction to the proposal of new things is an impulsive, “No!” People change their opinions with great reluctance and only after overwhelming pressure over time.

    The problem is that fear reactions bypass the rational brain and go directly to anger and fear. This can make people extremely dangerous when they are afraid, and some people are afraid most of the time. They get locked into fearful habits and become very scary irrational people who need to stay in absolute control of their environment.

    I wish I had the patience and understanding to be able to help such people or be sympathetic to them, but I don’t.

    See William James on the subject:

  4. I’d like to be subjected to this kind of test – along with my identical twin brother. He hates Obama with a passion that puzzles me. While I wish that Mr. Obama really was as liberal as his detractors claim… Go figure.

  5. But the amygdala is the source of positive emotions, as well as negative ones. And its size seems to be positively correlated with the size of ones circle of friends.

    The amygdala is in a newer part of the brain than the “lizard” brain, and is probably also the source of our good feelings about exhibiting altruistic behavior. I’d write a book about it if I could ever find a publisher.

    Still, I do believe there’s a lot of validity in the notion that the physical structure of our brain has a lot to do with political propensities.

    Carolyn Kay

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