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political orientation correlated with brain structure
June 5, 2011 8:58 PM   Subscribe

Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, Ryota Kanai, Tom Feilden, Colin Firth, Geraint Rees. Current Biology - 26 April 2011 (Vol. 21, Issue 8, pp. 677-680) [Full text .pdf]
  • Political liberalism and conservatism were correlated with brain structure
  • Liberalism was associated with the gray matter volume of anterior cingulate cortex
  • Conservatism was associated with increased right amygdala size
  • Results offer possible accounts for cognitive styles of liberals and conservatives

  • Colin Firth's co-authorship explained here, here and here (in his own words).
    posted by wilful (45 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

     
    Salient points: Political orientation was a scalar of self-report, and the participants were Londoners.
    posted by elektrotechnicus at 9:03 PM on June 5, 2011


    amygdala - A primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions.

    Anterior cingulate cortex - rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy and emotion.

    Makes sense. Liberals are more developed empathy (obvious), conservatives are more developed emotional reactions (think of those excitable Fox News commentators).
    posted by stbalbach at 9:07 PM on June 5, 2011


    anterior cingulate cortex

    amygdala
    posted by warbaby at 9:09 PM on June 5, 2011


    Specifically, it requires a longitudinal study to determine whether the changes in brain structure that we observed lead to changes in political behavior or whether political attitudes and behavior instead result in changes of brain structure.


    Chicken or egg? Not sure if political beliefs alter the brain or the brain determines political beliefs. Stay tuned, the longitudinal study should take about 10-15 years.
    posted by warbaby at 9:17 PM on June 5, 2011


    A couple Wikipedia highlights (as linked numerously above)


    "Many studies attribute functions such as error detection, anticipation of tasks, motivation, and modulation of emotional responses to the anterior cingulate cortex"


    "The amygdala processes reactions to violations concerning personal space ... Additional studies have shown a link between the amygdala and schizophrenia, noting that the right amygdala is significantly larger than the left in schizophrenic patients"


    Hmmm.
    posted by CynicalKnight at 9:24 PM on June 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


    amygdala - A primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions.
    Specifically, fear.
    posted by Flunkie at 9:24 PM on June 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


    Usually funding a study doesn't get you co-authorship...
    posted by maryr at 9:27 PM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


    I didn't realise earlier but Tom Feilden is the Today show science journalist, not a neuroscientist. Here is his BBC blog.
    posted by wilful at 9:31 PM on June 5, 2011


    Speaking as a neuroscience student, let's please not read too much into a single study on a very contentious subject.
    posted by Nomyte at 9:40 PM on June 5, 2011 [16 favorites]


    Maybe we can ask David Mamet to weigh in on this topic.
    posted by effluvia at 9:46 PM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Maybe we can ask David Mamet to weigh in on this topic.

    Sorry the allusion is passing me by...
    posted by wilful at 9:48 PM on June 5, 2011


    amygdala - A primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions.

    Anterior cingulate cortex - rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy and emotion.


    Clearly one of these is the bad kind of emotion, and I'm willing to bet it's the one associated with not me!
    posted by shakespeherian at 9:49 PM on June 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


    Shakespeherian - I know what you're saying, and frankly I think that studies like these are pointless, but there is a significant difference between feeling an emotion and reacting emotionally. One is internal and one is external.
    posted by tzikeh at 9:55 PM on June 5, 2011


    Speaking as a neuroscience student, let's please not read too much into a single study on a very contentious subject.

    Speaking as a rational human being, let's please keep this advice in mind whenever any new science is posted.
    posted by Seiten Taisei at 9:59 PM on June 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


    I thought conservatism was the result of prions. This would explain Mamet's cognitive decline.
    posted by Xoebe at 10:02 PM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Liberals think this is obvious.
    Conservatives are a little frightened of the implications.
    posted by mwalimu at 10:33 PM on June 5, 2011 [17 favorites]


    Conservatives claim the "brain" is lie propagated by the liberal elite, mainstream media and upper west side espresso sipping blame-America-firsters. If god wanted us to have brains he would have given us brains, ain't no mention of brains in the bible.
    posted by Ad hominem at 11:07 PM on June 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


    What about the Crockus? And Shatner’s Bassoon?
    posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:08 PM on June 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


    The ACC wears a lot of hats. It's not just about empathy. For example, it also lights up when you feel like you're being socially excluded. I'd be really cautious, in interpreting this stuff, in saying anything like "conservatives are like THIS and liberals are like THAT because the brain structures told me so". They didn't. The brain is fucking complicated.
    posted by Jpfed at 11:21 PM on June 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


    So was anyone's hippocampus supposed to shrink in these tests? Because whichever it was (probably the not me category) the headline that would produce would top many onion headlines. As previously. Is "political orientation conversion" possible?
    posted by infinite intimation at 11:33 PM on June 5, 2011


    Who knew that a bipolar political system, whose existence was thought to be largely due to the widespread use of winner-take-all elections, actually reflects our essential brain structure! Thanks, science!

    (just because something is peer-reviews doesn't mean it isn't horseshit)
    posted by ennui.bz at 3:07 AM on June 6, 2011


    Who knew that a bipolar political system, whose existence was thought to be largely due to the widespread use of winner-take-all elections, actually reflects our essential brain structure! Thanks, science!

    To be fair, the research was conducted and the paper written in a somewhat different political context, where there are more than two parties and where the words "conservative" and "liberal" actually mean something other than the supporters of one of the two parties; where they actually describe human [political] behaviour.

    Of course, this still doesn't mean we should read too much into this study.
    posted by daniel_charms at 3:21 AM on June 6, 2011


    What about political alignment being determined by whether or not one is viably employed? Does losing your job make your brain change it's physical dimensions?
    posted by Redhush at 3:54 AM on June 6, 2011


    This is my ERP face.
    posted by srboisvert at 4:07 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Huh. And I thought conservatism was primarily correlated with being an utter bastard.
    posted by Decani at 4:22 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Maybe we can ask David Mamet to weigh in on this topic.

    Sorry the allusion is passing me by...


    Liberal turned conservative. Other examples include Paul Johnson, and a whole lot of neo-cons.
    posted by IndigoJones at 5:03 AM on June 6, 2011


    (Actually, the volte face aspect of the neo-cons, besides throwing a spanner into this study, should remind us that the republican party was once respectable.

    But then, I suppose the same could be said of the democrats.)
    posted by IndigoJones at 5:14 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Jpfed: The brain is fucking complicated.

    This is worth re-iterating. Though we sometimes get evidence that $some-part of the brain is associated with $some-behaviour, there's always plenty of $other-parts involved, and plenty of patients with the $some-part of their brain completely removed who can still do the $some-behaviour.
    posted by memebake at 5:42 AM on June 6, 2011


    How about in Britain, now that the labour, conservative and lib-dem (somehow,in the middle) have merged into virtually identical policies (privatise everything, although at different speeds and with different rhetoric), to the point where they only attempt to differentiate themselves at elections by their leaders' youth, soundbite-spouting skills and photogenic-ness? Where newspapers seriously analyse candidates for their 'hitting the right note with the electorate' (good photo-op) and their 'being a liability' because they are known to express views and policies so might say the wrong thing, rather than analysing whether they actually have any policies or views? Presumably we are mentally identical=sheep, which would explain a lot.
    posted by maiamaia at 5:51 AM on June 6, 2011


    Actually there is an old saying that the people with the nastiest politics are the nicest, and the people with the nice politics are nastier, meaning that conservatives are more sympathetic, generous etc; this is often the case. I used to think it was due to the gullibility of saintly types and conservatives coinciding, but maybe they do react more emotionally?
    posted by maiamaia at 5:55 AM on June 6, 2011


    As mentioned by many above, these findings aren't actually going to tell us much (if anything) about the specific impacts of differences in the brains between liberals and conservatives.

    But they do suggest (along with many other studies) that these differences are real. And it might be the case that these physical differences give rise to qualitatively different subjective realities for members of the two groups.

    That alone is endlessly fascinating.
    posted by graphnerd at 6:09 AM on June 6, 2011


    How about in Britain, now that the labour, conservative and lib-dem (somehow,in the middle) have merged into virtually identical policies (privatise everything, although at different speeds and with different rhetoric), to the point where they only attempt to differentiate themselves at elections by their leaders' youth, soundbite-spouting skills and photogenic-ness?

    This isn't about the parties, who largely follow corporate stakeholders' agenda with a few symbolic sops to the "little people", but about those little people, and in what direction they pull (generally ineffectually) and which symbolic hooks they will bite. I.e., are they the ones who want British Rail brought back or the ones who want the death penalty brought back?
    posted by acb at 6:19 AM on June 6, 2011


    Question: Do people's politics generally follow their parents? What do the studies show?
    posted by empath at 6:29 AM on June 6, 2011


    What about the politics of pairs of separated identical twins?

    Given that twin studies have shown such pairs of twins having many behaviours in common, some quite specific, (one I recall cited was a tendency to laugh in elevators), I imagine the fundamental temperament and inclination (fearfulness/neophilia, for one; pragmatism/idealism also perhaps) that leads to opinions may be common. Of course, the environment might change the way these express themselves.
    posted by acb at 6:42 AM on June 6, 2011


    Question: Do people's politics generally follow their parents?

    Yes, at least in the US context. Generally is very far from always, of course, but parental party ID is one of the most powerful predictors of child party ID, especially when the parents have the same party ID.

    The keywords to look for are "political socialization."

    There's also some evidence that some political attitudes or attributes may be transmitted within families not just by upbringing but also as genetic predispositions. John Hibbing has done a bunch of stuff I've never read about this.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:04 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


    I think it is useful and humourous to contrast these studies on political orientation to studies on brain anatomy and gender. The thing is that political conservatism in the UK and political conservatism in, for example, the US, are very different beasts. It would be rare to find a conservative in the US who enthusiastically supported abortion rights or a free, universal health service, but in the UK there are only a few very extreme, mostly quite odd, conservatives who would like to restrict abortion rights, and quite a few moderate or traditionalist conservatives who are, in principle at least, firmly committed to the NHS as an institution. Very few conservatives in the UK think that gun ownership levels even close to those of the US would be desirable or even acceptable. As for liberalism, I am not even sure what one would consider that to mean in a UK context. I think the researchers have some sort of scale, but as it isn't in the PDF I can only make poorly-educated guesses.

    Nevertheless, although we are clearly dealing with unbelievably culturally-specific categories, things which wouldn't even mean the same thing if you crossed the channel or moved to a country on another continent that happened to share the official language, people read these studies as if they were demonstrating some sort of eternal effect. Tory voters drive like this, 'liberals' (I honestly do not know how these creatures would vote, so I can't even complete the joke here) drive like that. Barbour-jacketed Tories and gun-toting Republicans and those guys on the savannah that wished they made arrow-heads like they used to are all programmed the same way.

    Let's just compare this to gender, and all those studies that get whipped out to prove that, naturally, women like mascara and babies and cupcakes because they're programmed that way.

    Now, either all these political orientation studies are good stuff and do actually show that the construction of the brain can influence later behaviour, in which case the interesting take-home is how heavily the expression of that behaviour depends on context. If the 'conservative brain' can produce both a Republican and a Tory voter, and the 'liberal' brain can produce a Democrat in one country and, let's assume, Charles Kennedy in another, then clearly those people who are saying we should throw out all of our attempts at building more gender equality because, you know, brain structures, are completely wrong: we could at minimum create an environment in which what 'masculinity' means is very, very different.

    Or, on the other hand, maybe the political orientation studies aren't all that, because they assumed that brain structures are fixed rather than created, or because they tried to do biology using non-natural-kind, messy, context dependent sociological concepts without a critical interrogation of the structures within which they were operating. I don't think I need to spell out the take-home here.
    posted by Acheman at 7:10 AM on June 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


    Actually there is an old saying that the people with the nastiest politics are the nicest,

    Wow. Dick Chaney must be a Saint, beloved by all who know him!
    posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:06 AM on June 6, 2011


    The brain is an adaptive organ, constantly bombarded by the environment, formulating responses, monitoring effects, and changing in response to those data. The question of whether the brain or the politics came first is too facile. What this cross-sectional association says about a current political philosophy is that it is reflected in current brain structure. Since such things change slowly, it should not be expected that political stances will change quickly.
    posted by Mental Wimp at 8:25 AM on June 6, 2011


    Excellent use of the colinfirth tag.
    posted by odinsdream at 9:04 AM on June 6, 2011


    Oh please. Yet another study by eggheaded Ivory Tower scientists trying to "prove" that political orientation is "genetic" when we all know it is a CHOICE.

    CHOOSING TO BE THE WRONG POLITICAL PARTY MAKES THE BABY JESUS CRY b/c it says in the Bible that your wrong if you don't vote like me
    posted by caution live frogs at 9:48 AM on June 6, 2011


    Wow. Dick Chaney must be a Saint, beloved by all who know him!

    That guy he shot in the face seemed to like him.
    posted by maryr at 11:48 AM on June 6, 2011


    I've actually been working on a blog post about this whole idea, but in essence, the narratives that run through the news on this are all fucked up. The amygdala (bigger in conservatives) is "involved in detecting threats and responding to fearful stimuli" and the cingulate (bigger in liberals) "becomes active in situations involving conflict or uncertainty".

    But people with large social networks also have bigger amygdala!

    And in that story, the "...amygdala's job in general is to signal to the rest of brain when something that you're faced with is uncertain." Wait. Is uncertainty the amygdala's job? I thought it was the cingulate's job?

    And in the brain, bigger does not necessarily equal better! Bigger may mean less efficient! We just don't know. But don't let that get in the way of nonsense research reporting!
    posted by bradleyvoytek at 12:11 PM on June 6, 2011


    I do not consider myself to be part of, or affiliated with any, political party or structure.

    So I guess what I'm saying is...

    WTB brain.
    posted by Splunge at 4:39 PM on June 6, 2011


    On the emotion issue: it's a different use of emotion: empathy (the capacity to rationally relate to another's situation) is an emotional function. See mirror neurons and their early development, which makes me wonder if we are seeing brain plasticity in different developmental environments (empathic/authoritarian). Also from the WP link:
    Additional studies have shown a link between the amygdala and schizophrenia, noting that the right amygdala is significantly larger than the left in schizophrenic patients
    which might be related to the delusional part.
    posted by psyche7 at 6:28 PM on June 6, 2011


    Both the ACC and the amygdala are involved in processing and regulation emotion, but the ACC (together with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex / orbitofrontal cortex) is hypothesized to play a higher level role - the amygdala may respond to the absolute affective valence of the stimuli, but the ACC is differentially activated when there are hard choices and risk / ambiguity in the mix.

    E.g. Amygdala responds to high incentive food items more than low regardless of whether there's a choice or the difficulty of the choice; OFC and ACC respond more when there is a difficult choice - high vs. high incentive, and not much when passively viewing. (Arana et al)

    All these parts of the brain work together cohesively, so finding out one is enlarged / smaller in liberals and conservatives do not tell us much (correlation =/= causation) unless it is combined with longitudinal studies and functional neuroimaging.
    posted by monocot at 6:54 AM on June 7, 2011


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