Left Wing vs. Right Wing Brains

By Neuroskeptic | January 3, 2011 4:50 pm

So apparently: Left wing or right wing? It’s written in the brain

People with liberal views tended to have increased grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain linked to decision-making, in particular when conflicting information is being presented…

Conservatives, meanwhile, had increased grey matter in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with processing emotion.

This was based on a study of 90 young adults using MRI to measure brain structure. Sadly that press release is all we know about the study at the moment, because it hasn’t been published yet. The BBC also have no fewer than three radio shows about it here, here and here.

Politics blog Heresy Corner discusses it

Subjects who professed liberal or left-wing opinions tended to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain which, we were told, helps process complex and conflicting information. (Perhaps they need this extra grey matter to be able to cope with the internal contradictions of left-wing philosophy.)

This kind of story tends to attract chuckle-some comments.

In truth, without seeing the full scientific paper, we can’t know whether the differences they found were really statistically solid, or whether they were voodoo or fishy. The authors, Geraint Rees and Ryota Kanai, have both published a lot of excellent neuroscience in the past, but that’s no guarantee.

In fact, however, I suspect that the brain is just the wrong place to look if you’re interested in politics, because most political views don’t originate in the individual brain, they originate in the wider culture and are absorbed and regurgitated without much thought. This is a real shame, because all of us, left or right, have a brain, and it’s really quite nifty:

But when it comes to politics we generally don’t use it. The brain is a powerful organ designed to help you deal with reality in all its complexity. For a lot of people, politics doesn’t take place there, it happens in fairytale kingdoms populated by evil monsters, foolish jesters, and brave knights.

Given that the characters in this story are mindless stereotypes, there’s no need for empathy. Because the plot comes fully-formed from TV or a newspaper, there’s no need for original ideas. Because everything is either obviously right or obviously wrong, there’s not much reasoning required. And so on. Which is why this happens amongst other things.

I don’t think individual personality is very important in determining which political narratives and values you adopt: your family background, job, and position in society is much more important.

Where individual differences matter, I think, is in deciding how “conservative” or “radical” you are within whatever party you find yourself. Not in the sense of left or right, but in terms of how keen you are on grand ideas and big changes, as opposed to cautious, boring pragmatism.

In this sense, there are conservative liberals (i.e. Obama) and radical conservatives (i.e. Palin), and that’s the kind of thing I’d be looking for if I were trying to find political differences in the brain.

Links: If right wingers have bigger amygdalae, does that mean patient SM, the woman with no amygdalae at all, must be a communist? Then again, Neuroskeptic readers may remember that the brain itself is a communist

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09013133419305271189 Michelle Greene

    “In fact, however, I suspect that the brain is just the wrong place to look if you're interested in politics, because most political views don't originate in the individual brain, they originate in the wider culture and are absorbed and regurgitated without much thought.”

    I fully agree that these types of studies use the wrong level of analysis, but I'm not sure that we can (or should) leave the brain out of the picture entirely. Any person exposed to multiple viewpoints (and yes, I accept that there might not be so many of these persons) has to consider and decide what he believes.

  • Anonymous

    Hey if I change my political party affiliation from left-leaning Democrat to the right-leaning Tea Party, will my amygdala grow in size?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05660407099521700995 petrossa

    No you'll only gain intelligence 😉

  • Anonymous

    It reminds me of Marco Iacoboni's treatment of the subject in the New York Times, a low point in neuroimaging history.

  • http://beyond-advaita.blogspot.com/ ramesam

    Wouldn't Jonathan Haidt jump with joy to read the article?

  • http://martialculture.com/ wreaver

    @Neuroskeptic:

    Have you read Ravi Iyer's paper: “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology”?

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1665934
    http://www.polipsych.com/libertarians/

    If he's correct then political leanings may not simply be culturally determined. Instead people may be genetically pre-dispositioned towards some political philosophies more than others.

    Also, although he found that conservatives and liberals tend to be viscerally driven in their moral calculations, libertarians tend driven by logic and rationality in their moral calculations.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    wreaver: No, I hadn't seen that, sounds interesting. Libertarianism is a bit of an exception to what I said because it's not really an established political school like mainstream left or right wing politics. My impression is that few people are born libertarians, they become them, whereas people are born either “liberals” or “conservatives” based on who their parents were and who their peer group is.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05660407099521700995 petrossa

    I can imagine there being a survival bonus for the species if it consists of multiple personality traits. Which would lead to a natural selection of said traits. A group that only contains explorers and no 'staying at homers' wouldn't last long as a unity and diminish the chances of survival of that group.

    From that already one can deduce that personality traits are a function genetically determined brain structures.

    Accepting that there is no reason why there shouldn't be hardware to make a conservative or a progressive person.

    Thus far for example religion and genderpreference have been demonstrated to have dedicated brain structures.

    Imo hubris causes us to think of ourselves as an unique, superior animal that is unlike any other. That our brains function different from 'the rest'

    Reality shows this is not the case. It is really just a biocomputer with a fixed OS only letting software run through its API. Given that all humans behave basically on average the same and only differ on a very subtle level there MUST be a mostly genetical component to most of not all our principal behavioral patterns.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14647896216499813443 Kapitano

    It sounds like the old phrenology rubbish, moved from outside to inside the head.

    It also sounds like reversed causality. If you think deeply about things, your brain will develop to aid that. And if you're a thinker, you'll notice reality's famous left wing bias.

  • http://postrationalist.com/ thepostrationalist

    This kind of research typifies the absurd way neuroscience makes us think. Just because neuroscience has tools nowhere near detailed enough to comprehend the full complexity of the brain, doesn't mean it's generalisations, based on those tools, are more important than our normal generalisations.

    What our brain does and what we do is obviously the same, but if you said that conservatives are more emotional, liberals are clearer thinkers based on questionaires, you'd be laughed out of the building or told to making such silly generalisations as it's obviously more complex than that (exactly like you say).

    What's all this about “written in the brain”. Who does the writing? There's some wierd unspoken metaphysics at play here.

    We've got so far to go before our idea of the brain and the reality of life meet, and so much damage done on the way.
    http://bit.ly/dVj4c4

  • veri

    The brain is a muscle susceptible to programming and imprints no? Maybe the study focused on processing disrepancies and not so much on dedicated regions.

    Right wings tend to be religious folks who from my experience are pretty emotional. They associate politics with spiritual matters. But that's spiritual not politics.

    There's too many overlapping variables like intelligence, SES, etc. to distinguish political preferences alone. I wonder how they accounted for that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    thepostrationalist: The “written in the brain” thing was a journalistic headline. I'm not sure even the person who wrote it knows what it's meant to mean…

    As for the main issue, you've hit on a good way of judging these kinds of claims: imagine all references to the brain were deleted, is the claim still plausible or is now just a silly generalization?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    petrossa: I think you're right that people have different personalities and it will affect their politics. But I don't think it will make them “left” or “right”, that's a social thing.

    Maybe there are individual differences in say altruism but I don't think someone who was born extremely altruistic, but in a conservative family, would turn into a socialist. that would mean deserting their family which would be a big step. more likely they'd just stay a “conservative” but give lots to charity.

    It's like with religion. I can well believe that some people are born more “spiritual” than others, but the ones who are born un-spiritual in a religious society rarely become outright atheists. They stay religious in name, they just don't really care about it.

  • Anonymous

    I just thought about having sex with Sarah Palin and switching my party allegiance to the Tea Party. And Presto I felt a buzz or tingling in my brain! Was that my amygdala having a hard on?

  • Dan K

    Sight unseen, I'm very skeptical that this article will pass muster, even if they did the imaging right. Even if we grant that politics is somewhere in brain structure, it's extremely tricky to get this right. Political leanings are related (linearly or otherwise) to all kinds of other things. Ruling out all of the alternative explanations that skeptics will raise is going to be extremely tricky, if not impossible. It's encouraging that they have 90 subjects, which means they could have included a few dozen nuisance covariates without sacrificing too much power. But did they get your favorite?

    So I'm willing to be hopeful that this study turns out to be interesting, but I suspect it will turn out to be little more than an occasion for people to argue about what they believe, and about what they wish the authors had done instead.

  • veri

    – rolls eyes –

    Anon, OMG he's fondling himself someone call campus security. It's a brain scan not a genitalia scan. When you have your perverted fantasies they'll probably notice a lack of activity up there and an observable bulge down there. Plus a missing chunk of cortex to explain for the dunderness. [Reviewed.. like Public Library of Science ONE world, ONE heart, ONE lets-hold-hands jazzy reviews.]

  • girlanachronism

    How can you possibly give an opinion on a paper that you admit in your post that you NEVER READ?? Clearly your skepticism is well-founded…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    This post isn't a comment on the paper – it's a general remark about the ideas that were being discussed at the time.

  • Dusty Koellhoffer

    Obviously written by a liberal who imagines himself to be intelligent and informed. Obama a “conservative liberal?” Palin a “radical conservative?” The term radical applies to Obama’s ideology of transforming America into his image. And liberals cogitate logically whle conservatives think emotionally? How backwards can you be? This is just another political pseudo-science farce like the climate change.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

    Obama – a man who was (twice) elected by the American people, in accordance with the US constitution.

    Which is it you don’t like, people or constitution?

  • Guest

    Sarah Palin is actually way too far left

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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