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Politics and the Brain

08/26/04 | by david2 [mail] | Categories: General
Alot of people may think that this is going out on a limb: the same kind of wild predictions were made 100 years ago after the publication of Freud's thesis on the mind. It was just a short matter of time, everyone said, before all of mankind's problems will be neatly taken care of, now that its inner secrets were accessible via psychotherapy.

And while it's true that eventually (probably sooner than later) the mind's secrets will be revealed, this,so far, is just another clue.

In this article, and in a followup article in the Times magazine (which I can't get a permalink to) the suggestion is that different parts of the brain light up in people of different political persuasions.

The attached photograph exposes one of the assumptions: that democrats and republicans are opposites on some kind of scale, which leaves out an awful lot of other political parties such as the luddites, whigs, greens, and the posse commitatus.

The new tools used by the researchers mentioned in this article aren't new: it's just MRI on a person's brain while he/she is being exposed to different politically themed advertisements.

Then, the results were tabulated and correlated to whether the person considered themselves democrat or republican. The most significant difference was activity in the amygdala of people of democratic persuasion. From previous research, the amygdala is associated with emotional response.

The default assumption would be that people who consider themselves democrats tend to use more emotion in their thinking and reasoning. But in what turns out to be another in a long line of famous conundrums and paradoxes, people with damaged amygdalas, while being fine at logic tests, show profoundly bad judgement.

All of this research is being conducted by people associated with UCLA, but who are actually in the political consultation business. They're more interested in how political ads affect voters than they are on the basic research of the difference between people of different political affiliations.

If the objective weren't political in the first place, then we might be seeing experiments on democrats and republicans that don't involve political advertisements, which quite possibly is complicating the research. For example. Democratic brains showed fear when being exposed to both nuclear bombs and 9/11 videos, implying that they have a much greater adverse reaction to violence.

But another explanation is that 9/11 implies a Bush victory since he is using that imagery to a huge extent in his campaign. Perhaps showing something non-political such as car crashes, or a boy pulling the wings off of a fly would reveal more.

One of the more interesting conclusions that's come out of all of this is that there is more to it than issues that bind the different parties together: in fact it appears that people make a political affiliation first and adopt the opinions on the particular issues from the party platform later. This would make sense if it were some other kind of selector that was drawing the parties together besides issues.

I, for one have always wondered how the different planks in each platform have come together. When you get right down to them, some seem to have extremely weak bonds based upon a common philosophy at all, save for the fact that they're there in the first place. Each party combines paradoxes of freedom and control.

If, as this research suggests, there is some other underlying commonality between members of political parties -- something in their personality that each person can detect in others, then it makes sense that people would seek out others of similar sensibility. The politics and issue-based opinions then serve as the grout between tiles that are already glued together.

From my armchair, it does seem to make a bit of sense. People who have an adverse reaction to violence would probably spend more time obtaining their ends through the means of politics and negotiation than through coercion and violence. I've often wondered how the pro-war set justify so easily dropping bombs on others or sending people off to their deaths in an electric chair without spending too much time worrying if they've got the wrong person.

It would be easy to run with the ball. I don't want to make the same mistake as the paleoentologists make in Monty Python: uncovering the toe of some critter and wildly extrapolating some crazy hairy beast connected to it.

That said, it appears that what I'm calling an aversion to violence may also, in a more general sense, simply be called empathy.

Is it that Republicans simply don't spend as much time worrying about the other person? Could it be that, as I noted in my previous posts, Republicans playing more to win compared with Democrats playing more for the truth? Could be this empathy in action? How about when applied to patriotism? Hating the French is easier to do when you don't care about things that aren't your own. You, your family, your country.

Republicans have always thought that the Democrats were wimpy and the Democrats have always thought that the Republicans were Rambos. Is it empathy that separates the two parties? Could a difference in the ability to consider others around them at the core of political differentiation?

These are just musings, certainly leaving much more about causes of political differences to be pondered when viewed from this light.

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