The below press release, from cellpress.com (which can be found at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-04/cp-pva040511.php) raises some very interesting and controversial issues. The article follows in it’s entirety together with my thoughts on it’s contents.
“Political views are reflected in brain structure
We all know that people at opposite ends of the political spectrum often really can’t see eye to eye. Now, a new report published online on April 7th in
Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, reveals that those differences in political orientation are tied to differences in the very structures of our
Individuals who call themselves liberal tend to have larger anterior cingulate cortexes, while those who call themselves conservative have larger amygdalas.
Based on what is known about the functions of those two brain regions, the structural differences are consistent with reports showing a greater ability
of liberals to cope with conflicting information and a greater ability of conservatives to recognize a threat, the researchers say.
“Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual’s political orientation,” said Ryota Kanai of the University College
London. “Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure.”
Kanai said his study was prompted by reports from others showing greater anterior cingulate cortex response to conflicting information among liberals. “That
was the first neuroscientific evidence for biological differences between liberals and conservatives,” he explained.
There had also been many prior psychological reports showing that conservatives are more sensitive to threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty, while
liberals tend to be more open to new experiences. Kanai’s team suspected that such fundamental differences in personality might show up in the brain.
And, indeed, that’s exactly what they found. Kanai says they can’t yet say for sure which came first. It’s possible that brain structure isn’t set in early
life, but rather can be shaped over time by our experiences. And, of course, some people have been known to change their views over the course of a lifetime.
It’s also true that our political persuasions can fall into many more categories than liberal and conservative. “In principle, our research method can be
applied to find brain structure differences in political dimensions other than the simplistic left- versus right-wingers,” Kanai said. Perhaps differences
in the brain explain why some people really have no interest in politics at all or why some people line up for Macs while others stick with their PCs.
All of these tendencies may be related in interesting ways to the peculiarities of our personalities and in turn to the way our brains are put together.
Still, Kanai cautioned against taking the findings too far, citing many uncertainties about how the correlations they see come about.
“It’s very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions,” he said. “More work is needed to determine how these
brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude.”
Firstly I must confess to having performed in a mediocre manner (to put it delicately) in my human biology GCSE, consequently I can, in no way be regarded as any kind of expert as regards matters scientific. I do, however have the following questions/concerns concerning this research:
1. The environment/context in which the research was conducted requires careful scrutiny. If a similar study where to be conducted in a closed one party state (for example North Korea) I suspect that the findings would (roughly) have been as follows:
(a)All participants support the Communist system.
(b) All participants believe that the Democratic Republic of Korea is being threatened by the outside world and support the leadership in it’s fight against the “capitalist”, “imperialist” world.
Obviously any research of this nature, in such a society could not be taken seriously as the participants would be terrified to give any response which deviated from the official party line for fear of arrest or worse. However let us assume for a moment that the persons participating in the research believe that they will not be punished for giving an answer not in accordance with the official teaching of the state. In such a situation many people might well give the same answers as set-out in A and B above due to their exposure to propaganda from the regime and their inability to access alternative sources of information. In those circumstances I assume that researches would conclude that the research group where “conservative” with a small c and this would (presumably) be verified by their brain structure).
What happens if the regime falls? Presumably if the research was, again conducted following the demise of the regime the findings would be rather different. People would have been exposed to alternative sources of information and the abuses of the regime would no longer be cloaked in secrecy. This being the case a high proporsion (perhaps the majority) of the participants, in the research project would exhibit a profound distrust towards authoritarianism (I.E. they would show strong “liberal” predispositions. Would the structure of their brains alter to reflect the move from “conservative (with a small c) to “liberal?”
2. Kanai admits that it is unclear at this stage as to whether brain structures reflect political views, from an early age or, alternatively whether the brain develops to reflect leanings later in life. If I was a betting man (which I’m not) I’d hazard a wager that changes in brain structure take place as we mature (I.E. we are not born either a little liberal or else a little conservative), rather our views are shaped by a variety of factors. For example the books we read mmay help to persuade us of the rightness of a political cause, while our experiences in life can also play a pivitol role. Imagine the student from a well-to-do family. His/her parents are Conservative and his early influences predispose him/her to the same disposition. However on going onto university he/she reads Marx, Engels and a variety of anarchist writers. His/her mindset is changed to predispose him/her to participate in radical left-wing politics. Later in life the same person comes to believe that his parents where wrong in their views but that radical left-wing politics do not offer the answer to all the world’s ills. In short he becomes a “liberal” occupying the middle ground between Conservatism and radical leftism. Would his her brain structure thereby undergo three separate changes (I.E. from Conservative, to radical left and, finally to Liberal)?
I don’t think that Kanai and his fellow researchers are (necessarily) propounding a deterministic perspective, however I suspect that the tabloids would interpret his findings in a wholly deterministic manner.
As I said above, I am no scientist, however I believe this research requires to be looked at in a critical (by which I mean a questioning manner) rather than simply being taken at face value.