Morehead City, N.C.

Nov. 18, 2019

TO THE EDITOR:

Over the last 60 years while the rest of us were busy with our lives, scientists were carving out a new field of study: neuropolitics, how the brain influences and is influenced by politics. Before 2000 this research was mostly limited to the observation of subjects, patients with brain damage and even chimpanzees. But after 2000 studies began to record the parts of the brain activated by political and other stimuli and one fact became undeniable: the brains of conservatives and liberals are different.

We are talking here about true conservatives and true liberals, not centrists or wimpy right and left of center but those who are conservative or liberal in their hearts.

Conservatives, it turns out, have more gray matter in the right amygdala, a portion of the brain about the size of your thumb that sits near the front of your brain and manages (or doesn’t manage) emotion. For the longest time psychologists noticed that conservatives had a more dramatic reaction to perceived threat or fear (hence term reactionary) and it turns out that the enlarged right amygdala controls the fight or flight response. Conservatives are, therefore, more risk averse than liberals and prefer a predictable environment of friends, family, country.

Given this, you might guess that liberals have unusually small right amygdalas or perhaps enlarged left amygdalas. Nothing of the sort. Instead, liberals have more gray matter in an entirely different part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex further back in the brain, which regulates empathy, impulse control and decision making. This gives liberals a moment to think and to empathize, and makes them a bit more accepting of the new and willing to seek novelty. They will try the mashed potatoes with the grains and garam masala.

Don’t take my word for this. You can read a Wikipedia page on neuropolitics and its many nuances and outstanding questions, do a Google search, or if you have some time on your hands, read Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences by John Hibbing, Kevin Smith and John Alford (2013, 304 pp.). You will find that these differences in true conservative and liberal brains are now indisputable, and the most compelling piece of research so far is this: scientists were actually able to predict political outlook by studying MRIs. Yes, incredible, predict the political leanings of (self-professed) subjects simply by looking at their brains with up to 95% accuracy, depending on the particular study. It boggles the mind.

So what? Is this just a bunch of scientific mumbo-jumbo? If you are a true conservative, you may think so. If you are a true liberal, you are intrigued. But didn’t we know it all along? Didn’t we know something very deep and different was going on? Didn’t we believe in our hearts that the others weren’t just stupid or crazy? How could they be? When the rest of their lives seemed so well thought out, their decisions so intelligent, their actions so purposeful. Is it not a relief at long last to discover that our fellow though adversarial compatriots are not Neanderthals who just crawled out from under a rock or “deplorables,” not snowflakes or libtards?

This can be a start to understanding. Facts under these circumstances are of limited value. Sadly, we are truly looking at different facts in our internet and cable news sources. But we are choosing those different sources, as in Fox Entertainment vs. The New York Times because we are predisposed to do so; and even when we get the same facts, we are receiving them in different parts of the brain. For me, this has to mean, first of all that there is no point trying to convince true conservatives to believe what I believe, and vice versa.

Second, that I need to give true conservatives the benefit of the doubt, cut them some slack.

And so, my dear true conservatives of eastern Carolina, before we disagree, I will pat you on the shoulder and ask how you are managing with your enlarged right amygdala. You can pat me on the shoulder and ask about my anterior cingulate cortex. We have this in common: our brains are different from the rest of our fellow citizens and always will be. In spite of it, I believe we will muddle through somehow.

SUSAN SCHURER

(2) comments

mtstosea

Susan, you have written a very interesting letter which is intriguing to me, as my late husband worked for the Dept of Defense as a design Engineer on the early ICBM's around Denver Colorado. All through his 36 year career, projects were totally secret, as so many of our local residents can attest. Will you please give me your source and documentation for your interesting quote: "Conservatives, it turns out, have more gray matter in the right amygdala, a portion of the brain about the size of your thumb that sits near the front of your brain and manages (or doesn’t manage) emotion. For the longest time psychologists noticed that conservatives had a more dramatic reaction to perceived threat or fear (hence term reactionary) and it turns out that the enlarged right amygdala controls the fight or flight response. Conservatives are, therefore, more risk averse than liberals and prefer a predictable environment of friends, family, country." Susan, I appreciate your response, (and any other persons responding) as: 1) my late husband's Electrical Engineering brain was very different from my Musical brain. Was it because these Design Engineers knew the "facts", or was it because they saw the potential, eminent danger and were "conservative"? Thank you, and others for your ideas and references.

mtstosea

Susan, I did some research and found an article in Psychology Today , April, 19, 2011 written by, Nigel Barber Ph.D., which does support the facts you have stated. However he offered some additional considerations. "The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is active during states of fear and anxiety. Liberals had more gray matter at least in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that helps people cope with complexity." "Supposing that the size of one's amygdala really does increase the likelihood of being a conservative, is the size of the amygdala determined at birth, or does it perhaps increase with frightening childhood experiences, such as authoritarian parenting and corporal punishment?" And I find this statement interesting. "Similarly, one might ask whether the gray matter difference is affected by exposure to educational challenge, social diversity, or childhood cognitive enrichment." And Dr. Barber concludes : " If everyone was born with the same brain potential to acquire either conservative or liberal views, then we could be more optimistic about prospects for political communication and consensus-building. If voters were of like brain, perhaps they could be of like mind," and thus, I return to the ago old debate about how much heredity or environment influences and shapes our life styles and choices.

Welcome to the discussion.

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