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Let’s Get Political — Can Your Brain Determine Whether You’re a Conservative or a Liberal?

In our monthly Brain Series so far we’ve written extensively about brain health, from how to prevent neurodegeneration to hacking sleep to upgrade our cognitive abilities. For some, it would go without saying that a healthy brain would massively improve our lives in all respects: we’d enjoy more creativity and work productivity, better relationships, and make better decisions. Simply put, this is because the health of our brain is absolutely key for the correct and fast processing of the immense informational input hitting our neocortex and adjacent brain structures every second of every hour of every day.

The fascinating field of neuroscience is now able to explain how the brain works in the minutest of details. Recent research from Yale University was able to demonstrate how a healthy brain makes decisions. It seems that there are at least three brain regions responsible for decision-making; three individual processes that combine in unique ways to help us make good decisions.

Surprisingly, the process is not confined to the orbital frontal cortex, the seat of higher order thinking. Instead, brain circuits from the orbital frontal cortex, connecting to deeper brain regions, are involved.

At the same time, according to Jane Taylor, professor of psychiatry and senior author of the study:  “Specific decision-making computations are altered in individuals with mental illness”. She is referring specifically to addiction, in which alterations to these circuits may help explain why people continue to make harmful choices even after repeated negative experiences.

While decision-making is rather straightforward to analyse, how about more complex brain processes, such as belief-formation? Considering that individuals can hold wildly conflicting perspectives on things, is it possible to say that some beliefs are more valid than others? Or would your political beliefs for instance be partly determined by the health of your brain? This is a very thorny question to ask, but a pertinent one in the era of Trump and Brexit.

Our beliefs form our own individual guidebook to reality. They stem from our unique consciousness, which could be described as the ability to form a subjective view of the world. Belief formation is an essential part of the toolkit for navigating the world. As such, we might think that our beliefs are the ultimate products of our minds’ conscious workings.

But this is far from the truth. In her book, The Science of Fate, neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow argues that what we believe is determined by brain operations that take place without our conscious awareness. She explains that these brain operations depend on a combination of species-wide biological constraints and our own idiosyncratic blend of genetic inheritance and cognitive biases. Even the most sophisticated beliefs, such as our religious orientation, are the result of countless subconscious and innate brain mechanisms laid down before we were capable of rigorous analytical thought.

But where do beliefs come from? In the Western world we are inclined to think that our beliefs are shaped by the family, culture and society into which we were born. We also know that the structure and function of the brain can be shaped by experience (Mechelli et al., 2004Ceccarelli et al., 2009Fu and Zuo, 2011Woollett and Maguire, 2011Klimecki et al., 2014). 

But how does our brain construct the “guide to reality” that forms the basis for our personality and steers or even determines our outcomes?

Staggering advances in neuroscientific research are yielding the most awe-inspiring results that show that innate traits (such as deep-brain circuitry), genetics and lived experience interact to create an individual’s behaviour. In other words, our beliefs are not determined by conscious intellectual effort but by the subconscious operations of deep-brain circuitry. This spans the spectrum of emotional responses from the reward system to fear.

Interestingly, one of the first studies that established this connection looked at the associations between political affiliation and fear and demonstrated beyond doubt that beliefs are also derived from our emotional responses. One fascinating study that set out to determine brain activity in self-defined conservative and liberal volunteers exposed to perceived threats showed that conservatives have a more sensitive amygdala than liberals. What does this mean?

Amygdala is a structure in the brain that is involved in activating circuits that direct the body for fight or flight. Having a more sensitive amygdala means that higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol are produced when a threat is perceived, which decreases the potential for connectivity in areas of the brain involved in reasoning, learning, flexible thinking and future planning. Bad news…

Other studies found that the anatomy and size of the amygdala are different in liberals and conservatives. In the latter, connectivity between cells appears much more elaborate and the region takes up a larger volume of the brain.

On the other hand, studies also showed that the “liberal brain” shows heightened activity in the insula, which is involved in the ability to perceive others as thinking entities. Liberals also seem to have a larger and more reactive anterior cingulate cortex, a region involved in monitoring uncertainty and potential for conflict, which could be interpreted as displaying a greater tolerance for the unknown and complex social situations.

It would be incorrect however if this research were to be interpreted in a black and white manner: the conservative brain as overwhelmed with fear, and the liberal brain as enjoying openness to others and great potential for creative collaboration.

To be clear, the functional differences in neural threat reactivity associated with conservatism that have been observed could either be a heritable trait that predisposes individuals toward economic conservatism, or a neural change that has developed because of the adoption of conservative economic views. In practice, political ideology and neural structure and function likely influence one another in a dynamic process that unfolds over time (Jost et al., 2014).

Also, this line of research should not be construed as implying that one ideology is superior to another. The fact that conservatives exhibit an enhanced negativity bias shouldn’t be used to paint conservatives in a negative light. The negativity bias—the tendency to attend and react more strongly to negative vs positive stimuli—is a general characteristic of human psychology (Norris et al., 2010) and it is also thought to be an evolutionarily adaptive trait that helps individuals avoid danger.

Political allegiances aside, beliefs are a very useful tool for humans. Collective belief systems are an amazingly effective aid to getting things done, being the foundations for cultural, social and political projects of all kinds. Moreover, having a belief is healthy for us: many studies have demonstrated that believing in something – it almost doesn’t matter what it is – maintains brain health and increases an individual’s self-reported satisfaction with one’s life.

At Xpomet© Medicinale©, we believe that everyone is responsible for their own health and thus we should all actively engage in learning as much as possible about this fascinating topic. This is why we put together an amazing line-up of speakers for our 2019 Next Generation Health Festival that is taking place next week. Check it out here and make sure to book your tickets here.