Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It's All in Your Head: can neuroscience explain Conservative's resistance to facts which counter their views?

"The brain struggling to understand the brain is society trying to explain itself."
Colin Blakemore (from Mechanics of the Mind, 1977)

“People who don't Think probably don't have Brains; rather, they have grey fluff that's blown into their heads by mistake.”
Winnie the Pooh

"Whatever any man does he first must do in his mind, whose machinery is the brain. The mind can do only what the brain is equipped to do, and so man must find out what kind of brain he has before he can understand his own behavior."
Gay Gaer Luce and Julius Segal (from Sleep, 1966)
Besides blogging about politics and current events, I'm something of a biosciences geek. Reading articles and studies, or listening to science podcasts, is some of what I do purely for fun. Rarely do I have an occasion as entertaining for me as the one presented by a recent study in the UK, which connects these different interests.

Regular Penigma readers know that I include quotes at the beginning of posts as a sort of focus for the subsequent writing. The Winnie the Pooh quote here is to add a touch of humor, and a tip of the hat to the UK for providing source material, because I'm an ardent anglophile; not to insult anyone. But it is worth noting that despite allegations that so-called socialized medicine restricts innovation and research, the UK seems to be producing some amazing studies relating to our bodies and our minds.

A brain scan study started out as a joke, a whim, initiated and funded by actor Colin Firth. The study, as reported by the Daily Mail, involved the MRI scanning of some 90 students at the University College London (UCL). It uncovered an apparent correlation between the thickness of a section of the brain, the amygdala, and political views. The study was lead by Professor Geraint Rees, who summed up the study results,
"The anterior cingulate is a part of the brain that is on the middle surface of the brain at the front and we found that the thickness of the grey matter, where the nerve cells of neurons are, was thicker the more people described themselves as liberal or left wing and thinner the more they described themselves as conservative or right wing,
The amygdala is a part of the brain which is very old and very ancient and thought to be very primitive and to do with the detection of emotions. The right amygdala was larger in those people who described themselves as conservative.

'It is very significant because it does suggest there is something about political attitudes that are either encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that our brain structure in some way determines or results in our political attitudes.'

Read more: This photo is from the daily mail website article linked above:

The right amygdala - an ancient part of the brain - was larger in those people who described themselves as conservative. It's located where the yellow area meets the red in the centre of the picture.
 This intrigued me because it raises the question, are these differences in the amygdala we are born with - are conservatives born, not 'made'? Or is this a case where the changes to this part of our brain that develops as a result of our thoughts and emotions? I suspect in further studies, it will turn out to be the latter, that our brain changes because of what we do, think, and feel; and that conservatives and liberals will turn out to be made the way they are, not that they are born that way.

Let me digress to another UCL study from back in 2000, by Professor Eleanor Maguire, who did a study on a different part of the human brain, the hippocampus, using London cabbies rather than college students:
Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 97(8), 4398-4403 doi:10.1073/pnas.070039597.
Quoting from the BBC report on the study:
Taxi drivers given brain scans by scientists at University College London had a larger hippocampus compared with other people. This is a part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and animals. The scientists also found part of the hippocampus grew larger as the taxi drivers spent more time in the job. "There seems to be a definite relationship between the navigating they do as a taxi driver and the brain changes," said Dr Eleanor Maguire, who led the research team.
Both the hippocampus and the amygdala are part of the traditional classification of the limbic system, which wikipedia describes, (quoting the Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia) as the
"Paleomammalian brain.. a set of brain structures including the hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei, septum, limbic cortex and fornix, which seemingly support a variety of functions including emotion, behavior, long term memory, and olfaction."
Without getting into too complex an exposition of the limbic system, and acknowledging that to understand it properly requires extensive specialization and education, I am a firm believer in the principle that form follows function, that form subtly changes and adapts based on what it does, as my basis for my anticipation that this may prove in later studies to be the case. It is as good a theory as any other.

But further supporting that speculation is the book written by one of my favorite FindLaw writers, John Dean (of the Nixon Watergate burglaries notoriety, yes, that John Dean). His 2006 book, Conservatives without Conscience, addresses a post-Goldwater authoritarian change in the politics and beliefs of conservatives, building on the research of Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba, Robert Altmeyer, which Dean indicated in a recent television interview, posits a correlation between the instilling of fear by parents in children with subsequent shaping of later views. That was summed up here as :
According to Altemeyer (1996), authoritarianism can be defined as the co-variation of three specific psychological tendencies. These include submission to authority, aggression toward individuals targeted by authority, and adherence to social conventions established by authorities. Stated another way, authoritarians are submissive toward authority figures and the norms of ingroups, and aggressive toward deviants and the members of outgroups. Decades of research support this interpretation of the construct (but see Kreindler, 2005) and indicate strong to moderate correlations with racial prejudice, anti-homosexual attitudes, punitive jury decisions, and many related attitudes and behaviors (Altemeyer, 1996; Stone, Lederer, & Christie, 1993). The authoritarian potential for prejudice, hostility, and aggression is well documented, yet there has been considerably less empirical research on their other emotional tendencies. One conspicuous gap in our knowledge concerns the level and varieties of fear that authoritarians experience. This is rather surprising considering the frequency with which fear is mentioned in theories and discussion about authoritarianism.[bold type, my emphasis added - DG]
This would seem to summarize at least some if not all of the positions of the right wing culture wars, especially some of the positions promoted by the Christian Right. If the study of Right Wing authoritarianism is correct in their conclusions, I would expect that MRIs of individuals who hold those views might very well support the study of differences in their amygdala from control group subjects that do not show those changes, or hold those views. If right wing authoritarians develop from a fear base, and given the Moral Panic promoted by the right through misinformation and disinformation to their base, these factors would all be consistent with form following function and with the parts of our brain changing by what we think, feel and do. This premise is even consistent with the prediction of Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi in the UK in his 1990 BBC series, if you posit that opposition to the modern world derives from fear and distrust of the modern world:
:I think you're going to see faith return and return in a way that will cause some problems because the most powerful faith in the modern world will be the faith most powerfully opposed to the modern world.
That suggests that there is a possible convergence between political science, represented by John Dean, psychology, represented by Altemeyer, the humanities as reflected in the observations of Lord Sacks, and Professor Rees and his researchers at UCL in understanding the physiology, differences, and possible causation for those differences.

The study funded by Colin Firth needs to be supported by peer review, and other studies, including a larger sampling; these early findings are inconclusive, but tantalizing in what they suggest. A couple of belated 2010 Penny Awards, to Colin Firth for perhaps the most innovative and creative uses of celebrity and the resources that celebrity provides for initiating this study, and another to UCL for their continuing work on neuroscience.
Cross posted from


  1. Try Charlie Brooker's "How TV Ruined your life" episode I for a humourous take on this. Episode I talks about the amygdala. I posted the video and the link after your comment.

    They should work in the US (as opposed to regionally locked versions). Googling the title should also net you the videos if they are available.

    Yes, people have trouble dealing with things that challenge their preconceived notions on both the left and right. I think the right is a bit more stuck in their rut, which is pretty much the definition of "conservative".

    Dislikes change, slow to accept change.

  2. Thank you for the link!

    you wrote:
    "Dislikes change, slow to accept change. "

    I think some conservatives actually want to go backwards in time - or more precisely, to have things as they imagined they used to be in a better, earlier, less progressive time (as distinct from actual history).

    In the 1960 version of Inherit the Wind, the Spencer Tracy character calls those people 'clock stoppers'.

    We have a member of the MN legislature who wants to destroy the research done by Kinsey.

    What he would really like to do is to destroy anyone or anything which challenges his preconceptions of the world.

    He really seems to believe that if you destroy the records of what Kinsey learned, you would destroy the humans and the human behavior of which he does not approve.

    We have another legislator who believes that God will keep providing us fossil fuel, and that it is hubris to think we could damage the earth - because God won't let us do that.

    He is also, no surprise, a global warming denier, a theocrat, a believer in creationism. It wouldn't surprise me to find he believes that Jesus Christ rode around on dinosaurs like some odd mix of religion and the Flintstones.

    I can't decide whether to be more frightened or saddened by turns - but whatever emotions result, I don't want to bulge out my amygdala! Or deform my hippocampus either!