Changing Minds: The Neuroscience of Our Political Climate

It’s no secret that we live in a politically divided world. As extremism abounds, it feels harder to bridge the gaps between opposing political worldviews. The debates that define our current political moment are increasing in pitch and volume, and it seems we are only shouting past one another. Yet new research in neuroscience may provide an answer by illuminating the ways our brains react to and shape the political environment we live in. By understanding the subconscious ways in which our brain chemistry impacts the way we react to political ideas, it may be possible to overcome our basal impulses and bridge the communication gap.  

Neuroscience, for the non-scientist, may seem like a daunting word, reserved for those that toil away in a sterile lab, or for attractive fictional neurosurgeons dreamed up by Shonda Rhimes. Yet neuroscience, or the study of the function of the nervous system and brain, may be fundamental to helping us understand our current political moment. Thanks to new technology such as the fMRI scanner (functional magnetic resonance imaging), doctors and scientists can watch in real time as stimuli is processed by different parts of the brain and are able to map the results. The results then allow scientists to gain access to new insights into the biological basis for factors which influence our politics, including emotional responses, morality, the desire for power,  xenophobia, nationalism and the general ‘us vs. them’ mentality which seems to dominate current international politics.  

 It’s Not Me, It’s My Amygdala 

 A recent study from University College London and the University of London, focused on mapping the brains of those on the left and right of the political spectrum, has shown some interesting diversions in brain structure and activity. Recruited from the student body at UCL, participants were given a verified political orientation questionnaire and then put in an fMRI for brain mapping. The size or shape of different parts of the brain are generally correlated with the amount of activity that goes on there; the results of the study showed that a larger grey matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex was associated with a liberal assessment on the political questionnaire, while an enlarged right amygdala was associated with conservatism. 

Image Courtesy of Memory Loss Online via Wikimedia Images © 2004, public domain

So, what does this mean? Grey matter is made up of cell nuclei (the command centers of a neuron) and when there is more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex it means there is increased brain activity occurring there. The anterior cingulate cortex is an essential connection between the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for thinking (planning, decision making, personality) and the brain’s limbic system, which handles emotions and emotional responses. What this means is that the anterior cingulate cortex regulates our emotional responses to circumstances we’re faced with, and how our emotions affect the decisions we make. This area of the brain is often studied by mental health professionals because it controls how we avoid, control or regulate painful emotions. Where the anterior cingulate cortex is more active, the person is generally better able to tolerate painful or uncomfortable emotions associated with new or challenging situations. This suggests that these subjects are able to respond to new ideas, challenging concepts or situations, and are better able to tolerate uncertainty, traits sometimes associated with left-leaning politics.  

On the other side, an enlarged right amygdala was found to correlate with political conservatism in the study. The amygdala is also responsible for emotional regulation, but its role is generally acknowledged to be filtering our memories and associating them with certain emotions, sending the most important ones onto different parts of the brain (i.e. the hippocampus) to be stored for the long term. For example, if you were to experience, or even see a film about someone getting mugged in a dark alley, your brain reacts with fear to that scene. The facial expression of the attacker, the darkness of the alley, and the harm inflicted would all be associated with fear by the amygdala and chosen as an important memory to store. This is essential for survival because it makes us instinctively recognize and avoid dangerous situations; you are far less likely now to venture into a dark alley now that the association with danger is stored in your brain. Yet this emotional association can extend beyond pure physical danger to unfamiliar people or places and can make people more resistant to change. Participants with more activity in the amygdala may be less able to tolerate uncertainty and more likely to react to unfamiliar people or situations with fear, traits which political scientists associate with conservatism.   

Emotions, Morality and Neurotransmitters 

These emotional reactions can have a huge, if unintended, impact on our everyday politics. Feelings of nationalism which are exacerbated by populist leaders are based both on a sense of belonging and attachment, and an ‘us vs. them’ exclusionary mindset. A sense of belonging to a certain group (such as a family, or a group of friends) is an essential part of socialization, the process in which we recognize there is a larger world out there that we are connected to and part of. Nationalist leaders often manipulate this by using the concept of the nation as a way to exclude others, which is reflected in how we exhibit empathy. FMRI scans have shown that in viewing others perceived to be outside our group, mirror neurons which allow us to observe and feel affiliated to other peoples’ actions (to put ourselves in their shoes, so to speak) are switched off, meaning little empathy is felt for these ‘outsiders.’  

An ‘us vs. them’ mentality is an ancient tool of survival, helping the first humans recognize and react to people from outside their tribe, who were generally acknowledged to be dangerous. Of course, in today’s complex society the distinction between a dangerous person and a safe one is far more nuanced. Judgements about whether another person belongs to our group can occur in as little as 170 thousandths of a second, but who we judge to belong to ‘our people’ is often shaped by social or cultural factors, including media representations. Neuroscientists have established that this decision occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where this information is then sent elsewhere, including to the emotional processing centers discussed above.  

Neurotransmitters, or chemicals which send signals between cells in the brain or nervous system, are also important in regulating political responses. Serotonin, for example, is a neurotransmitter that has been found to make us more averse to harming others, which pushes us to be more moral and considerate of the consequences for others in our decision-making processes. In humans, abnormally low levels of serotonin in the brain is associated with an insensitivity to harm, as well as disorders which affect emotional processing like depression and anxiety.  

Plasticity, or how we can change our minds (literally)  

All this information comes with important caveats; not only are new scientific conclusions constantly being reached, but neurological processes that influence our politics are complex and involve the interaction of many different parts of the brain. It’s important to recognize that these are not structural differences we are born with, but rather changes that emerge as we are socialized, and that these studies show only correlation between brain structural differences and political leanings, not causation.  

What makes the brain unique as an organ is its plasticity, or its ability to change constantly. While we don’t make new brain cells over the course of our lives, the connections between these cells change in response to our environments and our modes of thinking. Scientific consensus is that we are all born with a tabula rasa, or a blank slate when it comes to morality; our brains are pre-programmed to keep us alive, but higher questions of right and wrong are shaped by our experiences and what we are taught. What this means is that we literally have the ability to change our minds in the physical sense; by exposing ourselves to new ideas and experiences, in the political realm or otherwise, we are physically rewiring the connections between the neurons of our brains. This change doesn’t always have to involve adopting a new political position; sometimes it can be as simple as acknowledging the other side is speaking or recognizing that opposing political views don’t preclude friendship. And that truly has the potential to change the world.  



Banner Image: Image Courtesy of geralt via pixabay © 2018, public domain