Sunday, March 9, 2014

Science and Our Brains on Politics

© Charles D. Hayes

For many years I’ve been fascinated by discoveries in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, especially by what they suggest about our political nature. Much has been learned in the past couple of decades about how our political minds work. We know, for example, that politics can have a definite imprint on brain structure and that the brains of liberals and conservatives can reflect such differences. Unfortunately, so far at least, there appears to be no public benefit as a result.

 People who self-identify as partisan liberals tend to have a greater volume of gray matter in an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex. This brain structure enables a person to be more comfortable in the face of uncertainty. By contrast, self-identifying partisan conservatives tend to have a larger right amygdala, making them more alert to the possibilities of threat or impending harm. Both dispositions are necessary for achieving and maintaining social equilibrium.

What we know for certain is that people on the far left and far right see the world so differently that they have great difficulty arguing because very often they can’t even agree on the meaning of simple words. We know that when it comes to political argument, people with strong political views are adept at tuning out the other side. A flood of emotion effectively blocks reception of the opposition’s view, allowing one to work on a counterargument while the other party drones on unaware.

We know further from split-brain studies that human beings are particularly good at rationalization. We are experts at coming up with explanations for our behavior that have nothing, whatsoever, to do with our real reasons for acting, regardless of the situation or circumstance. It is not an exaggeration to say that when pressured to explain our behavior in any number of circumstances, we will just pull reasons out of a hat.

We also know with some confidence that in children as young as three or four it may be possible to predict with a high degree of accuracy whether they will grow up to be liberals or conservatives. The main criterion is their disposition for being open to new experience. Liberals are inclined to be more curious while conservatives are more cautious, fearful, or less trusting, as the earlier finding about structural brain differences suggests.

We know from studies of twins that humans have a genetic predisposition for left or right political positions, but that this inclination is not destiny. It can be overridden by culture. In other words, a child predisposed toward liberalism can grow up as a conservative in a conservative family, and the reverse can occur with a child prone toward conservatism who is raised as a liberal.

It should be clear from our history that both liberal and conservative values and behaviors are necessary for sustaining culture. Conservatives are demonstratively more tribalistic than liberals, while liberals are explicitly more concerned with achieving fairness and justice. The former brings the group closer together while the latter increases its membership. But moving too far in either direction is a recipe for tyranny. That we strive for balance and appreciate the values of both liberalism and conservatism is crucial for our continued existence. We know these things, but we are not very good at demonstrating that we do.

Neuroscience raises far more questions than it answers, but the questions, by nature of their profundity, should require that we pay close attention to them. From what has been presented so far, it should be considered a no-brainer that we can't be trusted to do politics without safeguards and mediators to make sure that we are listening to our opposition instead of simply concentrating on conjuring a retort. This may not seem so important for you and me, but for the politicians who represent us it is of profound importance. For all practical purposes, though, our political houses of government appear oblivious to the discoveries in behavioral science.

 If a child's natural predisposition for politics can be overridden by culture, is that not proof that all of the parts of one's brain can be utilized if attention is given to subjects that involve a particular part of the brain? Shouldn’t this be an educational objective? If not, why not? If each of us has a part of our brain that hasn't been fully developed, then we are cheating ourselves by not seeing to it that it gets a proper amount of stimulation.

I have a theory—for which I have no proof, only personal experience and observation—which is that people whose natural predisposition has been overwhelmed by their culture and who have assumed a political posture that conflicts with their inborn temperament are very likely to be the most extreme partisans on the left or right. What they are relying on is conflicted emotion to begin with, and I suspect they may harbor an unacknowledged and subconscious resentment for having had their natural inclinations thwarted. This emotional conflict sets up a pressure-cooker that causes them to suffer exceptional anxiety without knowing why or what is really bothering them.

I don’t know of any research that supports this view or even how researchers might proceed to test for it. I think, however, that this may have been true for me personally. Raised a hard-right conservative, I used to be intolerant, contemptuous, and very angry when it came to the subject progressive values. Now that I’ve embraced them, I no longer feel conflicted.

If liberalism and conservatism are both necessary to attain and sustain civilization, and if citizens cannot learn to appreciate this reality within their own minds, does this not mean in some way that we have been addled, misguided, or ill-educated? If something is demonstrably factual and yet we are unable to acknowledge it as being true in any sense, have we not been injured by culture or circumstance? While it may be to our advantage that people can have predispositions that favor one part of the brain over another, it is not to our advantage to the extent that one becomes completely closed off to recognizing the values of the others.

Where is the Socratic influence to come from if not from science, which clearly demonstrates that our very existence is threatened if we can’t maintain some equilibrium toward political objectivity and the wisdom we gain through the study of human behavior? In my view, the discoveries in neuroscience suggest we have completely fumbled the ball in public education by focusing too much on creating human doings and not human beings.

If one's political opposition is necessary by design but we can’t see our opponents as being anything but evil, is this not, in and of itself, a psychological short-circuit that undermines the very idea of democracy and representative government?

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