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Thread: Gray matter: Liberal Brains vs. Conservative Brains

  1. #1 Gray matter: Liberal Brains vs. Conservative Brains 
    Veracity Vigilante inow's Avatar
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    I considered putting this in the politics section as I suspect the conversation could drift that way, but I came across this interesting article today.


    It's not the first study I've seen linking neuroanatomical differences to ideological differences, but this one was very specific.

    What do you think?
    Is brain composition the primary variable in political leaning or "left/right ideology," or is there something more?
    Is it related to upbringing?
    Is it classic nature/nurture where it's a bit of both?

    What do you think of the study?


    http://www.smartplanet.com/technolog...e-brains/3896/
    To mark the Friday expiration of a temporary budget resolution (and perhaps an end to the stalemate that threatens to shut the federal government down), here’s a little liberal versus conservative neuroanatomy.

    Researchers claim to have found differences in brain structure between people who identify themselves as either politically conservative or liberal.



    <...>

    * Liberals tended to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex – an area that becomes active in situations involving conflict or uncertainty. Having a higher capacity to tolerate those kinds of things could allow individuals to accept more liberal views, the authors suggest.

    * Conservatives tended to have a larger right amygdala – a region involved in detecting threats and responding to fearful stimuli. People with this brain structure are likely more sensitive to disgust and threatening facial expressions and tend to “respond to threatening situations with more aggression,” the study says.


    Just looking at brain scans, the researchers say they could predict who was liberal and who was conservative with about 75% accuracy.

    http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceno...e-.html?ref=hp

    Politics can be a touchy topic, especially when it comes to neuroscience. Researchers who've dared to tackle questions about how people's political leanings might be reflected in the brain have often earned scoffs and scoldings from their colleagues. A provocative new study is likely to be no exception. It claims to find features of brain anatomy that differ between people who identify themselves as politically conservative or politically liberal.

    <...>

    "It's provocative," says social cognitive neuroscientist David Amodio of New York University. Amodio is no stranger to political neurocontroversy. A paper he published in Nature Neuroscience in 2007 resulted in some hyperbolic headlines and punditry in the mainstream media and a critical backlash from skeptical neuroscience bloggers. In that study, when Amodio and colleagues used electroencephalography to investigate brain activity, they found a correlation between greater activity in the anterior cingulate and political liberalism. The picture that emerges from that work, Kanai's study, and other research is that "even complex political views are probably rooted in more basic psychological and brain processes," Amodio says.

    Link to the actual study here: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/...-2?script=true


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  3. #2 Re: Gray matter: Liberal Brains vs. Conservative Brains 
    Forum Isotope Bunbury's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by inow
    What do you think?
    Is brain composition the primary variable in political leaning or "left/right ideology,"
    If the study is to be believed brain composition might predispose an individual to a certain political leaning. In this sense it might be considered primary (i.e. comes first). In coming first, it will require mental effort to change and is likely not to change in people who are not very analytical. Therefore it could be primary in the sense of most important as well.

    or is there something more?
    Presumably that individual also has some analytical capability that allows the predisposition to be resisted or rejected on the basis of evidence.

    Is it related to upbringing?
    The subjects were "young adults". You would have to study the brains of infants to see if the physical differences preexist any parental influence, and then follow through to see how the infants align politically as they grow up.

    Is it classic nature/nurture where it's a bit of both?
    Probably. As a lifelong liberal who once voted for Margaret Thatcher I'd have to say yes.


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    Forum Cosmic Wizard i_feel_tiredsleepy's Avatar
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    I think its a bit more complicated though. We have to consider how political parties are also associated with identity politics. People who agree essentially on the same issues may vote differently entirely along reasons of cultural association. The gay community is a good example of this, I know plenty of my fellow gays who are anything but liberal in much of their politics but vote left because of social conservatism.

    It's also complicated by the fact that left/right wing is not a fixed thing. In the US the political left would be considered moderately right of center in Canada. And being conservative in the 19th century was very different from being conservative in the 20th century.

    How do we account for demographic shifts in voting patterns if neurology is playing such a big role.
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    Forum Isotope Bunbury's Avatar
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    You're right, of course. Did the researchers define "left" and "right" in terms of economic theory or social issues? On the Libertarian fringe they often combine liberal social views with conservative economics. Is a Libertarian left or right? They said the subjects were self-described as liberal or conservative so we can only guess what this means.

    Good point.
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    It was based on self-report. The participants decided how they see themselves, and this is generally a good approach to questions like this, as the concepts of liberal and conservative encompass many different domains. The participants self-rated where themselves on a spectrum to describe their personal ideology... Something like "would you classify yourself as Liberal, Conservative, Very Liberal, Very Conservative, Neutral" ... and I suspect they did this for a bunch of different questions across social and economic ideas, then aggregated them... but I haven't read the article since it's paywalled and don't know.



    In a large sample of young adults, we related self-reported political attitudes to gray matter volume using structural MRI. We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala. These results were replicated in an independent sample of additional participants. Our findings extend previous observations that political attitudes reflect differences in self-regulatory conflict monitoring [4] and recognition of emotional faces [5] by showing that such attitudes are reflected in human brain structure. Although our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work [4, 6,4, 6] to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes.


    As for the rest of you, I'm sure many were expecting to open this thread and see something closer to the below, except with the word "Human" replaced by the word "Liberal" and the word "Rat" replaced by the word "Conservative," right?


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    I edited my second post to make it apolitical. Now you are trying to derail your own thread!
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  8. #7  
    Veracity Vigilante inow's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bunbury
    I edited my second post to make it apolitical. Now you are trying to derail your own thread!
    Actually, if I'm to be honest... quite the opposite. I'm trying to get more than two people to participate... but... shhhh... let's keep that between us.
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    Quote Originally Posted by inow
    Quote Originally Posted by Bunbury
    I edited my second post to make it apolitical. Now you are trying to derail your own thread!
    Actually, if I'm to be honest... quite the opposite. I'm trying to get more than two people to participate... but... shhhh... let's keep that between us.
    I'm chronically interested in the topic of evo psych and lean towards the moral psychology angle -- so much so that I made a point of seeking out a forum where this article was being discussed.

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/mora...y10_index.html

    You are kindly invited to read the introduction on that page and then, I'd suggest, go to Joshua Greene's presentation, which I think orients one to the political justification for paying attention to this kind of research.

    There's also the Evolutionary Psychology topic at Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/topic...ary-psychology
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  10. #9  
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    Quote Originally Posted by lwpoet
    I'm chronically interested in the topic of evo psych and lean towards the moral psychology angle -- so much so that I made a point of seeking out a forum where this article was being discussed.
    I'm not sure how the links you shared specifically relate to this discussion, but they are good ones. Thanks for sharing.






    Quote Originally Posted by i_feel_tiredsleepy
    In the US the political left would be considered moderately right of center in Canada.
    This is such a fascinating, yet true comment. The hero of the right, Ronald Reagan, would seem like a pinko leftie by today's standards.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jun...e-cap-20100607
    http://www.cpa-connecticut.com/blog/?p=1760
    http://blogs.ajc.com/cynthia-tucker/...for-gop-today/
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    Let me ask a different question. We're approaching a point where we can genetically engineer children before they are born, and are making amazing progress on a human brain gene map. So, assume for a moment that we're living in a world where you (for whatever reason) must do some genetic engineering on the child. Which would you choose...


    Would you choose for your child to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex... which means they are more comfortable with uncertainty and conflict?
    Or...
    Would you choose for your child to have a larger right amygdala... which means they are more prone to detecting threats and to see stimuli as fearful?



    So, said another way... Do you genetically engineer your kid to be liberal or to be conservative... if for some random reason you actually had to make this choice?
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  12. #11  
    Forum Isotope Bunbury's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by inow
    So, said another way... Do you genetically engineer your kid to be liberal or to be conservative... if for some random reason you actually had to make this choice?
    As already said, it's not that black and white, and I think your tongue is slightly in cheek.

    Assuming one made such a choice, the brain architecture would only create a predisposition, not a locked-in immutable set of beliefs. If the natural occurrence of different brain geometries can be assumed to be somewhat uniform across the world then what would account for the widespread acceptance of socialism in Sweden versus its general rejection (at least in the rhetoric if not in practice) in the USA, if not the environment?

    So if one's political outlook is a result of nature and nurture where does free will come into it?
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    Veracity Vigilante inow's Avatar
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    Well, I'm shooting from the hip here, but... I suspect that the parent who chose nature to predispose their child toward one or the other would also be the type of parent to nurture said child toward one or the other predispositions.
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    Shooting from another hip, I'd guess that if we all had some kind of ideal knowledge of outcome, we'd choose one path for everyone else's children -- to be fair in the aggregate -- but likely cheat to give our own an advantage. Which perhaps is say that I don't think we can be trusted with such questions.
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  15. #14  
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    I wonder if this type of brain imaging would replicate if we were comparing birthers to those who accept the president was born in Hawaii, or among those who think global warming is a sham versus those who accept it as valid.
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    What's a birther?
    The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas - Tao Te Ching

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    http://www.itsyourturn.com/
    Challenge me, Delphi, and join the Pythian games.
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  17. #16  
    Forum Cosmic Wizard i_feel_tiredsleepy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Prometheus
    What's a birther?
    Someone who believes Obama was not born in the USA.
    "I almost went to bed
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    I put in the button-hole
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  18. #17  
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    ... and that his birth certificate is fake.


    So... What do you all think? Would we be able to detect differences in the brain between these folks and those who aren't birthers?
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  19. #18  
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    Quote Originally Posted by inow
    ... and that his birth certificate is fake.


    So... What do you all think? Would we be able to detect differences in the brain between these folks and those who aren't birthers?
    I don't think being a birther is a stand-alone ailment. I'd suggest it's part of a syndrome that might include several other traits including a touch of latent bigotry, jealousy and greed. You have to separate "birther leaders" (Palin, Trump and a number of opportunistic Republican politicians) from birther sheep. The leaders are in it for greed and ego and avoidance of having to get a real job, and probably don't believe what they are saying. The sheep are simply being manipulated for monetary gain.

    So I don't think you'll find an area of brain that lights up and says "birther", but you might be able to deduce that type of belief from less specific indications.

    But you don't need a brain scan. Birthers tend not to be modest in advertising their beliefs.
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  20. #19  
    Veracity Vigilante inow's Avatar
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    Excellent points. I find myself agreeing fairly completely.
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  21. #20  
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    Quote Originally Posted by inow
    Excellent points. I find myself agreeing fairly completely.
    Careful, your anterior cingulate cortex is showing.
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  22. #21  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bunbury
    Careful, your anterior cingulate cortex is showing.
    I've always had a bit of an exhibitionist streak.


    Ever since I studied neuroscience in school, I've really enjoyed studies like the one I posted in the OP. Political differences, differences in religious approach, morality... it can all be measured in some degree by looking at the brain itself. It's pretty fascinating.
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  23. #22  
    Forum Sophomore MiguelSR1's Avatar
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    to summarize, I think all of your 3 propositions do play roles in such endeavor. I'm allover this forum now whhhhaaaaaaaa
    Imagination is key to the logic of thought, a greatest eternal truth.

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  24. #23  
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    Quote Originally Posted by inow
    Quote Originally Posted by Bunbury
    Careful, your anterior cingulate cortex is showing.
    I've always had a bit of an exhibitionist streak.


    Ever since I studied neuroscience in school, I've really enjoyed studies like the one I posted in the OP. Political differences, differences in religious approach, morality... it can all be measured in some degree by looking at the brain itself. It's pretty fascinating.
    Interesting NEUROSCIENCE! some say this field will eventually replace Psychology, what can be better that studying the source of reactions instead of studying the reactions
    Imagination is key to the logic of thought, a greatest eternal truth.

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  25. #24  
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    Similar findings reported in the article below reminded me of this thread:


    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisf...es?INTCMP=SRCH
    Here's no surprise: beliefs that we imagine to be rational are bound up in all kinds of other stuff. Political stances, for example, correlate with various personality features. One major review in 2003 looked at 38 different studies, containing data on 20,000 participants, and found that overall, political conservatism was associated with things such as death anxiety, fear of threat and loss, intolerance of uncertainty, a lack of openness to experience, and a need for order, structure and closure.

    Beliefs can also be modified by their immediate context. One study from 2004, for example, found that when you make people think about death ("please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you") they are more likely to endorse an essay discussing how brilliant George Bush was in his response to 9/11.

    A new study looks at intelligent design, the more superficially palatable form of creationism, promoted by some religious groups, which claims that life is too complex to have arisen through evolution and natural selection. Intelligent design implies a reassuring universe, with a supernatural creator, and it turns out that if you make people think about death, they're less likely to approve of a Richard Dawkins essay, and more likely to rate intelligent design highly.

    So that's settled: existential angst drives us into the hands of religion. Rather excellently, after all, the effect was partially reversed when people also read a Carl Sagan essay on how great it is to find meaning in the universe for yourself using science.
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  26. #25 Re: Gray matter: Liberal Brains vs. Conservative Brains 
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    Quote Originally Posted by inow
    Is brain composition the primary variable in political leaning or "left/right ideology," or is there something more?
    Everything you think, is your "brain composition". So composition is more than a variable: it *is* the political leaning.

    Likewise you'll find that people blind since childhood have a characteristic brain structure. Does this mean they're predisposed to blindness, and perhaps through
    genetic engineering
    we could prevent their loss of sight? I'll bet that one could find the neural paths that make knitters knit, too. And so forth.

    I think you're assigning different ways of looking at the same thing (brains and minds), as causes and effects. Then the (inevitable) correlation seems to prove one leads to the other.
    A pong by any other name is still a pong. -williampinn
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  27. #26 Re: Gray matter: Liberal Brains vs. Conservative Brains 
    Veracity Vigilante inow's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    I'll bet that one could find the neural paths that make knitters knit, too. And so forth.
    I find that there is a flaw in your model here, primarily in that you suggest single "neural paths" for predilections like knitting, wherein those things are deeply complex and spread around various parts of the brain... a complex aggregate between motor function, vision, executive function, planning, and emotional response.

    This all involves a multitude of areas, so I'm just calling attention to the fact that it's likely much more complex than you imply. I suspect that it won't be that simple.

    More likely, there will be a population of traits with similar neural architecture (creative things, wherein things like knitting, wood working, cooking, and engineering share similar activity areas in the brain), so you could predispose the child potentially to a group of activities, but no single activity in itself.
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  28. #27  
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    Agreed. I had in mind the procedural routines that knitters must have deeply etched from repetition. E.g. knit or purl would show distinct signatures. A knack for knitting is something else.
    A pong by any other name is still a pong. -williampinn
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