The neurobiology of politics

What, if anything, should we make of studies that purport to find neurological differences between people who self-identify as "conservative" and people who self-identify as "liberal?" You've seen studies like that in the paper. You've heard them argued about on radio and TV shows. But what do they actually mean? Is this just so much high-tech phrenology? Is it a smug way for one group to make snide commentary about the other group under the guise of "science?" Is your political affiliation determined by your mind, or by your brain?

Behavioral therapist Andrea Kuszewski has a great guest post up at The Intersection blog, looking at what we can (and can't) learn from the handful of studies that have attempted to link politics and neurobiology. None of these studies have been perfectly well-done, she writes. But, despite being flawed in different ways, they're coming to some of the same conclusions—conservatives seem to have a more active amygdala and liberals seem to have a more active anterior cingulate cortex. You can shorten that into a headline-grabbing statement about conservatives being driven more by emotions and liberals by logic. But it's really, really not as simple as that.

If you're going to talk about these studies at all, Kuszewski writes, you're going to have to understand the context behind them. In other words: This is an issue chock full of yesbuts. And, without them, you're going to come to some very wrong conclusions.

This is definitely a story worth reading all the way through. It is, however, a difficult story to excerpt ... at least, without committing the very sins the article is meant to correct. But out of all the yesbuts Kuszewski identifies, I'd like to highlight this one, in particular, because I think it's often overlooked in many popular discussions of neurobiology and culture.

1. The brain is plastic. Meaning, every time we engage in any activity, our brain changes somewhat, even if only to a very small degree. In fact, your brain is a little bit different right now than when you started reading this article. And a little different now. Engaging in any activity excessively or intensely over a long period of time changes your brain even more—such as training for a sport or spending a long time practicing and becoming proficient at a skill. Conversely, if you stop using an area of your brain to a significant degree, it will probably shrink in size due to lack of connectivity, similar to the atrophy of muscles. When it comes to the brain areas measured in these studies, we aren’t sure how much of the difference was there to begin with, or to what degree the brain changed as a function of being in a particular political party. I suspect both things contribute somewhat. How much? We have no way of knowing at this point. To say conclusively, we need a longitudinal study, with control groups, measuring brain volume before and after joining, leaving, or participating in a political party’s activities or ideologies.