The Neuroscience Behind Political Thought (Spotlight Series #2)

By Juliana Stauffer

We acknowledge that the political identity of an individual is no doubt grounded in one’s upbringing. Generally, if you have conservative parents, you’re going to have a tendency towards conservative thought, and the same goes with liberalism. Is this a product of our environment or our genetics? What is the neurobiology behind our political beliefs?

First, we should discuss and create a definition of liberalism and conservatism. Can we really say that conservative and liberal individuals are inclined towards a particular thinking style – political ideology is a spectrum, right? Well, the definition is more clear-cut than it seems. The answer is in the name. Conservatives are more inclined towards stability and conserving our tradition. Liberalism is more inclined towards adaptability.

As discovered in a study conducted by NYU Psychology, and further confirmed in study by Ryota Kanai at University College London, liberalism is generally correlated with greater activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (AAC), or larger volume of gray matter in this area. This area of the brain is involved in executive functioning, and is mostly involved with the discerning if certain information is relevant or not. For example, people with schizophrenia often have smaller AACs, as they have trouble differentiating between important and unimportant patterns in the world around them. As such, people with larger AACs often have a larger capability for rational thought, and have lower emotional arousal and higher cognitive control.

On the other hand, as identified in the Kanai study, conservatism is generally correlated with increased volume in the right amygdala. The amygdala is in the limbic center of the brain, which is the system of the brain associated with emotion. This area of the brain is generally more active in conservatives when processing threats, thus leading us to believe that conservatives generally have a more emotional response to threat than liberals do. Larger volume in this area of the brain is associated with stronger emotional reactions to events as well as increased experience and expression of empathy. Additionally, brain activity is lateralized in the amygdala depending on which emotional regulation strategy is used. While the left amygdala is associated with the reappraisal response, involving cognitive re-evaluation, the right side is associated with suppressing emotional behavior. Conservatives generally have larger volume of the right amygdala.

Political neuroscience is an emerging field, and we are only just starting to understand the link between neurobiology and politics. Our beliefs are strongly correlated with our upbringing, personalities, and what we consider to be moral. Additionally, they are also strongly correlated with genetics (people who share genes often share the same political beliefs), but researchers are still working on identifying which genes are responsible and why. Clearly, more factors than just the sizes of our specific brain regions have to do with modulating our political opinions.

When approaching issues like this, it is important to remember one of the most important principles of neuroscience: brain plasticity. With research and education, our brain has the capability to expand the volume of gray matter in the cerebral cortex, which is associated with self-control and decision-making. If we continue to present ourselves with new information and challenge our beliefs, this area of our brain indeed will grow. Additionally, if we understand our biological predispositions, we give ourselves more power to confront them and change our beliefs, biases and behavior. Therefore, it is important to understand political neuroscience not just to present the best information to the other end of the political spectrum in a way that is non-threatening, but to confront our own inclinations toward a specific thought process in a way that allows us to be more critical-thinking.

Vivian Lu