The political brain

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I do hear tell that there may be an election or two in the offing in the next little while.

There are those for whom such affairs are akin to blood sports. They identify so strongly with a particular party, or a particular array of political opinions, that they can’t even bring themselves to admit that someone with a different opinion might, in fact, have an occasional point worth making.

There’s a fairly well-known website called The Political Compass that, through a series of questions, analyzes your opinions and places you on a two-axis chart, with one axis stretching from the political left to the political right and the other from libertarian at the bottom to authoritarian at the top. Thus, you may fall more or less into the authoritarian right, the authoritarian left, the libertarian left, or the libertarian right.

I have no idea how accurate it is, but before I go any further, I should offer full disclosure: when I took it, I fell right smack dab in the middle, so close to the center of both axes as to make no difference. I literally define middle-of-the-road. (I know, how boring is that?)

The Political Compass questionnaire is one way to measure political thinking. But what if you could predict how someone would vote even more directly—through a brain scan?

That’s the tantalizing possibility raised by research conducted by New York University political scientist David Amodio and his colleagues. They set out to determine if the brains of liberals and conservatives (not the Canadian political parties—note the absence of capital letters) respond to stimuli differently.

Previous studies have found that people with conservative political views are more consistent in the way they make decisions than liberals, and tend to crave more order and structure. People with liberal political views are more tolerant of ambiguity and complexity and adapt more readily to unexpected circumstances.

Amodio and associates asked 43 subjects to rate their political persuasion on a scale of -5 to 5, with the lowest number being the most liberal and the highest number the most conservative. Then they had them sit in front of a computer screen and press one of two buttons, depending on whether the screen displayed an “M” or a “W.” They had only half a second to respond.

Each subject completed 500 trials. Eighty percent of the time, he or she saw the same letter, setting up the natural inclination to press that letter over and over again. During the test, an electroencephalograph recorded activity in the anterior cingulated cortex, a part of the brain involved with the process of stopping the brain from following a well-worn path when something has changed (stopping you from driving your car into an unexpected “Road Closed” sign on your way home from work, for example).

The results? When the people who rated themselves as conservatives saw the less common letter, they pressed the “usual”—and in that case, wrong—button 47 percent of the time. Those who rated themselves as liberals had the slightly lower error rate of 37 percent. The brain scans, meanwhile, showed that the self-identified liberals had twice as much activity in the anterior cingulated cortex.

The researchers are quick to say this doesn’t mean liberals are better than conservatives (although, being political scientists in a New York university, there’s a good chance that’s their personal opinion). You could just as easily design a test in which the conservatives got more “right” answers than the liberals.

But it is “interesting and provocative,” as one scientist put it, because if the brains of liberals and conservatives work differently enough to show up on brain scans, you could conceivably use brain scans to predict a person’s voting behavior, rather like pollsters do now, only without all that messy asking-questions-about-the-issues stuff.

Amodio didn’t want to speculate on whether the political persuasion is the result of a genetic difference in brain wiring, or if the way the brain is wired changes with a person’s political persuasion, as it develops over time.

Anyone with strong political views has probably thought to themselves, “I just can’t understand how (person-with-the-opposite-view)’s mind works.”

In a few more years, maybe you will.

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