The Political Brain

Why is it that, when faced with precisely the same information, different people will draw different conclusions? Nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of politics where the same circumstances will lead one person to conclude that a left-wing solution is required while another person will see the same situation as requiring a right-wing solution.

These differences have traditionally been attributed to a variety of factors ranging from social conditioning to ignorance, but recent research has suggested that the choices we make find their origins in the 'hard wiring' of the brain and that our opinions are more innate that we might assume.

The research was carried out by Professor Geraint Rees of University College London following an enquiry from the BBC Today programme's guest editor, the actor Colin Firth. He asked the Professor to examine the brains of two UK politicians with widely differing views. The objective was to see whether our political beliefs and values are learned or hard wired from birth: the product of our experience or genetic heritage.

The MPs concerned were the Labour stalwart Stephen Pound and Thatcherite Conservative Alan Duncan. Since a sample size of just two people would not provide meaningful results, the study also included a number of people who had previously undertaken brain scans at the UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

As a result, the scientists found that people with conservative views tend to have brains with larger amygdalas, an almond-shaped brain structure about two centimetres long that is located in the lower (or limbic) part of the brain that has long been linked with a person's mental and emotional state. On the other hand, they have a smaller anterior cingulate, an area of the cerebral brain associated with courage and looking on the bright side of life.

Commenting on the results, Professor Rees said: "It is very surprising because it does suggest there is something about political attitude that is encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that there is something in our brain structure that determines or results in political attitude."

However, whether these differences are the result of nature or nurture is yet to be seen. Although today's neuroscientists seem to believe that nature accounts for more than 50% of "who we are", it is known that repeated use of parts of the brain will lead to their enlargement. For example, a study of taxi drivers in 2000 found that the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is important for long-term memory, is larger and more highly developed in London taxi drivers than in most people. Moreover, they found that the hippocampus grew larger and larger the longer a driver worked on the job.

It is however interesting that political allegiances often seem to run in families. While this has generally been viewed as being as a result of offspring adopting the views of their parents, perhaps the genetic link has more to do with it than previously realised?

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Posted January 2011

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