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'Political neuroscience' says conservatives and liberals are wired differently

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Researchers are discovering distinct differences in the way conservatives and liberals are wired. It’s part of a growing field called ‘political neuroscience.’ For the Ohio Newsroom, Ideastream Public Media’s Jeff St.Clair reports that today’s stark partisan divide may have more to do with biology than politics…

Politics has been called the ‘art of compromise’. It requires one to see things from the other’s point of view. That has never been easy, and in today’s highly polarized climate, nearly impossible... And researchers are beginning to understand why.

Brains of people from the right and left ends of the political spectrum are just wired differently, according to Sunny Yang, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University...

“Without any political like stimuli, we just scan the brain. And based on this scanned brain, we literally just predict someone's political orientation.”

Yang this summer published a study that looked at how people who identify as conservative or liberal processed a variety of so-called ‘tasks’, such as looking at emotion-laden photos of faces, memory games, and quizzes.

Yang says one region of the brain consistently lights up in people on the right side of the political spectrum…

“The conservative feel more comfortable with security because this amygdala, this region activated more than liberal.”

The amygdala, buried deep in the brain, has long been associated with our fight or flight response. It signifies a sensitivity to perceived threats in decision making.

Yang says liberals are wired differently, using parts of the brain that tamp down on the fear response, known as the anterior cingulate cortex…

“The liberal people are more like the allow or desires, some novelty and complexity because they use anterior cingulate cortex more than the conservative people.”

Yang and her colleagues are not the first to see these findings.

Ingrid Haas runs the Political Attitudes and Cognition Lab at the University of Nebraska. She says similar brain scan studies show the amygdala plays a prominent role in conservative brain function…

“There's been a hypothesis put forth by actually some of my colleagues at Nebraska that conservatives are more sensitive to negative emotional information, that they're more reactive potentially to, um, to photos or ideas or issue positions that invoke fear or disgust or some other negative emotion.”

Liberals, on the other hand, activate the Anterior Cingulate Cortex when faced with political dilemmas, which Haas says tempered the emotional reaction…

So basically they were seemingly spending more time and effort processing that information. And they also took longer to respond in the task.”

These findings may help explain the way both parties fire up the base, focusing either on threats to individual liberty or on broad social injustice…

“Liberals in some cases tend to focus more on issues like harm and fairness, whereas conservatives might care more about threats to their in-group or perceived threats to their in-group.”

Haas says political neuroscience is revealing the neurological basis that may underlie the stripped-down, no-holds barred level of political discourse America finds itself in right now… What Liz Cheney calls, ‘the fundamental fight for the soul of the country…’

“This conflict is not you know, it's not just about policy issues anymore. It's become about people's social and group identities and the and the perceived threats and slights they see from the other side.”

Rising social tension and even rumblings of a looming civil war are increasingly part of today’s political climate – conflicts arguably based on little more than differences in neural processing.

But where do these differences come from? Skyler Cranmer, a political science professor at Ohio State University, took part in the study with Sunny Yang…

“What this work is not saying is that we have found that your neural behavior or your neural profile causes your political ideology.”

He calls it’s a classic chicken and egg dilemma…

“We don’t know whether you have your ideology because of your neural pattern, or you have that neural pattern because of your ideology.”

All scientists can safely say is that conservatives and liberals are wired differently. And perhaps our two-party perspective grew out of that dichotomy. Researcher Ingrid Haas reminds us that passion has always been a political tool along with persuasion and compromise…

“You're not really ever making decisions that are purely rational or only cognitive. Your brain is always processing information in terms of emotion as well. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing.”

Knowing that our political conflicts are at least in part based on biology could help us step back a little from the deep partisan divide splitting our country - provided clearer heads prevail.