Saturday, February 14, 2015

Conservative and liberal brains again

Ever since the first twin studies of the matter came out in the '80s, I have been pointing out that political orientation has a substantial inherited component and hence arises from inborn differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives.  That is not at all a popular proposition among either the right or on the Left but the scientific evidence for it continues to accumulate.  We can now specify to a degree the actual brain regions involved.

The Left endeavour to "spin" the findings concerned in a way favorable to themselves so I do occasionally take a little time to "unspin" such claims.  Below is another example.  It was reported as "Liberals have more tolerance to uncertainty (bigger anterior cingulate cortex), and conservatives have more sensitivity to fear (bigger right amygdala)".  So conservatives are scaredy cats and liberals are fine tolerant people.

They base that on the following excerpt from the original research report:

"...[O]ur findings are consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty. The amygdala has many functions, including fear processing. Individuals with a larger amygdala are more sensitive to fear, which, taken together with our findings, might suggest the testable hypothesis that individuals with larger amagdala are more inclined to integrate conservative views into their belief systems... our finding of an association between anterior cingulate cortex [ACC] may be linked with tolerance to uncertainty. One of the functions of the anterior cingulate cortex is to monitor uncertainty and conflicts. Thus it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views."

As you can see, the report authors were much more tentative in interpreting their findings than were the commentators on it.  The commentators have turned maybes into definite statements.

Most such reports are however parsimoniously interpreted as conservatives being more cautious, which is hardly a discovery. And if there is something wrong with caution then there is everything wrong with a lot of things.  Science, for instance, is a sustained exercise in caution. So conservatives are born more cautious and Leftist brains miss most of that out.  So the "sensitive to fear" report above could be equally well restated as "cautious".  And the finding that liberals "have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts" is pure guesswork.  As the report authors note, that is just "one of the functions of the anterior cingulate cortex".

I give the journal abstract below, paragraphed to make it easier to follow:

Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults

By Ryota Kanai et al.


Substantial differences exist in the cognitive styles of liberals and conservatives on psychological measures [1]. Variability in political attitudes reflects genetic influences and their interaction with environmental factors [2, 3].

Recent work has shown a correlation between liberalism and conflict-related activity measured by event-related potentials originating in the anterior cingulate cortex [4]. Here we show that this functional correlate of political attitudes has a counterpart in brain structure.

In a large sample of young adults, we related self-reported political attitudes to gray matter volume using structural MRI. We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala. These results were replicated in an independent sample of additional participants.

Our findings extend previous observations that political attitudes reflect differences in self-regulatory conflict monitoring [4] and recognition of emotional faces [5] by showing that such attitudes are reflected in human brain structure.

Although our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work [4, 6] to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes.

Current Biology 21, 677–680, April 26, 2011 ยช2011. DOI 10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.017

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