Brain scan data can predict political affiliation – Commercial Appeal

Over the past two weeks, I, like millions of Americans, watched the Republican and Democratic national conventions. As politicians, celebrities and ordinary people made compelling arguments to vote for their candidate, I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing from right to left, left to right.

But while I was listening, it wasn’t the “political science” which intrigued me but the “brain science” which was in play. I wondered, are we Americans, Republicans who are conservative and Democrats who are progressive, really so different? And how deep do these difference go? I wondered if our brains, the Republican brain and the Democratic brain, are hard-wired differently? Is a brain scan of a Republican different from that of a Democrat?

To my surprise, brain research says yes. In fact, a brain scan can predict the likelihood of a person’s political persuasion with 83 percent certainty, better than the next best predictor, which is the person’s parents’ persuasion.

So how do the Republicans and Democrats think differently?

A 2012 article in the magazine Mind explored the Republican and Democratic brains. Research shows they are different in that the “thinking” or processing to events occurs in different parts of the brain during key decisions. The most exemplary experiment of this is when a group of individuals were involved in a “gambling game” and their brains were imaged by a fMRI scanner, which showed in real time which region of the brain is involved in the processing of a given decision.

The study found that conservatives used the right amygdala, a part of the brain related to fight-or-flight fear response. So when we are walking down a dark alley at night and hear footsteps behind us, the amygdala is activated. In contrast, progressives used the left insula, a part of the brain associated with social and self-awareness. When we are making a moral decision or caving in to an addiction, the insula is activated.

In their experiment, the researchers correlated the scanning data with individuals’ political affiliation based on publicly available primary voting records. They found an 83 percent predictability based on the scans.

One of the most talked- about differences between the two conventions has been how the Republicans highlighted the fears among Americans by focusing on terrorism and crime while the Democrats touted hopeful themes of equality and unity.

Oftentimes, it isn’t the topic — such as terrorism, gun control, the size of government, or health care reform — which sways people but rather how that argument in framed in terms of fear and hope. In one experiment when global warming was reframed for a group of conservatives as “a threat to the American way of life,” individuals were “much more likely to sign petitions for preventing oil spills and protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” than if it were framed as saving the planet or the polar bears.

But the brain scanning data make me wonder: Are we hard-wired from birth to be conservative or progressive?

Unlikely. It is not that we are hard-wired to think “conservatively or progressively”; rather, repeated thinking in a particular way likely hard-wires our brain. The concept is called neuroplasticity. When we repeatedly think in a particular way, it can actually alter the billions of neural pathways in our brains. The repeated thinking then hard-wires those pathways, similar to when we build muscles in a particular part of our body when we exercise it repeatedly.

While some may be fixed in their political views, other voters are open to political persuasion — and the rewiring of the brain. So, I say, bring on the 2016 presidential debates, and let the voters be consciously aware of the political science and the brain science at play.

Source: Commercial Appeal

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