The Political Brain

Read the article below and think about the connection between ideology and biology.

August 22, 2004
The Political Brain
The New York Times

A few months before retiring from public office in 2002, the House majority leader Dick Armey caused a mini-scandal when he announced during a speech in Florida, ''Liberals are, in my estimation, just not bright people.'' The former economics professor went on to clarify that liberals were drawn to ''occupations of the heart,'' while conservatives favored ''occupations of the brain,'' like economics or engineering.

The odd thing about Armey's statement was that it displayed a fuzzy, unscientific understanding of the brain itself: our most compassionate (or cowardly) feelings are as much a product of the brain as ''rational choice'' economic theory is. They just emanate from a different part of the brain -- most notably, the amygdala, the almond-shaped body that lies below the neocortex, in an older brain region sometimes called the limbic system. Studies of stroke victims, as well as scans of normal brains, have persuasively shown that the amygdala plays a key role in the creation of emotions like fear or empathy.

If amygdala activity is a reliable indication of emotional response, a fascinating possibility opens up: turning Armey's muddled poetry into a testable hypothesis. Do liberals ''think'' with their limbic system more than conservatives do? As it happens, some early research suggests that Armey might have been on to something after all.
As The Times reported not long ago, a team of U.C.L.A. researchers analyzed the neural activity of Republicans and Democrats as they viewed a series of images from campaign ads. And the early data suggested that the most salient predictor of a ''Democrat brain'' was amygdala activity responding to certain images of violence: either the Bush ads that featured shots of a smoldering ground zero or the famous ''Daisy'' ad from Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 campaign that ends with a mushroom cloud. Such brain activity indicates a kind of gut response, operating below the level of conscious control.

Could the U.C.L.A. researchers be creating the political science of the future? Consider this possibility: the scientists do an exhaustive survey and it turns out that liberal brains have, on average, more active amygdalas than conservative ones. It's a plausible outcome that matches some of our stereotypes about liberal values: an aversion to human suffering, an unwillingness to rationalize capital punishment and military force, a fondness for candidates who like to feel our pain.
What would that kind of insight tell us that we didn't know already? One thing is certain: evidence of a neurological difference between liberal and conservative brains would not be another instance of genetic determinism, since patterns of brain activity are shaped by experience as much as by genes. (Those who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome also show unusual patterns of amygdala activity, but those patterns are almost inevitably the imprint of a specific event, and not the long arm of DNA.)

Nonetheless, opening up the brain's black box might provide new explanations for how people become Republicans or Democrats, not to mention libertarians or Maoists, in the first place. It's pretty to think that we all decide our political affiliations by methodically studying each party's positions on the issues. But a recent study by Paul Goren at Arizona State found that voters typically formed their party affiliations before developing specific political values. They become Democrats first and then decide that they, say, oppose capital punishment and support trade unions. But how do they make that initial decision to be a Democrat? The most likely indicator of political preference is your parents' party affiliation, but if everyone simply voted along family lines, the dominant party would simply be the one whose members had the most voting offspring. The real question is why someone would ever break from the family tradition -- without feeling strongly either way about specific issues.
Those M.R.I. scans suggest an explanation. Perhaps we form political affiliations by semiconsciously detecting commonalities with other people, commonalities that ultimately reflect a shared pattern of brain function. In the mid-1960's, the social psychologist Donn Byrne conducted a series of experiments in which the participants were given a description of several hypothetical strangers' attitudes and beliefs. They were then asked which stranger they would most enjoy having as a co-worker. The subjects consistently preferred the company of strangers with attitudes similar to their own. Opposites repel.

Say you're inclined to form strong emotional responses to images of violence or human suffering, and over the course of your formative years, most of the people you meet who respond to these images with comparable affect turn out to be Democrats. That's a commonality of experience that exists beneath conscious political affiliation -- it's closer to a gut instinct than a rational choice -- but if you meet enough Democrats who share that experience, sooner or later you start carrying the card yourself. Political identity starts with a shared temperament and only afterward deposits a layer of positions on the issues.

Seeing political identity as a reflection of common brain architecture helps explain another longstanding riddle: why do people vote against their immediate interests? Why do blue-collar Republicans and limousine liberals exist? The question becomes less puzzling if you assume that 1) people choose parties primarily because they desire the companionship of people who share their cognitive wiring, and 2) they desire that companionship so much they're willing to pay for the privilege.
These are all hypotheses now, and indeed it may turn out that some other region of the brain plays a more important role in creating political values. But if the U.C.L.A. results hold water over time, it won't justify the Armey theory that liberals are somehow less rational than conservatives. One of the most celebrated insights of the past 20 years of neuroscience is the discovery -- largely associated with the work of Antonio Damasio -- that the brain's emotional systems are critical to logical decision-making. People who suffer from damaged or impaired emotional systems can score well on logic tests but often display markedly irrational behavior in everyday life. Dustin Hoffman's autistic character in ''Rain Man'' was brilliant with numbers, but you wouldn't necessarily want him in the White House.

Is there something intrinsically reductive or fatalistic in connecting political values to brain functioning? No more so than ascribing them to race or economic background, which we happily do without second thought. Isn't it more dehumanizing to attribute your beliefs to economic conditions outside your control? At least your brain is inalienably yours -- it's where the whole category ''you'' originates. No one denies that social conditions shape political values. But the link between the brain and the polis is still uncharted terrain. Prozac showed us that the slightest tinkering with brain chemistry could have transformative effects on a person's worldview. Who is to say those effects don't travel all the way to the voting booth?

Steven Johnson is the author most recently of ''Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life.''

More pages