New research from London suggests we have different brain structures based on our political leanings
Last week's Congressional brinksmanship over the budget illustrated, once again, just how polarized the different camps in Congress have become. Granted, some amount of the distance between the public stances legislators took can be explained by a combination of maneuvering for votes back home and posturing for political gain in the constant power struggle that is Washington. But still. Watching the two sides argue, it was clear that they didn't just differ on details. There are entirely different worldviews behind each camp's budget proposals ... different enough that one might wonder if they're really all experiencing the same reality.
Well, according to neuroscientists in Britain ... they might not be.
In a report published last Thursday, neuroscience researchers from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London announced that they had found evidence that liberals and conservatives actually have different brain structures.
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Ryota Kanai and colleagues conducted MRI scans of 118 college students whose self-reported political views ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." Many areas of the subjects' brains showed no difference based on political orientation. But the subjects classifying themselves as "liberal" had a higher volume of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex of their brains than study participants who classified themselves as "conservative." The anterior cingulate cortex is believed to play a role in helping people cope with and sort through uncertainty and conflicting information, as well as affecting their levels of emotional awareness and empathy. The "conservative" participants, on the other hand, had a higher volume of gray matter in the right amygdala region -- which is thought to play a big role in identifying and responding to threats.
The brain is incredibly complex, of course, and we are still only in the baby stages of understanding how and why it works the way it does. But in theory, someone with a larger amygdala would very likely be quicker to see threats and feel fear, whereas someone with a smaller amygdala but larger anterior cingulate cortex, given the same stimuli, would be more likely to consider other possibilities or explanations for that stimuli. The "larger anterior cingulate cortex" group would also be more likely to look at people the first group saw as threatening and see, instead, people in need of a helping hand.
This is not the first time researchers have looked for physiological or psychological underpinnings for our political viewpoints or worldviews. In his 2009 Atlanticarticle about the longitudinal Grant Study that followed 268 Harvard students throughout their lives, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported that "personality traits assigned by the psychiatrists in the initial interviews largely predicted who would become Democrats (descriptions included 'sensitive,' 'cultural,' and 'introspective') and Republicans ('pragmatic' and 'organized)."
Indeed, Kanai said the MRI research was sparked by other recent psychological studies that found correlations between participants' functional behavior (accurately sorting through conflicting information, recognizing threats) and their stated political beliefs. In the MRI-based study, Kanai said, "We show that this functional correlate of political attitudes has a counterpart in brain structure."
But what does that mean? Are we hard-wired to disagree with each other from birth, because our brains process data from the world in fundamentally different ways? That question remains to be answered. It's possible that brain structure is set early, but it's also possible that it's influenced by experiences and environment. Kanai and his colleagues note in the report that other research efforts have already shown that brain structure "can exhibit systematic relationships with an individual's experiences and skills," and "can change after extensive training." And people certainly have been known to change their worldviews as they get older.
Clearly, Kanai and his colleagues are just scratching the surface of a very complex subject. But their research does raise some interesting questions. If experience does, in fact, influence brain structure, could a person exposed to high levels of legitimate threats over time develop a larger right amygdala to better respond to them? In other words, if you took someone who was a professed liberal and sent them to the front lines in Afghanistan for three years, would they return with a larger right amygdala, developed from an urgent need to identify and respond to threats every day? And along with that change in brain structure, would their political views shift to the right, as well? And what about children raised in a war zone? Do a great number of them end up with large right amygdalas? And, in turn, does that make them more likely to see the world in terms of threats and more absolute answers, with less tolerance for conflicting explanations or information, and less ability to feel empathy? If so, it might go a long way to explaining some of the entrenched positions in, say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Of course, that still doesn't explain people who've lived fairly secure lives but still see the world in terms of threats to be defended against, or people who've grown up in the middle of chaos and conflict and become peacemakers, overflowing with empathy and tolerance of conflicting complexity, even to a fault. What's more, few of us in mid-life see the world in as absolutely black-and-white clear terms as we did when we were 20. So another interesting follow-up would be to do a longitudinal study of brain structure over people's lifetimes, to see how those areas change. In fact, Kanai and his colleagues say as much in their report. "It requires a longitudinal study," the researchers conclude, "to determine whether the changes in brain structure that we observed lead to changes in political behavior or whether political attitudes and behavior instead result in changes of brain structure."
In any event, the University College study provides some biological proof for an important point: namely, that all of us see the world through lenses. None of us has a completely objective view of reality or truth -- a point that all of us would do well to remember. Imagine, for example, the difference in tone the debates in Congress might have if every legislator began by saying, "I recognize that I may view the same data differently than my colleagues because of the particular lenses or biases I have. But this is what I believe..."
Would it make a difference in the outcome? Possibly not. But somewhere in the recognition that our take on any given situation is not the only view, or the "right" or "obvious" or "logical" or "objective" view, but only our point of view ... lie the seeds for a more open, civil, and productive discussion.
But then, of course, that's just my point of view.
The Party of Lincoln's nominee returned to the site of his greatest speech, to attack the faith in democratic government that Lincoln so carefully fostered.
The world still judges Lincoln by his Gettysburg Address. Now, it may judge Donald Trump the same way—but with strikingly different results.
On Saturday, Trump spoke to supporters in the small Pennsylvania town where, a century and a half before, Americans met in battle. It was a speech that, as much as any in this campaign, offered the very best of Trump, underscoring why so many Americans are drawn to his candidacy. It also offered the very worst.
He began by invoking Lincoln’s fight against division, and framed his run as dedication to something larger than himself. “When I saw the trouble that our country was in, I knew I could not stand by and watch any longer. Our country has been so good to me, I love our country, and I felt I had to act.”
What use is there today for one of the oldest virtues?
As many Americans go about their days, I imagine they have two little angels perched on their shoulders, whispering conflicting messages about happiness and material wealth. One angel is embodied by James Altucher, a minimalist self-help guru recently profiled by The New York Times. Altucher claims to have only 15 possessions, after having unburdened himself a few months ago of 40 garbage bags’ worth of stuff and never looking back. As I read about Altucher, I rolled the numbers 15 and 40 over in my mind, thinking about the belongings in my bedroom and the garbage bags under my kitchen sink.
The other angel is Tyler Brûlé, the editor in chief of the fantastically high-end lifestyle magazine Monocle and a columnist for the Financial Times. He is the sort of writer who tosses off such lines as “I zipped along the autostrada through the Val d’Aosta with the ever-trusty Mario (my Italian driver for the past 20 years) at the wheel” with little regard for how privileged and pretentious he sounds (especially in his superfluous parentheticals). Still, there is something, I’m a little ashamed to say, that I envy about Brûlé’s effortless cosmopolitanism—which, it’s hard to miss, is only made possible by unusual wealth.
These are some reading recommendations that will hopefully provide a deeper look at some of these issues. Books may seem like small comfort. But in a time like this, when it’s hard to understand how American culture became so hate-filled, reading is probably the best possible option—to get off the internet, pick up a book, and think about how the country has gotten here.
Tristan Harris believes Silicon Valley is addicting us to our phones. He’s determined to make it stop.
On a recent evening in San Francisco, Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google, took a name tag from a man in pajamas called “Honey Bear” and wrote down his pseudonym for the night: “Presence.”
Harris had just arrived at Unplug SF, a “digital detox experiment” held in honor of the National Day of Unplugging, and the organizers had banned real names. Also outlawed: clocks, “w-talk” (work talk), and “WMDs” (the planners’ loaded shorthand for wireless mobile devices). Harris, a slight 32-year-old with copper hair and a tidy beard, surrendered his iPhone, a device he considers so addictive that he’s called it “a slot machine in my pocket.” He keeps the background set to an image of Scrabble tiles spelling out the words face down, a reminder of the device’s optimal position.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Choosing a president isn’t easy in this election, but here are three ways a principled conservative might vote.
The day of decision is nearing. All the talk fades, and one mark must be made beside one box on the ballot. Many Republicans are agonizing. They reject Donald Trump; they cannot accept Hillary Clinton. What to do?
I won’t conceal, I’m struggling with this question myself. I’ve listened to those Republicans, many my friends, who feel it their duty to stifle their anger and disappointment, and vote for Trump; to cast a protest vote for the Libertarian Gary Johnson or the independent Evan McMullin; or to cross the aisle and vote for Hillary Clinton as the lesser evil. On the way to my own personal answer, I found it helpful to summarize the best case for each of these options.
Emphasize the word “best.” If your case for Trump rests on the assumption that America is hurtling toward national doom, if your case for McMullin rests on the hope of tossing the election into the House of Representatives, if your case for Hillary argues that she is a large soul eager to work cooperatively with those who think differently from her. I’d say you are not thinking very clearly. Despair and fantasy are misleading counselors.
Participants in the Church-sponsored Indian Student Placement Program have filed at least three sexual-abuse lawsuits.
Native Americans who were part of a little-known Mormon program from 1947 to the mid-1990s share much of the same story. Year after year, missionaries or other members of the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints approached these families and invited their children into Mormon foster homes. As part of the Mormon Indian Student Placement Program, Native American children would live with Mormon families during the school year, an experience designed to “provide educational, spiritual, social, and cultural opportunities in non-Indian community life,” according to the Church. Typically, the Mormon foster families were white and financially stable. Native American children who weren’t already Mormon were baptized. And some of them now claim they were sexually abused.
Why the WikiLeaks revelation about a “pay-to-play” deal with Morocco is a quintessential Clinton controversy
The chief complaint that critics make about the Clinton Foundation is that the former and perhaps future presidents engaged in a “pay-to-play” scheme, whereby donors—many of them foreign governments—would contribute money to the charity in exchange for access to Bill or Hillary Clinton, or worse, beneficial treatment from the State Department.
On Thursday, hacked emails from WikiLeaks suggest that is precisely what happened when the king of Morocco agreed to host a Clinton Global Initiative summit and give $12 million, but only if Hillary Clinton attended the May 2015 meeting.
“No matter what happens, she will be in Morocco hosting CGI on May 5-7, 2015,” Huma Abedin, a top Hillary Clinton aide, wrote in a November 2014 email to several other advisers, including campaign chairman John Podesta. “Her presence was a condition for the Moroccans to proceed so there is no going back on this.”
A neuropsychological approach to happiness, by meeting core needs (safety, satisfaction, and connection) and training neurons to overcome a negativity bias
There is a motif, in fiction and in life, of people having wonderful things happen to them, but still ending up unhappy. We can adapt to anything, it seems—you can get your dream job, marry a wonderful human, finally get 1 million dollars or Twitter followers—eventually we acclimate and find new things to complain about.
If you want to look at it on a micro level, take an average day. You go to work; make some money; eat some food; interact with friends, family or co-workers; go home; and watch some TV. Nothing particularly bad happens, but you still can’t shake a feeling of stress, or worry, or inadequacy, or loneliness.
According to Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, a member of U.C. Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center's advisory board, and author of the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, our brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative, which can make us feel stressed and unhappy even though there are a lot of positive things in our lives. True, life can be hard, and legitimately terrible sometimes. Hanson’s book (a sort of self-help manual grounded in research on learning and brain structure) doesn’t suggest that we avoid dwelling on negative experiences altogether—that would be impossible. Instead, he advocates training our brains to appreciate positive experiences when we do have them, by taking the time to focus on them and install them in the brain.
Can satellite images of our planet's varied terrain make humanity's impact apparent?
Only a handful of people have traveled into space to admire the blue marble we call home. Astronauts who have had this privilege describe the feeling of seeing the Earth from above as humbling; only from afar can one understand just how vast and interconnected everything truly is. And while most of humanity will never make it past the ozone, Benjamin Grant's Instagram project, Daily Overview, has been sharing high definition satellite photographs to give everyone access to this unique perspective. Come October 25, Grant will be publishing “Overview,” a new book that includes more than 200 original images of industry, agriculture, architecture, and nature that highlight graphically stunning patterns across the Earth’s surface. “From a distant vantage point, one has the chance to appreciate our home as a whole, to reflect on its beauty and its fragility all at once,” Grant said. He has shared a selection of those images, some of them previously unpublished, with The Atlantic.