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.
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison accomplished it in eight words: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers, but neither Peyton Manning nor Cam Newton seemed able to prove their worth.
Now more than ever, the NFL is all about the quarterbacks. The buildup to Super Bowl 50 proved no exception: In the two weeks prior to Sunday night’s game in Santa Clara, the national conversation largely centered on the signal-callers, whose styles of play and off-field personas were pored over in every manner imaginable by an army of reporters and analysts. The game’s two possible outcomes were pre-cast as career-defining triumphs for the passers. If the Denver Broncos won, it would be a rousing sendoff for the potentially retiring all-time great Peyton Manning. If the Carolina Panthers won, it would be a coronation for Cam Newton, this season’s Most Valuable Player.
The Broncos beat the Panthers, 24-10, but the game featured none of the displays of virtuosity fans of Manning or Newton might have hoped for. It was a plodding, mistake-riddled affair, all stuffed runs and stalled drives. Maybe the most miraculous thing about the game was that it ended at all; it seemed for a time that it might simply give out somewhere along the way, leaving the Denver and Carolina players to wander around Levi’s Stadium until the resumption of football next fall.
Thenew Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, is smooth and charming, but he hasn’t found his edge.
It’s a psychic law of the American workplace: By the time you give your notice, you’ve already left. You’ve checked out, and for the days or weeks that remain, a kind of placeholder-you, a you-cipher, will be doing your job. It’s a law that applies equally to dog walkers, accountants, and spoof TV anchormen. Jon Stewart announced that he was quitting The Daily Show in February 2015, but he stuck around until early August, and those last months had a restless, frazzled, long-lingering feel. A smell of ashes was in the air. The host himself suddenly looked quite old: beaky, pique-y, hollow-cheeky. For 16 years he had shaken his bells, jumped and jangled in his little host’s chair, the only man on TV who could caper while sitting behind a desk. Flash back to his first episode as the Daily Show host, succeeding Craig Kilborn: January 11, 1999, Stewart with floppy, luscious black hair, twitching in a new suit (“I feel like this is my bar mitzvah … I have a rash like you wouldn’t believe.”) while he interviews Michael J. Fox.
The charismatic senator’s candidacy was flying high—until he hit turbulence at Saturday’s debate. Will it stall his surge?
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—Until Saturday’s debate, it was clear that this was Marco Rubio’s moment.
The moment he had waited for, planned for, anticipated for months, for years: It was happening. He had surged into a strong third-place finish in Iowa, outpacing the polls and nearly passing second-place Donald Trump. He’d ridden into New Hampshire on a full head of steam, drawing bigger and bigger crowds at every stop, ticking steadily up into second in most polls, behind the still-dominant Trump. The other candidates were training their fire on him, hoping to stop the golden boy in his tracks.
And then, in the debate, he faced the test he knew was imminent. They came right at him. First it was the moderator, David Muir of ABC News, leveling the accusation put forth by his rivals: that Rubio was merely a good talker with nothing to show for it, just like another eloquent, inexperienced young senator, Barack Obama.
Immediately, the pings from fellow journalists (and media-adjacent folk) came pouring in, all saying something along the lines of, “Can you actually let me know what you find out? I’m addicted to that stuff.”
They mean “addicted” in the jokey, dark-chocolate-and-Netflix-streaming way, but the habit can border on pathological. For me, rock bottom was a recent, obscenely long workday during which an entire 12-pack of coconut La Croix somehow made it down my throat, can by shining can.
Hillary Clinton’s realistic attitude is the only thing that can effect change in today’s political climate.
Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz have something in common. Both have an electoral strategy predicated on the ability of a purist candidate to revolutionize the electorate—bringing droves of chronic non-voters to the polls because at last they have a choice, not an echo—and along the way transforming the political system. Sanders can point to his large crowds and impressive, even astonishing, success at tapping into a small-donor base that exceeds, in breadth and depth, the remarkable one built in 2008 by Barack Obama. Cruz points to his extraordinarily sophisticated voter-identification operation, one that certainly seemed to do the trick in Iowa.
But is there any real evidence that there is a hidden “sleeper cell” of potential voters who are waiting for the signal to emerge and transform the electorate? No. Small-donor contributions are meaningful and a sign of underlying enthusiasm among a slice of the electorate, but they represent a tiny sliver even of that slice; Ron Paul’s success at fundraising (and his big crowds at rallies) misled many analysts into believing that he would make a strong showing in Republican primaries when he ran for president. He flopped.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
What happened when 11 exiles armed themselves for a violent night in the Gambia
In the dark hours of the morning on December 30, 2014, eight men gathered in a graveyard a mile down the road from the official residence of Yahya Jammeh, the president of the Gambia. The State House overlooks the Atlantic Ocean from the capital city of Banjul, on an island at the mouth of the Gambia River. It was built in the 1820s and served as the governor’s mansion through the end of British colonialism, in 1965. Trees and high walls separate the house from the road, obscuring any light inside.
The men were dressed in boots and dark pants, and as two of them stood guard, the rest donned Kevlar helmets and leather gloves, strapped on body armor and CamelBaks, and loaded their guns. Their plan was to storm the presidential compound, win over the military, and install their own civilian leader. They hoped to gain control of the country by New Year’s Day.
The three leading candidates—Trump, Cruz, and Rubio—stumbled, as the governors in the race made their presence felt.
When is it bad to be a frontrunner? During a presidential debate three days before the New Hampshire primary, evidently. At Saturday night’s forum in Manchester, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump all hit rough patches, while three often-overshadowed governors—Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich—delivered some of their strongest moments of the campaign so far.
Rubio, surging nationwide and in New Hampshire, believed he had a target pinned to his back coming in, and he was right. Christie was the hatchet man, coming after Rubio in the earliest moments of the debate and never letting up. (At one point, Christie even pivoted from responding to an attack by John Kasich to slam Rubio.) Christie jabbed that Rubio, as a senator, doesn’t have the executive experience needed to be president, citing Barack Obama as a cautionary tale. Rubio was ready with an answer to that: “This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing?” he said. “He knows exactly what he's doing.” Rubio isn’t the only candidate to suggest that Obama is more evil genius than bumbling fool—Ted Cruz has done the same—but the crowd wasn’t buying it. Maybe Rubio’s phrasing was just too clever.