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.
What went wrong with the conversion ministry, according to Alan Chambers, who once led its largest organization
In 2001, Alan Chambers was hired as the president of the world’s largest ex-gay ministry, Exodus International. That same year, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report that stated, “there is no valid evidence showing that sexual orientation can be changed.”
Like most conservative Christian leaders at the time, Chambers considered the countercultural nature of his work a point of pride. During the latter part of the 20th century, Exodus and similar conservative groups promoted the idea that gay people could—and should try to—become straight. Ex-gay leaders traveled to churches and appeared on television news programs citing a litany of examples of happily married “former homosexuals” to demonstrate that sexual orientation is a choice and that change is possible.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015. The Grand Prize Winner will receive $10,000 and a trip to National Geographic headquarters to participate in its annual photography seminar. The kind folks at National Geographic were once again kind enough to let me choose among the contest entries so far for display here. Captions written by the individual photographers.
Forget the Common Core, Finland’s youngsters are in charge of determining what happens in the classroom.
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”
The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.
That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.
The country has seen periods of turmoil before. But this time may be different.
I am usually an optimist when it comes to Turkey’s future. Indeed, I wrote a whole book about The Rise of Turkey. But these days, I’m worried. The country faces a toxic combination of political polarization, government instability, economic slowdown, and threats of violence—from both inside and outside Turkey—that could soon add up to a catastrophe. The likelihood of that outcomeis increasing amid Russia’s bombing raids in Syria in support of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which threaten to debilitate the moderate rebels and boost the extremists in Syria’s civil war, while leaving Turkey to deal with two unruly neighbors: Assad and ISIS.
Of course, Turkey has gone through periods of political and economic crisis before. During the 1970s, the country’s economy collapsed, and the instability led to fighting among right- and left-wing militant groups and security forces that killed thousands of people. Then, in the 1990s, Turkey was pummeled by triple-digit inflation and a full-blown Kurdish insurgency that killed tens of thousands. Turkey survived both those decades. The historian in me says that Turkey will be able to withstand the coming shock this time as well.
Here’s what happens if astronomers make contact with a civilization on another planet.
The false alarm happened in 1997.
The Green Bank Radio Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, was picking up some unusual signals—and Seth Shostak, then the head of the Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research in Mountain View, Caifornia, was convinced that they had come from intelligent life somewhere in the universe.
“It looked like it might be the real deal,” Shostak recalled. Within a few hours, he had a call from The New York Times.
But within a day, it became clear that the source of excitement was actually a European satellite. To make matters worse, a second telescope in Georgia, which would have told the scientists about the true nature of the signal, wasn’t working.
Many high-school graduates must choose between two bad options: a four-year program for which they’re not academically or emotionally prepared, or job-specific training that might put a ceiling on their careers.
Two years ago, my nephew was set to graduate from Maryland’s Towson University with a degree in political science. After six long years, both he and his parents were ready to breathe a sigh of relief—he had made it to the finish line. He had never been excited about school, and his parents had worried about his lack of enthusiasm, wishing he could be engaged in something that ignited his curiosity and provided him more of a motivation to focus, something more hands-on and practical. But they also knew that without a bachelor’s degree, my nephew’s ability to move into a rewarding career, earn a middle-class salary, and enjoy some economic security would be very limited. And they worried that if he didn’t complete that degree before he turned 25, he likely never would (a reasonable concern, given national statistics on college completion). Determined to launch him into adulthood with the strongest possible foundation they could, they persuaded him to go to college and crossed their fingers.
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.
“Vaccine hesitancy” is a delicate way of phrasing a serious public-health problem. The World Health Organization defines it as “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services.”
There’s a tendency to treat these vaccine-hesitant people as a monolith, the “anti-vaxers” who are putting everyone at risk. But people who don’t vaccinate aren’t just a homogenous mob of parents who fear toxins and want their kids to be exposed to chicken pox “the natural way.” There are a variety of reasons why people decide not to vaccinate, and a new paper by researchers at Rutgers University and Germany’s University of Erfurt and RWTH Aachen University, published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, breaks down the psychology of four different types of non-vaccinators, in the hopes of finding effective strategies to change their minds.
News organizations spread false information about a U.S. airstrike that hit an Afghan hospital, as a result of untruths that came from unnamed government sources.
On Saturday, an American airstrike hit a Médecins Sans Frontières (also known as Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Twelve staff members and 10 patients were killed. Three of the patients were children. NPR reported that some of the victims “burned to death as they lay in their beds.” Tens of thousands of Afghans lost their city’s only free trauma hospital, which will likely lead to even more deaths.
Why did this happen?
As Médecins Sans Frontières demanded answers the U.S. government spread false information.
“Their description of the attack keeps changing—from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government,” the nonprofit said Monday in a statement. “The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs. The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The U.S. military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack.”
The Red Planet once had an ocean and a magnetic field. A new mission is setting out to discover what happened to them.
The question of whether there is life on Mars is woven into a much larger thatch of mysteries. Among them: What happened to the ancient ocean that once covered a quarter of the planet’s surface? And, relatedly, what made Mars’s magnetosphere fade away? Why did a planet that may have looked something like Earth turn into a dry red husk?
“We see magnetized rocks on the Mars surface,” said Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator of the InSight mission to Mars, which is set to launch in March. “And so we know Mars had a magnetic field at one time, but it doesn't today. We would like to know the history—when that magnetic field started, when it may have shut down.”
There are a few leading theories about what decimated the planet’s magnetism. One of them is that huge asteroids bombarded Mars until its magnetic field turned off. That storm of asteroids may have included one enormous rock in particular, even bigger than the one believed to have wiped out Earth’s dinosaurs. Another theory explores the possibility that Mars’s ancient magnetic field only ever covered one of its hemispheres, an idea that would also explain how the planet’s magnetism weakened over time. “The presence of a magnetic field is key to understanding the history of Mars’s atmosphere, which of course is key to habitability on Mars’s surface,” Banerdt told me.