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.
A scientist and a monk compare notes on meditation, therapy, and their effects on the brain
Can training the mind make us more attentive, altruistic, and serene? Can we learn to manage our disturbing emotions in an optimal way? What are the transformations that occur in the brain when we practice meditation? In a new book titled Beyond the Self, two friends—Matthieu Ricard, who left a career as a molecular biologist to become a Buddhist monk in Nepal, and Wolf Singer, a distinguished neuroscientist—engage in an unusually well-matched conversation about meditation and the brain. Below is a condensed and edited excerpt.
Matthieu Ricard: Although one ﬁnds in the Buddhist literature many treatises on “traditional sciences”—medicine, cosmology, botanic, logic, and so on—Tibetan Buddhism has not endeavored to the same extent as Western civilizations to expand its knowledge of the world through the natural sciences. Rather it has pursued an exhaustive investigation of the mind for 2,500 years and has accumulated, in an empirical way, a wealth of experiential ﬁndings over the centuries. A great number of people have dedicated their whole lives to this contemplative science.
The condition has long been considered untreatable. Experts can spot it in a child as young as 3 or 4. But a new clinical approach offers hope.
This is a good day, Samantha tells me: 10 on a scale of 10. We’re sitting in a conference room at the San Marcos Treatment Center, just south of Austin, Texas, a space that has witnessed countless difficult conversations between troubled children, their worried parents, and clinical therapists. But today promises unalloyed joy. Samantha’s mother is visiting from Idaho, as she does every six weeks, which means lunch off campus and an excursion to Target. The girl needs supplies: new jeans, yoga pants, nail polish.
At 11, Samantha is just over 5 feet tall and has wavy black hair and a steady gaze. She flashes a smile when I ask about her favorite subject (history), and grimaces when I ask about her least favorite (math). She seems poised and cheerful, a normal preteen. But when we steer into uncomfortable territory—the events that led her to this juvenile-treatment facility nearly 2,000 miles from her family—Samantha hesitates and looks down at her hands. “I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.”
Unlike most entries in the Star Wars saga, Rian Johnson’s film actually explores the systemic oppression the Resistance is fighting against—and the movie is all the more fascinating for it.
This article contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
For 40 years, the Star Wars saga has largely been one of good guys and bad guys, of the Rebels and the Empire, of the Light Side and Dark Side of the Force. Those straightforward, elemental stakes were crucial to George Lucas’s original pitch for the space-opera series. J.J. Abrams said that when he began devising the story for Star Wars: The Force Awakens—the long-awaited seventh episode of the franchise that came out in 2015—he quickly realized the film had to return to that good-vs.-evil dynamic, even though Return of the Jedi (a.k.a. Episode VI) had ended with the downfall of the Empire.
“We very consciously tried to borrow familiar beats so the rest of the movie could hang on something that we knew was Star Wars,” Abrams said after the film’s release. A bold group of Rebels doing battle against a monolithic Empire was thus recast as an independent Resistance fighting off the new threat of the First Order, with both sides consciously styling their look and their tactics after their forbears. Abrams’s decision was simple almost to a fault—but forgivably so, given how much additional work the director had to do in terms of setting up the film’s new characters.
Most of the country understands that when it comes to government, you pay for what you get.
When I was a young kid growing up in Montreal, our annual family trips to my grandparents’ Florida condo in the 1970s and ‘80s offered glimpses of a better life. Not just Bubbie and Zadie’s miniature, sun-bronzed world of Del Boca Vista, but the whole sprawling infrastructural colossus of Cold War America itself, with its famed interstate highway system and suburban sprawl. Many Canadians then saw themselves as America’s poor cousins, and our inferiority complex asserted itself the moment we got off the plane.
Decades later, the United States presents visitors from the north with a different impression. There hasn’t been a new major airport constructed in the United States since 1995. And the existing stock of terminals is badly in need of upgrades. Much of the surrounding road and rail infrastructure is in even worse shape (the trip from LaGuardia Airport to midtown Manhattan being particularly appalling). Washington, D.C.’s semi-functional subway system feels like a World’s Fair exhibit that someone forgot to close down. Detroit’s 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge—which carries close to $200 billion worth of goods across the Canada-U.S. border annually—has been operating beyond its engineering capacity for years. In 2015, the Canadian government announced it would be paying virtually the entire bill for a new bridge (including, amazingly, the U.S. customs plaza on the Detroit side), after Michigan’s government pled poverty. “We are unable to build bridges, we're unable to build airports, our inner city school kids are not graduating,” is how JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon summarized the state of things during an earnings conference call last week. “It’s almost embarrassing being an American citizen.”
A high-speed train traveling between Seattle and Portland crashed Monday morning, killing an unknown number of passengers and leaving coaches dangling from an overpass on Interstate 5.
Updated on December 18 at 3:51 p.m.
A southbound Amtrak train derailed Monday morning south of Tacoma, Washington, leaving an undetermined number of casualties and generating dramatic images of cars dangling off an overpass over Interstate 5.
It was the first day of high-speed service along the line between Seattle and Portland. The reason for the derailment, at around 7:45 a.m. local time, was not immediately clear, and initial explanations and injury accounts aren’t often reliable. Officials said there were multiple deaths on the train, but none among motorists, even though the fallen coaches struck vehicles on the highway. The southbound lanes of I-5 were completely closed and were expected to remain closed for hours. Local officials said at least 77 people were hospitalized. Amtrak said the train, number 501, had 78 passengers and five crew members aboard.
The GOP succeeded in delivering on many of its promises. But the new code, which Congress will vote on this week, will not be as lasting, or as simplified, as they’d hoped.
The legislation congressional Republicans finalized on Friday and are likely to enact next week delivers on many of the party’s—and President Trump’s— promises for a landmark overhaul of the tax code. But the rush to pass the bill through a narrow Senate majority and without Democratic support forced the GOP to sacrifice some of their long-held aspirations for tax reform.
The final bill permanently reduces the corporate tax rate all the way from 35 percent to 21 percent, nearly matching the 20 percent goal House Republicans set in their 2016 campaign plan (though not as low as the 15 percent Trump ran on). It cuts taxes sharply for business owners, and companies will be able to write off costly purchases of new equipment and buildings.
Breitbart is peddling holiday goods. But whatever happened to peace on earth and good will?
Surveying America back in 2013, I concluded that “Christmas Is Kicking Ass in the War on Christmas,” noting the open-air Nativity scenes in the secular progressive enclave of Santa Monica; the 76-foot Christmas tree uncontroversially erected in the heart of New York City; the choir publicly singing "Happy birthday, Jesus! Happy birthday, Lord!" in Washington, D.C., and more.
This affection for the holiday that marks the birth of Jesus Christ extended all the way to the White House, where President Barack Obama recorded videos wishing the nation “Merry Christmas” in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. “This is such a wonderful time of year,” Michelle Obama added one year, “a time to honor the story of love and redemption that began 2,000 years ago, to see the world through a child’s eyes and rediscover the magic all around us, and to give thanks for the gifts that bless us every single day.”
David Bentley Hart’s text recaptures the awkward, multivoiced power of the original.
In the beginning was … well, what? A clap of the divine hands and a poetic shock wave? Or an itchy node of nothingness inconceivably scratching itself into somethingness? In the beginning was the Word, says the Gospel according to John—a lovely statement of the case, as it’s always seemed to me. A pre-temporal syllable swelling to utterance in the mouth of the universe, spoken once and heard forever: God’s power chord, if you like. For David Bentley Hart, however, whose mind-bending translation of the New Testament was published in October, the Word—as a word—does not suffice: He finds it to be “a curiously bland and impenetrable designation” for the heady concept expressed in the original Greek of the Gospels as Logos. The Chinese word Tao might get at it, Hart tells us, but English has nothing with quite the metaphysical flavor of Logos, the particular sense of a formative moral energy diffusing itself, without diminution, through space and time. So he throws up his hands and leaves it where it is: “In the origin there was the Logos …”
Neuroscientist James Fallon discovered through his work that he has the brain of a psychopath, and subsequently learned a lot about the role of genes in personality and how his brain affects his life.
In 2005, James Fallon's life started to resemble the plot of a well-honed joke or big-screen thriller: A neuroscientist is working in his laboratory one day when he thinks he has stumbled upon a big mistake. He is researching Alzheimer's and using his healthy family members' brain scans as a control, while simultaneously reviewing the fMRIs of murderous psychopaths for a side project. It appears, though, that one of the killers' scans has been shuffled into the wrong batch.
The scans are anonymously labeled, so the researcher has a technician break the code to identify the individual in his family, and place his or her scan in its proper place. When he sees the results, however, Fallon immediately orders the technician to double check the code. But no mistake has been made: The brain scan that mirrors those of the psychopaths is his own.