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.
If the party cares about winning, it needs to learn how to appeal to the white working class.
The strategy was simple. A demographic wave—long-building, still-building—would carry the party to victory, and liberalism to generational advantage. The wave was inevitable, unstoppable. It would not crest for many years, and in the meantime, there would be losses—losses in the midterms and in special elections; in statehouses and in districts and counties and municipalities outside major cities. Losses in places and elections where the white vote was especially strong.
But the presidency could offset these losses. Every four years the wave would swell, receding again thereafter but coming back in the next presidential cycle, higher, higher. The strategy was simple. The presidency was everything.
Trinity Lutheran v. Comer finds that governments can’t discriminate against churches that would otherwise qualify for funding just because they’re religious institutions.
The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the state of Missouri cannot deny public funds to a church simply because it is a religious organization.
Seven justices affirmed the judgment in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, albeit with some disagreement about the reasoning behind it. The major church-state case could potentially expand the legal understanding of the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is also the first time the Supreme Court has ruled that governments must provide money directly to a house of worship, which could have implications for future policy fights—including funding for private, religious charter schools.
Trinity Lutheran is a big case that hinges on mundane facts. In 2012, when Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri applied for a state grant to resurface its playground, it was ranked as a strong potential candidate for the program. Ultimately, though, Missouri denied the funding under a state constitutional provision that prohibits public money from going to religious organizations and houses of worship. “There is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in his decision for the majority. “A church.”
The president may be overstating the gang’s impact.
As President Trump sat for Time’s Person of the Year interview last year, he excused himself and returned with a copy of Newsday. He wanted to show editor Michael Scherer a headline. “‘EXTREMELY VIOLENT’ GANG FACTION,” it read, and the article told of murders in Suffolk County, New York, all linked to MS-13. One murder was that of 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas, who’d argued with MS-13 members at her high school. The gang, many of them also teenagers, found Cuevas and a friend walking along the street and beat them with baseball bats and hacked at them with machetes. “They come from Central America,” Trump said to Scherer. “They’re tougher than any people you’ve ever met. They’re killing and raping everybody out there. They’re illegal.”
The Supreme Court announced Monday it will review the president’s controversial executive order next term. But in the meantime, the administration can enforce some of its provisions.
Updated at 2:57 p.m. ET
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a series of lower-court rulings blocking the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban on Monday, setting up a major showdown over presidential power and religious discrimination.
In an unsigned order issued on the Court’s last day before its summer recess, the justices scheduled oral arguments in the case for when they return in October. They also partially lifted the lower courts’ injunctions against Section 2(c) of President Trump’s executive order, which temporarily suspended visa applications from six Muslim-majority countries, as well as Section 6, which froze the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and halted refugee entry into the United States.
The South Coast, a 30-mile drive from Palo Alto, is facing an affordable-housing shortage that is jeopardizing its agricultural heritage.
On the drive up the coast from the southernmost part of Northern California’s San Mateo County, Highway 1’s two lanes are surrounded by wind-whipped seas on one side and redwood forests on the other. The landscape is dotted with wild yellow mustard in the spring and pumpkins in the fall. A popular place for day-trippers to picnic, go wine-tasting, and shop at roadside farm stands, the region—affectionately nicknamed “the Slowcoast” for its unhurried pace—is a balm to the busyness nearby in Silicon Valley, to the east, and San Francisco, to the north.
Home to fewer than 3,000 people, the South Coast is the least densely populated part of the Bay Area. While it feels like a region unto itself, it is part of San Mateo County, which is where—just over the Santa Cruz Mountains—several big tech companies, such as Facebook and Oracle, are based. South of those firms’ campuses (in Santa Clara County) are the well-known tech hubs of Mountain View, Cupertino, and Palo Alto. San Mateo County is also the home of some of the wealthiest tech executives: The city of Atherton, about a 30-mile drive from the South Coast, was, according to Forbes, the country’s most expensive zip code in 2015 and the third-most expensive in 2016. The countywide median price for a single-family home reached $1.2 million last year.
Let’s first acknowledge that Gchat was never officially called Gchat. Launched in February 2006, Google named it Google Talk, refusing to refer to it by its colloquial name. For anyone mourning its demise, which the company announced in a March blog post, those names sound awkward, like they’re describing something else. To me, and to many other users, it’s Gchat, and always will be.
The brilliance of Gchat was that it allowed you to instant message any Gmail user within a web browser, instead of using a separate application. This attribute was a lifeline for those of us who, a decade ago, were online all day at our entry-level jobs in open offices, every move tracked on computers that required admin access to download new software, with supervisors who could appear behind you at any time. You could open a separate browser window or a single tab, keeping Gchat running in the background as you ostensibly worked on projects aside from the dramas of your personal life.
The mercurial comedian, who plays the disruptive Erlich Bachman, departed the show under mysterious circumstances in Sunday’s season finale.
If you watched Sunday night’s fourth-season finale of Silicon Valley without reading the accompanying online chatter, you might not have realized that it marked the final appearance of one of its most beloved characters, Erlich Bachman (played by the comedian T.J. Miller). On a mission to retrieve the tech CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) from his retreat at a Tibetan monastery, Erlich gets waylaid at an opium den; a frustrated Gavin pays the proprietors to keep him busy there for five years. It sounds final, but it’s also exactly the kind of ridiculous predicament Erlich got himself in for the entirety of the show’s run. So why is this the way Silicon Valley chose to say goodbye to him?
As usual with an unexpected showbiz departure, there have been multiple reported sides to the story. It’s hard to imagine that Miller’s departure will be a good thing for Silicon Valley: Erlich has always served as a delightful narrative wrench for the show, sidetracking stories and upsetting the Pied Piper team’s apple cart with his oft-stoned, egotistical antics. A Silicon Valley without Erlich will be a smoother show, but not necessarily a better one—especially since the character embodied the sort of unrestrained, tech-industry id the series sought to satirize.
The Georgia congressional race didn’t show a party on pace to take back the House next year.
In the wake of last week’s special congressional election in Georgia, on which Democrats spent more than $30 million only to come up short, some on the left have taken solace in the idea that the result was nonetheless a good portent—a sign that Democratic candidates are poised to win the House next year.
The Georgia race, they point out, took place in a “very Republican district”—one that went for its Republican representative, Tom Price, by a 23-point margin last year. (Price triggered the special election when he took the job of health and human services secretary in the Trump administration.) Republican Karen Handel, by contrast, won by just 4 percentage points, 52 percent, compared to 48 percent for the Democrat, Jon Ossoff.
The GOP planned a dynastic restoration in 2016. Instead, it triggered an internal class war. Can the party reconcile the demands of its donors with the interests of its rank and file?
The angriest and most pessimistic people in America aren’t the hipster protesters who flitted in and out of Occupy Wall Street. They aren’t the hashtavists of #BlackLivesMatter. They aren’t the remnants of the American labor movement or the savvy young dreamers who confront politicians with their American accents and un-American legal status.
The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English, and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.
You can measure their pessimism in polls that ask about their expectations for their lives—and for those of their children. On both counts, whites without a college degree express the bleakest view. You can see the effects of their despair in the new statistics describing horrifying rates of suicide and substance-abuse fatality among this same group, in middle age.
Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on persuading anti-vaxers, predicting the next outbreak, and working with Trump.
If you run into a left-leaning “consultant” these days, there’s a fairly good chance they used to work for the Obama administration. Scores of federal officials and bureaucrats have resigned or been fired since President Trump’s inauguration, some after realizing their goals were not in line with the new president’s.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, wasn’t one of them. In fact, he seemed surprised at the suggestion that he might do something other than what he’s been doing since he began leading the institute in 1984—trying to protect people from diseases like Ebola, Zika, and HIV.
This is despite the fact that some of Trump’s policy proposals seem to directly contradict his efforts. Trump has proposed cutting funding for a program that provides HIV drugs to people in poor countries by 17 percent. Not long after, six members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS resigned, citing "a president who simply does not care.”