Actor Colin Firth is credited as an author in a new study on the brain and politics. The Academy Award winner appeared as guest editor of Britain’s Today show and asked scientist Geraint Rees, from University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, to scan the brains of politicians from Britain’s two leading political parties, Labour and Conservative, to see if there were differences.
Surprise! There were! Curious about the implications, Firth sponsored research for Rees and his team, which included Rees’ colleague Ryota Kanai and Today‘s science editor Tom Feilden, to scan the brains of 90 Labour members and Conservatives. The results, published in Current Biology show that
In a large sample of young adults, we related self-reported political attitudes to gray matter volume using structural MRI. We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala. These results were replicated in an independent sample of additional participants. Our findings extend previous observations that political attitudes reflect differences in self-regulatory conflict monitoring and recognition of emotional faces by showing that such attitudes are reflected in human brain structure.
Studies attribute the anterior cingulate cortex to be involved in error detection, anticipation of tasks, motivation, and modulation of emotional responses. The amygdalae, located on both sides of the brain, perform primary roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. They are also involved in pain/pleasure reward cycles, and memory modulation; larger amygdalae correlate positively with larger social networks and a greater ability to judge social responses by facial expressions. Wikipedia also notes that:
Additional studies have shown a link between the amygdala and schizophrenia, noting that the right amygdala is significantly larger than the left in schizophrenic patients.
At the conclusion of the study, researchers estimated they could predict political leanings of participants with 72% accuracy by looking at brain scans. That’s pretty okay, and takes into account, no doubt, the Labour followers who have large social networks and are good at reading faces, as well as Conservatives who are skilled at error detection and able to modulate their emotions!
It is important to remember the words of the researchers:
Although our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes. [emphasis mine]
It is more likely that since the brain is plastic (in the true sense of the word, ie, malleable), different sections of the brain respond to certain stimuli. I hope this study goes even further here in the U.S. and looks at the brains of a wider variety on the political scale, from left wing and right wing conspiracy buffs and hard core liberals, far-rightwingers, neo-cons, and moderates, so we can see what, if any, differences lies on the spectrum of thought.
It is heartening that Firth –who was not put on the study’s author list in the coveted first/last position– sponsored research. I kinda hope more people with money and curiosity (and hopefully, no agenda) will continue to further research in all scientific fields, as government funding for science is at an all time low.
[photo: Colin Firth, screenshot from Academy Award winner The King's Speech]