Tag Archives: neuroscience

Comments on the Brain Essay

With regard to Jeff’s comments:


Thanks for your feedback. I am glad you liked it. Sorry I took a while to respond but my software work has been getting more time consuming lately. Here are my observations about your remarks.

First, without access to the details of these studies, we really don’t know what to do with this information. For example, it could be the case that 80% of those with an enlarged amygdala are conservatives, but only 0.01% of conservatives have an enlarged amygdala. If something like this is the case, then these studies really say nothing useful at all about conservatives.

Here are the studies the original article cited (there are more studies referenced in these studies as well):



The details about the study’s methodology are discussed in the beginnings of each article. The methodology looks sound to me as it is typical for these kinds of studies. Both of the institutions are top notch for neuroscience research.

Second, Mark goes on to depict conservatism, at least in part, as being about a fear of loss of control. But at least one counterexample exists, and a very large one: conservatives (or at least fiscal ones) advocate free markets, wherein control is utterly relinquished to the whims of trillions of individual and localized decisions; but liberals and progressives tend to dislike (fear?) the messiness and chaos of free markets, preferring something more planned, controlled, and centralized.

I suppose my take on this would be:

  1. Fear and problem solving are two very different discernable behaviors. If the response to a perceived problem is highly negative and emotionally charged then it looks like fear to me. If the response to a perceived problem tries to deal with the details of the problem and offer concrete, non-emotional solutions then I would think that would indicate a different part of the brain is operational. I am not sure dislike and fear are synonyms. I can dislike an ex-girlfriend but I do not fear her. I can disagree with Republicans on many things including the ‘free market’ but the ‘free market’ does not scare or threaten me.
  2. I think paranoia is a clearer, more intense example of fear than other types of generalized fear so I will try to use that as an example. I suppose anything can become the object of paranoia. I live in Boulder and seek out liberals as I did also in academia. I have never found liberals in those situations that I would describe as ‘fearing’ the ‘free market’. I have seen intense dislike of it though. For me, the fear thing is quite evident with paranoia – like ‘they are after me’ and ‘I need to get a gun to protect myself’ and ‘prying cold, dead fingers off my gun’ and ‘the blood of patriots’ and ‘the government is controlling us’ etc.. I have hardly ever heard liberals talk in these paranoid terms about the ‘free market’. I have, with effort, found some extremely leftist sites on the web that probably would fall into that category. However, I think that magnitudes and proportions matter in all these types of discussions. I do not know the statistical general population numbers for this kind of paranoia so I can only use my anecdotal knowledge and offer the impression that I think more conservatives fall into the paranoia category than liberals.
  3. If someone is trying to protect and defend something that he or she thinks they have and that someone is trying to take away, -that is a personal threat. Conservatives seem to think that they have something or once had it and that the liberals and government is trying to take it away from them (conservatives want to conserve, keep, hold on to). It seems to me that that reaction is typically one of fear. Just listen to Glenn Beck or Rush and think of the fear latent terms they are using. They actually have older people afraid to go out of their house for the big, bad, boogie, socialist, commy, radical Islamist, Obama control of the government which he is destroying (my dad included). While Beck and Rush are making money on this, older people are really getting scared by it all. I do not think liberals are ‘afraid’ of the ‘free market’. I think they want reasonable controls and regulation to make sure the market is more fair and not so tilted to the folks that are already huge beneficiaries of a tilted market. One thing certainly is different from the conservatives I described – liberals are not trying to protect something they think they had from the ‘free market’ that someone is trying to take away from them. Control may be fear based or reason based. I try to give some control for my kids but I do not fear my kids, I love them like crazy! I think you have to look at how the control is described (its terms, adjectives, adverbs, facial expressions, etc.) to figure out the emotive import.
  4. I think that one thing about this study is that it is time and culturally sensitive. For example, if we had a communist country and a ‘conservative’ party was perceived as trying to take housing, food, health care, etc. away from those that already comfortably had it, then I think a fear type, paranoid response could be feasible. As much as conservatives want to make the ‘nanny state’ argument in this country the census data* shows that 1 out of every 2 people are living at or near the poverty line (the poverty level for 2011 was set at $22,350 (total yearly income) for a family of four). ‘Nannies’ are generally for rich people – these income levels are not the lap of luxury. There is no way a family of four can be deemed ‘comfortable’ or getting ‘nannied’ by the government with this amount of income. I have never heard these folks defending their poverty situation in rhetorical terms like the conservatives use. In the latter case the issue is taking away something that is not working and in the former case the issue seems to be taking away something they think is worth protecting (dying for as the ‘blood of patriots’ demonstrates). I am not sure these studies should be taken as always applying to each and every case of what we think of as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ for all time. I guess I look at it more like a snapshot of our particular present circumstances.

Third, and with tongue partly in cheek, could it be the case that those with a larger “part of the brain that processes conflicting information” (from Wikipedia’s definition of the anterior cingulate cortex) tend to be liberal because they are better equipped to deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance?

First, I like cognitive dissonance because it motivates me to think and do research. Perhaps one way to deal with cognitive dissonance is to pretend like it does not exist but there are more productive ways to deal with it (and actually like it with practice). With regard to your article, I think there is a bit of heavy handed stereotyping going on in it. I have never met a liberal or conservative that has claimed they are always right about everything. I would think of that as some sort of pathological problem. I think there are folks on both sides that get defensive, feel like they are pinned into a corner and lapse into a simplistic ‘well I am right and you are wrong’, lack of a defense, type argument. I also find the main premise of your article is that it obvious that Obama was wrong on everything (or most things) and the liberals ‘really’ know it and are just trying to cover it up – this is called a loaded question (or argument) because it makes unexamined conclusions at the outset. To make the claim that liberals really know Obama is awful is speculation on your part that needs further examination (not assuming it at the beginning and trying to dissect their intentions after the fact). This type of argumentative move reminds me of the anti-choice’ folks that automatically assume that pro-choice folks are ‘killing babies’, Nazis that believe in genocide, etc.. There is no middle ground for those types. They assume that you must believe that a fetus is a ‘baby’ and that any pro-choice discussion is really a defense of baby killing. This is a problem of extremism and radicalizing everyone else that does not believe in your truth. I call this type of argument the ‘pushing the middle ground to an extreme in order to refute it’ or straw man argument.

I really do think Obama has done a good job for the most part in light of what was happening when he came into office. I have written extensively on my blog using many statistics to show the progress that has been made in spite of all (including Republican naysayers) during the Obama administration including data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Treasury Department, GAO, CBO and many universities, notable market, economic, polling research organizations so I would think you would have to take that on first. I also think many people tend to forget the extremely deep hole the Bush administration left us in. One case where I personally recognize the ‘we were wrong so therefore we must pretend like we were right’ syndrome is for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The folks that put us over there seem to me to be unable to belly up to the bar and admit it was a mistake to go over there in the first place (except Ron Paul who is totally right on this subject!). I understand why folks feel a need to do this – all those amazing kids that were killed or maimed for life AND the huge deficit hole those wars dug for us. I saw this in the Vietnam War personally with my two older brothers whose young lives were lost in the jungle never to return and I THOUGHT we learned our lesson but I guess we must forget quickly. I also recognize that some may legitimately have thought these wars were necessary and it was a good thing we started them in which case, an examination of the facts, the supposed reasons, the benefit, the real as well as imagined results had we not started those wars, etc. would have to be investigated to arrive at any hope of a conclusion. Even still, this type of effort would not result in a ‘I was right and you were wrong’ silliness but probably more of a weighted, approximation that these facts, assumptions, conclusion seem to be more correct than their antithesis. Actually, I find that this form of cognitive dissonance that cannot settle on black and white conclusions is better to have going forward than the fantasmic black and white resolve that makes folks feel better but really only leaves them believing an easy delusion.

And finally, the point of these studies, or at least the way they’ve been reported in some cases, seems to include the implicit suggestion that liberals and progressives are smarter, more logical, less emotional thinkers than are conservatives. But interestingly, the most intelligent among us tend to lean pretty strongly libertarian. See, e.g., the results of a survey of Triple Nine Society members (who are in the 99.9th percentile for intelligence).

I did not see the results in the Triple Nine Society that are ear marks of a scientific and therefore well reasoned conclusion (statistical variance, random, double blind, etc.). Additionally, what is deemed ‘intelligence’ would have to clearly and narrowly be stated and defended in advance of even trying to make a conclusion. There were a few libertarian, conservative and liberal politicians mentioned but this is hardly a study. As a side, I will tell you a little story. When I lived in Dallas I made some Mensa friends and started going to their meetings. I was thinking about taking the test when some of them started telling me that they would give me answers and even the test I would take. Of course, this is anecdotal and perhaps not typical of Mensa but it discouraged me from going further – for me, it really just seemed like a club after that…

Oh, also, I did not think of these studies as giving any indication of intelligence. I think that was a leap on your part. I think the whole topic of intelligence is a can of worms (emotional, IQ, analytic, logical, poetic/artistic, folksy wisdom, etc.). I personally do not feel like these studies had anything to say about the intelligence of liberals or conservatives merely how they typically, in our particular present situation, handle making sense of their environment. There certainly is no claim to greater or lesser intelligence in the studies themselves…

*I highly recommend this report by the Census Bureau. It give much more detail than the usual statistics that are cited.

The Conservative and Liberal Brain

When conservatives beat the drum that the government is ‘controlling them’ many of us look at them the same way we would look at someone that told us the government put a radio in their head that makes them hear voices. When we hear that the secular world is controlled by Satan and evolution, climate change, environmentalism and abortion is a ‘humanistic’ war on God many of us roll our eyes and walk away. When they talk about God and guns we hope that God does not tell them to start shooting until we are out of range. While not all conservatives fit into these categories there are enough out there to make us wonder if there is more going on than meets the eye. -Look no further than neuroscience.

Studies have shown that the brain is different for conservative and liberals. The amygdala is larger in conservatives. The anterior cingulate cortex is larger in liberals. The amygdala evolved 500 million years ago. It is responsible for emotional fear responses.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system, the area of the brain associated with emotions. The amygdala is important for formation of emotional memories and learning, such as fear conditioning, as well as memory consolidation. Emotions significantly impact how we process events; when we encounter something and have a strong emotional reaction—either positive or negative—that memory is strengthened.

Persons with a larger or more active amygdala tend to have stronger emotional reactions to objects and events, and process information initially through that pathway. They would be more likely swayed towards a belief if it touched them on an emotional level.

Those with a larger amygdala are also thought to experience and express more empathy, perhaps explaining why one of the features of psychopathy is a smaller amygdala. This is not to say that someone with a smaller amygdala is a psychopath, just that they are probably less emotionally reactive or receptive.

On the other hand, while emotional sensitivity can be a good thing, too much emotionality can have negative consequences. For example, Borderline Personality Disorder, characterized by poor and uncontrollable emotion regulation, features a hyperactive amygdala. (Link)

The amygdala has many functions, including fear processing [11]. Individuals with a large amygdala are more sensitive to fear [12], which, taken together with our findings, might suggest the testable hypothesis that individuals with larger amygdala are more inclined to integrate conservative views into their belief system. Similarly, it is striking that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust [13, 14], and the insula is involved in the feeling of disgust [15]. On the other hand, our finding of an association between anterior cingulate cortex volume and political attitudes may be linked with tolerance to uncertainty. One of the functions of the anterior cingulate cortex is to monitor uncertainty [16, 17] and conflicts [18]. Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views.(Link)

The anterior cingulate cortex only recently evolved. It is responsible for higher cognitive learning – error correction is a big function of the anterior cingulate cortex.

The ACC has a variety of functions in the brain, including error detection, conflict monitoring1, and evaluating or weighing different competing choices. It’s also very important for both emotion regulation and cognitive control (often referred to as ‘executive functioning’)—controlling the level of emotional arousal or response to an emotional event (keeping it in check), as to allow your cognitive processes to work most effectively.

When there is a flow of ambiguous information, the ACC helps to discern whether the bits of info are relevant or not, and assigns them value. People with some forms of schizophrenia, Paranoid Type, for instance, typically have a poorly functioning ACC, so they have trouble discerning relevant patterns from irrelevant ones, giving equal weight to all of them. Someone can notice lots of bizarre patterns—that alone isn’t pathological—but you need to know which ones are meaningful. The ACC helps to decide which patterns are worth investigating and which ones are just noise. If your brain assigned relevance to every detectable pattern, it would be pretty problematic. We sometimes refer to this as having paranoid delusions. You need that weeding out process to think rationally.

Mental illness aside, being able to sort out relevant patterns from irrelevant patterns logically is difficult to do when heavy emotions are involved. Imagine being under extreme emotional duress (such as having a fight with your significant other) then sitting down to analyze a set of data, or read a story and pick out the main points. It’s ridiculously hard to think logically when you’re all ramped up emotionally. This is why emotion regulation goes hand-in-hand with cognitive control and error detection.

Too much emotion gets in the way of logical thinking, and disrupts cognitive processing. This is why in times of crisis, we learn to set aside our emotions in order to problem-solve our way out of a dangerous situation. Those with the ability to maintain low emotional arousal and have high cognitive control are generally better at handling conflict in the moment, plus tend to be the least permanently affected by trauma in the long term2. They tend to be more adaptable to changing situations (or have a higher tolerance for complexity), and have what we call cognitive flexibility.(Link)

This article states:

What does this boil down to in practical terms?

In order for a person to embrace a cause or idea, it needs to be meaningful for them. Each type of person has a different way that they assign meaning and relevance to ideas. Let’s take liberals and conservatives, since we are theorizing that they are two distinct thinking styles: liberals would be more flexible and reliant on data, proof, and analytic reasoning, and conservatives are more inflexible (prefer stability), emotion-driven, and connect themselves intimately with their ideas, making those beliefs a crucial part of their identity (we see this in more high-empathy-expressing individuals). This fits in with the whole “family values” platform of the conservative party, and also why we see more religious folks that identify as conservatives, and more skeptics, agnostics, and atheists that are liberal. Religious people are more unshakable in their belief of a higher power, and non-religious people are more open to alternate explanations, i.e., don’t rely on faith alone.

So—for liberals to make a case for an idea or cause, they come armed with data, research studies, and experts. They are convinced of an idea if all the data checks out–basically they assign meaning and value to ideas that fit within the scientific method, because that’s their primary thinking style. Emotion doesn’t play as big of a role in validation. Not to say that liberals are unfeeling, but just more likely to set emotion aside when judging an idea initially, and factor it in later. Checks out scientifically = valuable. Liberals can get just as emotionally attached to an idea, but it’s usually not the primary trigger for acceptance of an idea.

Conservatives would be less likely to assign value primarily using the scientific method. Remember, their thinking style leads primarily with emotion. In order for them to find an idea valuable, it has to be meaningful for them personally. It needs to trigger empathy. Meaning, they need some kind of emotional attachment to it, such as family, or a group of individuals they are close to in some way.

Let’s state the obvious disclaimers. This neurological evidence should not be taken as categorically true of all conservatives or all liberals. This is not in any sense reductionary evidence. It is certainly feasible that some conservatives could have a larger anterior cingulate cortex and some liberals could have a larger amygdale. It is also possible that conservatives and liberals could have both brain areas smaller or larger. Additionally, the brain changes and adapts as it is used or not used. However, my interest in this topic is to try to understand conservatives. I grew up in the Deep South and did not even know a liberal until I started college; although, I was liberal from birth. I have often been disappointed in the explanations (or lack thereof) that conservatives have given me for their ideology. However, there have been some exceptions to this with public figures like David Brooks and William Buckley. I have also come across various philosophers like Nietzsche, Foucault, postmodern philosophers that could lend some ideas to conservatism. In any case, the neuroscience findings may explain certain kinds of behavior that the actual people (i.e., conservatives) cannot explain.

From “The New Unconscious”, here are some interesting studies and results:

More recent research with nonhuman animals has emphasized the amygdala’s role in emotional learning and memory. Work by Davis (1992), Kapp, Pascoe, and Bixler (1984), and LeDoux (1992) has shown that while the amygdala is not critical to express an emotional reaction to stimuli that are inherently aversive, it is critical for learned fear responses.

Ran R. Hassin;James S. Uleman;John A. Bargh. The New Unconscious (Oxford Series in Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience) (p. 62). Kindle Edition.

Investigations into the neural systems of fear conditioning have mapped the pathways for learning from stimulus input to response output. One finding that has emerged from this research is that information about the identity of a stimulus can reach the amygdala by more than one pathway. Romanski and LeDoux (1992) have shown that there are separate cortical and subcortical pathways to convey perceptual information to the amygdala. If one pathway is damaged, the other is sufficient to signal the presence of a conditioned stimulus and elicit a conditioned response. It has been suggested that these dual pathways may be adaptive (LeDoux, 1996). The amygdala responds to stimuli in the environment that represent potential threat. The amygdala then sends signals to other brain regions and the autonomic nervous system, preparing the animal to respond quickly. The subcortical pathway to the amygdala can provide only a crude estimation of the perceptual details of the stimulus, but it is very fast. The cortical pathway allows the stimulus to be fully processed, but it is somewhat slower. This crude, fast subcortical pathway may prepare the animal to respond more quickly if, when the stimulus is fully processed and identified by the cortical pathway, the threat turns out to be real.

Ran R. Hassin;James S. Uleman;John A. Bargh. The New Unconscious (Oxford Series in Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience) (pp. 62-63). Kindle Edition.

Although the amygdala is critical for fear conditioning, it also plays a broader, noncritical role in other types of learning and memory. The amygdala can modulate the function of other memory systems, particularly the hippocampal memory system necessary for declarative or episodic memory. McGaugh, Introini-Collision, Cahill, Munsoo, and Liang (1992) have shown that when an animal is aroused, the storage of hippocampal-dependent memory is enhanced. This enhanced storage with arousal depends on the amygdala. The amygdala modulates storage by altering consolidation. Consolidation is a process that occurs after initial encoding by which a memory becomes more or less “set”or permanent. McGaugh (2000) has suggested that perhaps one adaptive function of this slow consolidation process is to allow the neurohormonal changes that occur with emotion to alter memory. In this way, events that elicit emotional reactions, and thus may be more important for survival, are remembered better than nonemotional events. This secondary role of modulating the consolidation of hippocampal-dependent memories with mild arousal is another way the amygdala can influence emotional memory.

Ran R. Hassin;James S. Uleman;John A. Bargh. The New Unconscious (Oxford Series in Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience) (p. 63). Kindle Edition.

This result tells me that the amygdale is the key and best suited for survival situations. Some of the latter studies in this book show that those with damage to this area of the brain can learn how to adapt to these situations using other parts of the brain. There are also studies that show that the amygdale can be employed for memory of dangerous situations by merely hearing about something dangerous. For example, if someone tells you that a certain dog may bite, your amygdale will help you remember this warning for the next time you encounter the dog. This is called ‘instructed fear’. This tells me that when conservatives hear that President Obama is a dangerous socialist they may physically take this as an emotional memory about a looming danger.

The studies also show that this whole process can be subliminal or unconscious. In fact, many of the findings in this book show that practically everything we think is conscious, including agency and control, actually take place unconsciously. Even more so, the problem that these studies are highlighting is that we really do not know why we need a conscious or what function it serves. I covered some of this material in this essay.

Here are some of my personal conclusions from this data:

Control is about the fear of loss of control. This fear drives preservation and conservatism. Conservatism does not want to relinquish what it believes it has; it wants to maintain. Its instinct is based in the need to survive so it is fundamentally emotional. However, not all threats are equal. Some perceived threats are really simply a need for change, sometimes fundamental change is required. Thus, the amygdale that is hyperactive can be illusional. It can stimulate to the point of imminent threat and paranoia. Only those that have equally overactive amygdales will ‘understand’ the need to act rashly and believe the justification for it.

For me, conservatism, especially the older conservatives, were the keepers of a critical function of society, -the need to maintain stability. Large populations have a certain kind of massive momentum that resists change. It is sort of like a gigantic cruise ship; it does not change directions very quickly. Societies need stability and ‘conservatism’ to some extent to maintain order, prevent social anxiety and prevent anarchy in the worst case. These studies also show that there are functions in the brain that moderate change. They provide damping effects on novel situations and reinforce the ‘tried and true’ for behavior. The down side of this is that sometimes as society meets new challenges a dogged insistence on the ‘tried and true’ may actually exasperate societal functions that are not working. In this case the ‘tried and true’ may no longer be tried or true (if it ever was). In the worst case, this can lead to revolution, violence and mass anarchy. This is why populations need liberals.

Liberals want to find progressive solutions to new challenges. When conservatism bogs down and gets stuck in a rut that is not working for large sections of society, liberals become the vanguard for change. This actually keeps untenable circumstances from getting out of control and finally resulting in bloody revolutions. Communists actually see this as a negative, bourgeois effect that continues to oppress mass populations; it effectively consorts with the status quo and laissez faire to oppress large populations with the ‘liberal face’ of conservatism. At some point, history has shown that the communist critique of the bourgeoisie is certainly true and both conservatives and liberals prevent needed and meaningful change. If a society adopts a ‘no right is too far right’ approach to government then the legitimate, liberal function is repressed and the tipping point for revolution is brought dangerously closer. The brain has the same pitfalls.

Especially in view of technology and its demands, no or little education is more and more an untenable life choice. Manufacturing is becoming more and more automated in wealthy countries and manual labor for tasks that are not automated make it hard for those types of manufacturers to make the profit they require to stay in wealthy countries. A brain that wants to preserve what it has will have a harder and harder time staying afloat without government assistance in this fast paced environment. This is why the problem solving functions of the brain is required for novel situations or situations that are no longer tenable.

A conservative oriented person that is doing ok is not going to want to make massive changes to help others that are in real need. The tendency in this case is for insular behavior. Folks in this situation will adopt hands off political ideologies and resist change. As long as these folks are in a majority for democratic governments they will fashion a conservative government. However, if a critical mass of adversely effected populations is exceeded the liberals will win out and the government will get more and more liberal. I believe this is where the United States finds itself.

Demographics are more and more against the conservative agenda chiefly because the disaffected minorities are getting larger than the decreasing majority that prefers conservatism. In this setting, the conservative will start to sound more and more anachronistic and irrelevant. If new strategies are not provided in this country to positively address issues like health care, immigration, poverty and discrimination the only alternative is to restrict democratic power either by law or by manipulation (i.e., money is protected by free speech). The manipulation tactic is a time limited tactic, it is temporary. It will only work as long as a mass of people’s physical situation is tolerable and conservatism informs them that conserving works better for them. However, at some point the rhetoric will not provide needed fundamentals for these populations. If conservatives then insist on conserving, the blow back will be more severe. I do not think we will reach this point until all the options for conservation have been deployed and tried and exhausted themselves.

One last point, I do not think that all liberal solutions are solutions and may actually exasperate problems. I view this as similar to the problems the space program encountered in the early days. Many ideas and proposals were tried and failed in the early days of space explorations. It was a messy process that had no guarantee of success but, as a country, the United States resolved that space exploration was not optional. When necessity drives political requirement not succeeding is not an option. The conservatives will find that they will reach a point of diminishing returns if they keep blaming liberals for ‘true’ conservatism not working. It is similar to the tinny sound non-believers hear when Christians keep telling them that the historical violence of Christianity was not ‘true’ Christianity. The ‘trueness’ of appealing to the ‘tried and true’ wears thin no matter what the excuses if it is not working. This is why issues like health care cannot be ignored forever. If conservatives cannot or will not demonstrate a viable solution, necessity will drive a novel solution and liberals will be the force behind it.