April 8, 2011

Liberals, Conservatives Have Different Brain Structures

A new British study finds that a person's political views may be tied to their brain structure, with conservatives having larger areas of the brain concerned with fear and anxiety than those of a more left wing orientation.

The researchers found that self-identified liberals tended to have larger anterior cingulate cortexes, while those who call themselves conservative have larger amygdalas.

Based on what is known about the functions of those two brain regions, the structural differences are consistent with reports showing a greater ability of liberals to cope with conflicting information, and a greater ability of conservatives to recognize a threat, the researchers say.

"Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual's political orientation," Ryota Kanai of the University College London said in a statement.

"Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure."

Kanai said previous research showing greater anterior cingulate cortex response to conflicting information among liberals prompted him to conduct the current study.

"That was the first neuroscientific evidence for biological differences between liberals and conservatives," he said.

There had also been many prior psychological studies showing that conservatives are more sensitive to threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty, while liberals tend to be more open to new experiences.

Kanai and his team suspected that such fundamental differences in personality might show up in the brain, precisely what they found.

However, Kanai said it is not yet clear which came first.  For instance, our brain structure may not be set early in life, and may instead be shaped over time by life experiences.  Furthermore, some people have been known to change their political views over the course of a lifetime.

It's also true that our political persuasions can fall into many more categories than simply liberal or conservative.

"In principle, our research method can be applied to find brain structure differences in political dimensions other than the simplistic left- versus right-wingers," Kanai said.

For instance, differences in brain structure may explain why some people have no interest whatsoever in politics, or why some people prefer Macs while others want PCs.  All of these tendencies may be related in interesting ways to the peculiarities of our personalities, and to the way our brains are structured.

Kanai warned against taking the study's findings too far, citing many uncertainties about how the correlations they see come about.

"It's very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions," he said.

"More work is needed to determine how these brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude."

The study was published online on April 7th in Current Biology. 


On the Net: