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Study suggests liberal brains understand complexity, conservative minds are associated with anxiety and fear

By on April 12, 2011

A new study suggests that basic brain science might stand in the way of bipartisanship, reports Holly Bailey of Yahoo News with a h/t to the Ybor City Stogie.

Using data from MRI scans, researchers at the University College London found that self-described liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex–a gray matter of the brain associated with understanding complexity. Meanwhile, self-described conservatives are more likely to have a larger amygdala, an almond-shaped area that is associated with fear and anxiety.

“Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual’s political orientation,” lead researcher Ryota Kanai writes of the study in the latest issue of Current Biology. “Our study now links personality traits with specific brain structure.”

Observers will notice a familiar name on the report: Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth, who commissioned the report while serving as a guest host of the BBC Radio 4′s Today program in London last year. (Neurological sources of stammering don’t come into play.)

The study, which was conducted with the help of 90 young adult volunteers, comes on the heels of other research that linked political beliefs to genetic differences between liberals and conservatives. Last year, a joint study by the Harvard and the University of California, San Diego, found there might actually be a so-called “liberal gene” that influences political leanings.

While the London study does find distinct differences between Democrats and Republicans, its authors caution that more research needs to be done on the subject. One unknown is whether people are simply born with their political beliefs or if our brains adjust to life experiences–which is a possibility, Kanai writes.

“It’s very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions,” he said in a statement accompanying the study. “More work is needed to determine how these brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude.”

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