And so, another period of campus election fever is over. The results have been counted, and we have our new sabbs. Aside from our SU elections we’ve seen a few political events recently, including the Brexit campaign and the election of Donald Trump. Both had one thing in common – the huge partisan divide between one side and the other. A sensible question here is why we have that divide, namely why do people have different political beliefs? Well, political neuroscientists have been studying that very question, with some interesting results.
Scientists at the University of South Carolina ran a study in which subjects completed a questionnaire to gauge their attitudes on different political issues, before being given ‘resting state’ MRI scans. The idea was to analyse the mirror neuron system, a network linked to a host of social and emotional abilities.
It was found that left-wing supporters had more neural activity in areas connected to broad social consciousness (friends, the world-at-large), whereas those on the right had more activity in areas linked with tight social connectedness (family, country). To quote the lead researcher, Roger Newman-Norlund, the results showed that these groups ‘process social connectedness in a fundamentally different way.’ However, this is not the definitive shaper of beliefs – individual experiences matter too.
If there is a difference between left and right brains, is it then possible to scientifically predict someone’s political allegiance?
If there is a difference between left and right brains, is it then possible to scientifically predict someone’s political allegiance? Read Montague, a neuroscience professor, explored this question. Political affiliation is associated with several areas of life (such as health, sex or family), so an experiment was conducted, measuring the brain activity of people with varying political opinions as they responded to threats against these areas (germs, or violence). MRI scans showed a stark difference. ‘A single disgusting image was sufficient to predict each subject’s political orientation’ said Montague, ‘and I haven’t seen such clean predictive results in any other experiments in our lab or others.
The regions firing were those responsible for processing pain, negative emotion and error detection, suggesting a genuine feeling of distress when someone is confronted with an opposing ideology.
So if you’re pre-programmed to have certain beliefs, can you change them? Well, of course, but it’s a difficult switch to make. A study conducted before the 2004 US election found that, when subjects viewed information that contradicted their political preferences, certain brain regions activated more than usual. The regions firing were those responsible for processing pain, negative emotion and error detection, suggesting a genuine feeling of distress when someone is confronted with an opposing ideology. Later, the subjects were allowed to justify their own beliefs, with the result that the brain’s pleasure regions started to fire. These findings make sense, and also help to explain the political stubbornness many individuals feel.
Political neuroscience is a relatively new field, but one that is being watched with interest. Politicians are eager to use these findings, exploiting biology to target voters and create more effective campaigns. Whatever findings the field throws up, when you’re next in a political discussion, remember that changing someone’s mind could be as difficult as changing their brain.