Political differences are embedded in the structure of people’s brains, according to a new study, with those with conservative or liberal views responding differently to topical issues such as abortion or immigration.
The US-based study at Brown University found that people who share a particular political belief process information differently than those who hold opposing views.
A 2021 experiment led by Oriel FeldmanHall, associate professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, with the university’s Carney Institute for Brain Science, measured the brain activity of people who define themselves as political liberals or political conservatives while watching videos about cultural sensitivity. topics such as abortion and immigration.
The study showed that the brains of participants who shared political beliefs responded in a similar way.
Based on this research, a study published on February 1 in the journal Science Advances looked at how people with “synchronized neural fingerprints” interpreted different words. The group of 44 participants were asked to rank words such as “abortion” and “immigration,” “American” and “police” according to their perceived similarity. They were also asked to press a button to indicate whether the words shown to them were political or not.
Participants were also shown “neutral” news clips and a vice presidential campaign debate about police brutality, in which their brain activity was measured. Based on the measured brain activity, immigration was found to be the most polarizing topic for participants, closely followed by abortion, but policing was a less polarizing topic.
The results showed that people who shared political views responded similarly to the words – even without any political context.
Professor FeldmanHall said: “The reason two liberal brains are synchronizing while watching a complex video is partly because each brain has neural fingerprints for highly aligned political concepts or words.”
He said the study helped to “shed light on what happens in the brain that leads to political polarization”.
“You can think of it as the brain representing the word by firing neurons in a certain way. It’s almost like a fingerprint, a neural fingerprint that encodes the concept of that word within the brain.”
The researchers said the findings could help develop an understanding of how a controversial news channel inspires very different political views in its audience.
Professor FeldmanHall added: “The problem of political polarization cannot be addressed at a superficial level.
“Our work has shown that these polarized beliefs are deeply embedded, and that they go all the way down to people’s experience of political speech. Understanding will influence how researchers think about possible interventions.”
Conservatism linked to fear in the brain
Previous studies have suggested that those with conservative political views have larger areas of the brain associated with fear and anxiety than those with left-wing views.
A 2010 University College London study found that those who are politically conservative have larger amygdalas, the area of the brain associated with emotion, and smaller anterior cingulate – the area of the brain associated with with courage and a positive attitude.
The research, originally commissioned by actor Colin Firth, found that political differences can be hardwired into people’s brain structures.
A 2013 study also found that American Republican voters had a more active right amygdala, a region associated with defensive “fight or flight” responses, while Democrats showed significantly more activity in the left insula, a brain region relating to social awareness and self-awareness.
A team of British and American scientists were able to predict whether people would vote Republican or Democrat with 83 percent accuracy simply by studying their brain activity.