The extreme political polarization in the United States has given rise to a new scientific discipline—the study of the relationship between genes and political persuasion. A nation so deeply divided has caught the attention of scientists who are trying to find out why. There may be some answers, and there is hope for our RWNJ friends. They might be cured by a prescription some day.
Two studies released this month show that there is in fact a difference between the brains of Republicans and Democrats. Scientists did not find that Republicans have smaller brains than Democrats or visa versa. They have found, however, that Republicans and Democrats use their brains differently. That may be the result of genes according to an article by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones.
First a team of researchers including Peter Hatemi of Penn State University and Rose McDermott of Brown University studied the deep seated tendencies that influence how we experience fear. The way we deal with fear, it turns out, is rooted in our genes and it influences our political beliefs.
The researchers found that people who have a more fearful disposition tend to be more politically conservative, less tolerant of immigrants, and less tolerant of people of races different from their own.
"It's not that conservative people are more fearful, researcher Rose McDermott said, “It’s that fearful people are more conservative."
If that is not convincing, Darren Schreiber, a political neuroscientist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom noticed something astonishing in his research. Republicans activate a different part of the brain than Democrats when they experience a stressful or fearful situation. Schreiber discovered this while studying 82 people participating in a risky gambling task.
He found that Republicans use the right amygdala, the center of the brain's threat response system. Democrats, in contrast, use the insula, involved in internal monitoring of one's feelings.
Schreiber and his colleagues concluded that that this test correctly predicted 82.9 % of the study subjects' political party choices. This is more reliable than predicting political party affiliation based on the affiliation of one’s parents.
Schreiber thinks the current research suggests that having a particular brain influences your political views. He also believes that having a particular political view influences and changes your brain. The causal arrow seems likely to run in both directions—which would make sense in light of what we know about the plasticity of the brain.
Simply by living our lives, we change our brains. Our political affiliations and the lifestyles that go along with them, probably condition many such changes.
It is hard not to infer that fear of outsiders or those different from you—along with greater fear dispositions in general—may be related to the role of amygdala, a brain structure that has been dubbed the "heart and soul of the fear system."
The amygdala has been repeatedly implicated in politics. Schreiber's research builds on prior brain studies: In a group of University College of London students, for instance, conservatives showed more gray matter in the right amygdala than liberals.
Studies in the 1960’s showed that children generally form their political views by age 6, and quite often, they are the same as their parents. This could be a result of genes, and the brain types they inherited.
The studies of children and politics, however, have a hard time reconciling why many college students often have different political views than their parents. That can possibly be explained by Schreiber’s assertion that our environment or lifestyle can change our brains.
There are two major issues in the news today that seem to be dividing Americans—gun laws and immigration. The fact that Republicans generally tend to have a different view on these issues than Democrats may have to do with the way they process fear.
Maybe Big Pharma can develop a pill to fix our political polarization.