So one conservative neurosurgeon says to the other, “Didja hear why liberals have to work so much harder to win at politics?”
“Why, no, I haven’t,” says the other conservative neurosurgeon.
“Ha! It’s because they have to compensate for having smaller amygdalae!” And they both laugh heartily as they stroll down the hospital corridor.
The above joke doesn’t make any sense to the reader right now, of course, but in the light of current research it makes perfect sense. First, let’s show the research:
1. Scientists at University College London found that “people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdalas, almond shaped areas in the centre of the brain often associated with anxiety and emotions. On the other hand, they have a smaller anterior cingulate, an area at the front of the brain associated with courage and looking on the bright side of life.”
Salon.com points out that the researchers were unable to determine if cerebral physiology drives politics or if political beliefs change the brain, but a joint study by Harvard and University of California San Diego indicated that people with [a so-called "liberal gene"] who have a greater-than-average number of friends would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average. They reported that it is the crucial interaction of two factors—the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence—that is associated with being more liberal. This held true independent of ethnicity, culture, sex, or age. This might explain in a physiological sense the tendency for urban populations to be more liberal than their rural counterparts.
2. Amygdalae play a very important (though not crucial) role in the processing of emotions, particularly that of fear. In fact, a smaller amygdala volume tends to be associated with decreased fearfulness and enlarged amygdala volume with increased fearfulness. The study shows that there is a direct relationship between amygdala volume and fearfulness in healthy girls, which is particularly robust in girls who have direct family members who suffered from depression.
3. Researchers from Northeastern University and at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have found that part of the brain called the amygdala, a word derived from the Greek for almond, is larger in more sociable people than in those who lead less gregarious lives. The finding, which held for men and women of all ages, is the first to show a link between the size of [the amygdala] and the number and complexity of a person’s relationships.
This was also found to hold true in different species of nonhuman primates. Studies have shown previously that amygdala volume is associated with the number of individuals in the group, suggesting that this region of the brain supports the skills needed for complex social life.
So where does all this lead? For years I’ve wondered exactly what it is that makes us either liberal or conservative. I’ve felt that there had to be a reasonable explanation, for it became increasingly obvious that conservatives tend to process factual information differently than do liberals such as myself. To sum it up, generally speaking, those with larger amygdalae tend to be conservative, experience more fear, and have more friends.
This would explain much about the current political and media climate. For instance, fear-mongering is prevalent to a far greater degree in conservative media (“death-panels,” “pals around with terrorists,” “deep-seated hatred of white people,” “global warming is a socialist plot”) than in mainstream or liberal media. Why? The above studies show that it’s because conservatives (who generally have larger amygdalae) are generally more susceptible to the emotion of fear (which is more easily felt by those with larger amygdalae). That, and the novelty of “change” which is more easily accepted by liberals, is more easily feared by conservatives. And since that which is different from the norm is more likely to be feared by conservatives, imagine what their reaction was likely to be with a black president with a funny (and partially-Muslim) name who spent part of his youth in a Muslim country. In light of the research above, it’s pretty obvious that it’s just like some on the Left said, that even if President Obama had cured cancer and personally paid off the national debt, those on the Right would still claim it was all part of a socialist plot. The reality of Obama was simply too…different, too great of a change for conservatives to accept.
The disparity between Democrats and Republicans in the scientific community is explained as well, for scientists thirst for discovery of the new, of the different, of that which will change the world…and those who fear difference and change rarely find themselves within the scientific community. This also shows why conservatives are much more likely to deride scientific research as suspect or false regardless of how obviously rock-solid the research may be, i.e. climate change. “It’s different from what we think it should be—therefore it must be wrong.”
But in political terms, the more troubling aspect is the tendency of those with larger amygdalae to have a greater number and complexity of social relationships. It might easily be extrapolated, then, that “loyalty” and “being one of the group” means more to a conservative than it does to a liberal…and most of us can remember the premium that past Republican administrations have placed on said loyalty, however misguided, and we all know how much easier it is for Republicans to vote in lockstep than it is for Democrats. It might also be said that conservatives would thus be expected to have a greater fear of being excluded from the group—and this would explain why the few Republican politicians who spoke out against certain powerful conservative pundits were quick to apologize…for they feared being expelled from the herd, so to speak.
Worst of all is that this shows that in a political climate that is so starkly polarized under a president who is so very different from the norm, the emotional need for conservatives to unify, to band together against whatever it is that is feared, is of far greater emotional import than nebulous terms such as “bipartisanship” and “compromise.” Again, in conservative eyes what should be feared and distrusted—and often hated—are not necessarily our so-called liberal policies, but us liberals ourselves. Even casual readers of Blogcritics Politics should be able to remember many times that conservatives have virulently opposed legislation supported by the Obama administration that not so long ago was even introduced by Republicans—the health insurance mandate itself was apparently proposed by Bob Dole himself, and I sincerely doubt that anyone could question his conservative cred! But perhaps since his proposal was made jointly with a Democrat (Tom Daschle), well, perhaps that makes Bob Dole a socialist.
But I digress. The reader should bear in mind that these tendencies all apply in the general sense, and probably only represent a few minor ticks in one direction or another on psychological bell curves. These ticks might mean little on an individual basis—there are certainly many fearless conservatives and many cowardly liberals—but in the macro-psychological big picture these few ticks are making a world of difference…and we’re seeing that world of difference play out every day in the media and our hyper-polarized political scene: one side that embraces change against the other side that fears change. But it’s not until now that we could begin to realize that emotion driven by biology itself might be playing a bigger part than any political dogma or mindset.
For us liberals, one of the greatest of all said it best: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” He could not have known how right he was.