Neurophysiology and Political Beliefs

Several times in recent days I have addressed the subject of purity and the problems it poses when it becomes an obsession. These obsessional purists eventually live in a bubble and seek to obliterate anyone who would deign to think or behave differently than they do. I have received some very interesting responses from this blog post, some of which provided further grist for my mill. One suggested a neurological dimension to the conservative mindset (see “neuro notes” on wordpress) which led to even further google exploration on my own. I am going to share with you an article from Mother Jones magazine which suggests that conservatism is not a function of reason as much as it is underlying neurophysiology. Now in fairness, by extension the same can be applied to a “liberal” mindset or any other mindset. Our “thinking” is not autonomous and “objective”. There is always an underlying neurological substrate that influences our thinking, our reasoning. This is related to an observation I have shared several times from a source I cannot recall, “Our thinking is the belated rationalization of conclusions to which we have already been led by our desires.”

Now, I know the terror that this strikes in some hearts. I know because I once lived there and recoiled when notions of this sort were proposed. These notions always brought to my mind the arch enemy of my conservative mind, “RELATIVISM!!!!” And relevant to this demonic buzzword, there was the fear that “nothing is real.”

I do not see it that way now. Yes, things are much more relative than I used to think and much more relative than they appear to most people, especially conservative extremists. But I do believe in an Ultimate and do so with great passion. I just don’t have as much confidence anymore in my ability, or the ability of any human, to grasp and understand and control that Ultimate with his/her mind. When we allow our spiritual exploration to take us beyond that neurological substrate, and beyond any other underpinnings that science might posit, we find a primordial emptiness (or Nothingness) and that is where faith is required, faith in the sense of hope. This emptiness is expressed in the Christian tradition as “kenosis” or “self-emptying.” This requires an humility which the ego finds repulsive.

This leaves us seeing our beautiful world “unreal” in ultimate terms. But it is the only reality we know (as in consciously “know”) and is very important as it is the means by which the Ultimate can begin its/His unfolding. This hidden world gives the “seen” world meaning and therefore allows Essential Beauty to become manifest.

I’m going to share some of the wisdom of Lao Tzu before I conclude with the Mother Jones article by Chris Mooney:

Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub,
By vacancies joining them for a wheel’s use;
The use of clay in moulding pitchers
Comes from the hollow of its absence;
Doors, windows, in a house,
Are used for their emptiness:
�Thus we are helped by what is not
To use what is


The past two weeks have seen not one but two studies published in scientific journals on the biological underpinnings of political ideology. And these studies go straight at the role of genes and the brain in shaping our views, and even our votes.

First, in the American Journal of Political Science [1], a team of researchers including Peter Hatemi of Penn State University and Rose McDermott of Brown University studied the relationship between our deep-seated tendencies to experience fear—tendencies that vary from person to person, partly for reasons that seem rooted in our genes—and our political beliefs. What they found is that people who have more fearful disposition also tend to be more politically conservative, and less tolerant of immigrants and people of races different from their own. As McDermott carefully emphasizes, that does not mean that every conservative has a high fear disposition. “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative,” as she puts it [2].

I interviewed the paper’s lead author, Peter Hatemi, about his research for my 2012 book The Republican Brain. Hatemi is both a political scientist and also a microbiologist, and as he stressed to me, “nothing is all genes, or all environment.” These forces combine to make us who we are, in incredibly intricate ways.

And if Hatemi’s and McDermott’s research blows your mind, get this [3]: Darren Schreiber, a political neuroscientist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, first performed brain scans on 82 people participating in a risky gambling task, one in which holding out for more money increases your possible rewards, but also your possible losses. Later, cross-referencing the findings with the participants’ publicly available political party registration information, Schreiber noticed something astonishing: Republicans, when they took the same gambling risk, were activating a different part of the brain than Democrats.

Republicans were using the right amygdala, the center of the brain’s threat response system. Democrats, in contrast, were using the insula, involved in internal monitoring of one’s feelings. Amazingly, Schreiber and his colleagues write that this test predicted 82.9 percent of the study subjects’ political party choices—considerably better, they note, than a simple model that predicts your political party affiliation based on the affiliation of your parents.

I also interviewed Schreiber for The Republican Brain. He’s a scientist who was once quite cautious about the relevance of brain studies to people’s politics. As he put it to me: “If you had called me four years ago and said, ‘What is your view on whether Republicans and Democrats have different brains?’ I would have said no.” Now, his own published research suggests otherwise.

The current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences your brain.

One again, though, there’s a critical nuance here. Schreiber thinks the current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also 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.

The two new studies described here are likely connected: 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 [4].” The amygdala has been repeatedly implicated in politics. Indeed, Schreiber’s research builds on prior brain studies: In a group of University College of London students, for instance, conservatives showed more gray matter [5] in the right amygdala.

So what’s the upshot? How about this: We need a much broader and more thoughtful discussion about what it means if political ideology turns out to be nothing like what we actually thought it was. Scientists working in this new field tend towards the conclusion that the new research should make us more tolerant, not less, of political difference—not to mention a whole lot more humble about our own deeply held beliefs.

(For additional information of the neuroscience of political belief systems, please google Jonathan Haidt for several very interesting and provocative You Tube lectures. Also, please check out this You Tube post by Neuro Notes: (


3 thoughts on “Neurophysiology and Political Beliefs

  1. N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ

    Lew, thank you so much for posting my video and for mentioning my blog. Btw, it’s listed under Neuronotes was taken when I registered with WordPress, but I go by N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ as my site title and Neuro Research Project as my subtitle, because I had established neuronotes on my Youtube channel and elsewhere a few years before I joined WordPress. Sorry about the confusion.

    Your post was excellent. I was reminded of an article written by Dr. Robert Sapolsky “Peace Among Primates”.

    He spent years observing the Savanna baboons, in particular, the Forrest Troop. It’s under the section “Left behind”. I found it remarkable how much their social structures affect their behavior and resemble many of the social structures and behavior of our species, particularity in the political and conservative religious realms.

    The Forrest Troop males who were domineering, greedy and antisocial, contracted tuberculosis (from eating tainted meat) and died. The low aggression, prosocial males were left behind. They did not succumb to tuberculosis because they were not part of the ‘high status’ males who infiltrated Garbage Dump Troop’s territory to hoard resources. The social consequences of these changes (death of high status males), were dramatic. I recommend reading the details. Sopolsky writes:

    “Thus the savanna baboon became, literally, a textbook example of life in an aggressive, highly stratified, male-dominated society. Yet in my observation of Forest Troop, I saw members of that same species demonstrate enough behavioral plasticity to transform their society into a baboon utopia.”

    He writes that not much has changed in over 20 years since this took place. He goes on to say:

    “To an overwhelming extent, the age-old “nature versus nurture” debate is silly. The action of genes is completely intertwined with the environment in which they function…”

    “Humans may be hard-wired to get edgy around the Other, but our views on who falls into that category are decidedly malleable.”

    As a side note, the article (towards the end) expounds on the amygdala (right) and a human experiment by Susan Fiske, of Princeton University.


  2. Pingback: Neurophysiology and Political Beliefs | literary lew | Neuro Physiology Blog

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