Brain structure differs in liberals, conservatives: study

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Thu Apr 7

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Everyone knows that liberals and conservatives butt heads when it comes to world views, but scientists have now shown that their brains are actually built differently.

Liberals have more gray matter in a part of the brain associated with understanding complexity, while the conservative brain is bigger in the section related to processing fear, said the study on Thursday in Current Biology.

“We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala,” the study said.

Other research has shown greater brain activity in those areas, according to which political views a person holds, but this is the first study to show a physical difference in size in the same regions.

“Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual’s political orientation,” said Ryota Kanai of the University College London, where the research took place.

“Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure.”

The study was based on 90 “healthy young adults” who reported their political views on a scale of one to five from very liberal to very conservative, then agreed to have their brains scanned.

People with a large amygdala are “more sensitive to disgust” and tend to “respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions,” the study said.

Liberals are linked to larger anterior cingulate cortexes, a region that “monitor(s) uncertainty and conflicts,” it said.

“Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views.”

It remains unclear whether the structural differences cause the divergence in political views, or are the effect of them.

But the central issue in determining political views appears to revolve around fear and how it affects a person.

“Our findings are consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty,” the study said.

Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults

Current Biology, 07 April 2011
Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Ltd All rights reserved.
10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.017

Authors

Ryota Kanai,Tom Feilden,Colin Firth,Geraint Rees See Affiliations

 

  • Highlights
  • Political liberalism and conservatism were correlated with brain structure
  • Liberalism was associated with the gray matter volume of anterior cingulate cortex
  • Conservatism was associated with increased right amygdala size
  • Results offer possible accounts for cognitive styles of liberals and conservatives

Summary

Substantial differences exist in the cognitive styles of liberals and conservatives on psychological measures [1]. Variability in political attitudes reflects genetic influences and their interaction with environmental factors [2,3]. Recent work has shown a correlation between liberalism and conflict-related activity measured by event-related potentials originating in the anterior cingulate cortex [4]. Here we show that this functional correlate of political attitudes has a counterpart in brain structure. In a large sample of young adults, we related self-reported political attitudes to gray matter volume using structural MRI. We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala. These results were replicated in an independent sample of additional participants. Our findings extend previous observations that political attitudes reflect differences in self-regulatory conflict monitoring [4] and recognition of emotional faces [5] by showing that such attitudes are reflected in human brain structure. Although our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work [4,6] to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes.

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