Study: Conservatives have larger ‘fear center’ in brain

What do you think about a study and conclusion like this?

Sensational ? Does it further behavioral science, or not ? Not only do I tend to like studies that draw big picture conclusions, but I love them if they’re done well and the conclusions are supported by the results. When I come across a study like this, where a specific attitude or philosophical outlook can be ascribed to the activity of a single GENE, or brain region, my eyes light up. It’s a dangerous and uneasy ground, surely, but neuroscience is the brave new frontier where we’re digging dig deeper and examining ourselves in such a light as never before in history.

Whatever your political persuasion may be, if you have any regard for neuroscience, this should interest you, enlighten you, or even make you uneasy. Perhaps all three ! The study finds that conservative views are held by people with larger amygdalas, the almond shaped area associated with anxiety and emotions.

Data was collected by examining the brains of two members of parliament in the UK, as well as some students. They found that by comparison of the size of the amygdala, which was larger, and the anterior cingulate – which wass smaller, they could reliably predict a conservative political attitude.

The research raises an interesting question, but one which for me isn’t fully answered with the experimental setup. I would like to have seen a larger sample and also a more longitudinal sampling. Undoubtedly, experience plays a role in the development of the brain regions in question, and the role of genetic predisposition could not be assessed with this study, but the question can be delved into by follow up research.

Not everyone looks brightly toward the possibility that their most dear convictions are predetermined or colored by the activity in a particular brain region, but this study lends support to idea that the activity of genes in the brain can influence political attitude.

In another study, involving the DRD4 ( a dopamine receptor),  James H. Fowler hypothesized that people with a novelty-seeking gene variant would be interested in learning about their friends’ points of view, and as a consequence would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles that might give them a more liberal slant than other folks.

They suggested that the interaction of two factors – the genetic predisposition, and the environmental factor of having many friends in adolescence, are associated with being liberal.

The interaction of genes and the environment continue to draw me in with studies like these.

A study at University College London in the UK has found that conservatives’ brains have larger amygdalas than the brains of liberals. Amygdalas are responsible for fear and other “primitive” emotions. At the same time, conservatives’ brains were also found to have a smaller anterior cingulate — the part of the brain responsible for courage and optimism.

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