L and R: Brain and Politics

Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It’s the music of the yellow vests who shut down subway stops on weekends.

As dedicated as I have been to eating Saturday brunch, the yellow vests (gilets jaunes to the French) have been just as dedicated to convening on Saturday afternoons to protest. The yellow vests are a French populist group mostly made up of members of the working and middle classes who express frustration about slipping standards of living. For the past few months since October 2018, the yellow vests have been showing up every weekend in major Paris locations to protest for lower fuel taxes, redistribution of wealth, an increase in minimum wage, and even the resignation of French President Macron (Diallo, 2018). I remember reading throughout the semester New York Times articles about these protests back when I was in America, and it all seemed very removed from where I was at the time. But now, there is no way to forget when every weekend I receive an email from our study abroad program center about the yellow vests’ path of protest for the weekend and have to track what popular tourist areas will be out of commission for the day. Indeed, Les Mis was not all that misleading. It seems that since the beheading of Queen “Let Them Eat Cake,” the French people have not been able to shake the love of a good revolution or protest from their society. But it is definitely not only the French that enjoy political demonstrations; from 1960s UC Berkeley students to my pink knitted hat compatriots, America has a its own unique history with political movements. I wanted to know – what is it about politics that seems so intrinsic and enticing that people are motivated to come out, rain or shine, to walk around and yell collectively??

major sites of closure yellow vest protests have caused

Part of the reason that being a part of a political movement can be so enthralling is the association with a political party that people flaunt. This gives members of the group a sense of belonging, which is a basic human need involving complex emotions of love, pride, and emotional excitement (Jasper, 2011). In America and many other nations, there is a divide between the liberal left and the conservative right. The ideological labels of “left” and “right” have been around since the time Christian symbolism associated right with “liking for or acceptance of social and religious hierarchies” and the left with “equalization of conditions through the challenge of God and prince.” This fundamental difference in political ideology has remained relatively intact throughout the centuries since then (Jost, 2014). While for many year scientists have assumed political orientation to be solely the result of upbringing and environmental factors, there have recently been studies identifying biological influences on individual’s political attitudes. This field of study falls under neuropolitics, or the study of how neuroscience and political science intersect (Schreiber, 2017).

In a 2011 study that tried to elucidate whether brain structure differences could be linked to political associations, the brain region of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was studied. The ACC has connections to both the “emotional” limbic system” and “cognitive” prefrontal cortex of the brain and is involved with conflict monitoring – the task of detecting conflicts in information processing and then signaling when increased cognitive control must be recruited (Yeung, 2013). The 90 young adult test subjects were first asked to self-report their political attitude on a five-point scale ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” Although a simple scale, this self-reported result has been shown to accurately predict voting behavior. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans that show detailed images of the brain were then taken of each subject to assess differences in volume of ACC. Results of their scans after controlling for age and gender variables showed that increased gray matter volume in the ACC was significantly associated with liberalism. This hinted that individuals with larger ACC may tolerate uncertainty and conflicts better and allow them to hold more liberal views. The same study also looked at the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotional responses such as fear and aggression, to look for links between gray matter volume of amygdala and political ideology. By evaluating amygdala volume and political attitudes, researchers saw there was an increased amygdala volume associated with conservatism, suggesting that conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression and have a heightened sensitivity to fear (Kanai et al., 2011).

a. Results showing ACC volume in comparison with political ideology
b. Results showing amygdala volume in comparison with political ideology

Of course, the question of “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” also applies here: are people more inclined to lean a certain political direction based on biologically predetermined brain differences or do people’s political ideology lead to slight but significant changes in brain structure? I would have been interested to hear if the researchers had any thoughts on this or had long-term data comparing subjects to look for correlations that may have helped answer this question. The researchers also mention a stipulation to their results that abstract reasoning and thinking often requires widespread brain regions and cannot be traced back to one specific brain region. Additionally, a recent review of neuropolitics warns people of the “pathologisation of politics” which essentially chalks up political problems into biological deviations (Altermark & Nyberg, 2018). I think this is especially pertinent as weaponizing neuroscience in order to reduce those you do not agree with is not the purpose of studying the brain. Overall, no matter left or right, remember the brain functions best with both working together!

 

Bibliography

Altermark, N., Nyberg, L. (2018) Neuro-Problems: Knowing Politics Through the Brain. Culture Unbound, 10, 31-48.

Diallo, R. (2018, December 19). Why are the ‘yellow vests’ protesting in France? Al Jazeera, Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/yellow-vests-protesting- france-181206083636240.html

Jasper, J.M. (2011) Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research. Annual Review of Sociology, 37, 285-303.

Jost, J.T., Nam, H.H., Amodio, D.M. & Van Bavel, J.J. (2014) Political Neuroscience: The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship. Political Psychology, 35, 3-42.

Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C. & Rees, G. (2011) Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. Curr Biol, 21, 677-680.

Schreiber, D. (2017) Neuropolitics: Twenty years later. Politics and the Life Sciences, 36, 114- 131, 118.

Yeung, N. (2013). Conflict monitoring and cognitive control. In: Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Neuroscience (Ochsner, K. and Kosslyn, S., eds), Oxford University Press (in press).

Image 1: https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2019-02-09/more-violence-in-paris- as-yellow-vests-keep-marching

Image 2: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-46499996 Image 3: Kanai et al., 2011

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