The Sun’s Not Setting… The Horizon is Moving Up

Something that intrigues and perplexes me, or, to save on words, something that perpligues me, is the fact that different people can have astoundingly different perceptions of the same phenomenon. Presidents are a prime example. To some, President Obama is a reasonable, competent, politically mainstream president who follows through on his promises and is an effective leader for the country. To others, he is the destroyer of our society, our Constitution, and our future. This is especially interesting because the same thing was true for President Bush. How can people who grow up in the same country have such opposite views of reality?

Part of the answer is physical; the brains of conservatives and liberals tend to be different. Liberals adults generally have larger anterior cingulate cortices, which correspond to tasks involving rational thought, problem-solving, and empathy. Behind the anterior coagulate cortex lies the amygdala, which processes emotional reactions; the amygdala is the “fight or flight” decider, and tends to be enlarged in the brains of conservatives. Whether these are innate differences, differences developed in response to ways of thinking, or a combination of nature & nurture isn’t yet clear.

Outside of these structural brain and corresponding personality differences, there seems to be something nearly universal in our tendency to place politicians into “good” and “evil” boxes that are very far apart on the spectrum of behavior. The higher up the politicians, the more loved or demonized they become. Thus, very few people appear to have mixed feelings about presidents – they are either saviors or Satan-incarnates. We tend to do this with bosses, too, which makes me think that it’s power that causes us to judge. This might not be such a bad thing – it could be an evolutionary trait developed to retain good clan leaders and rid ourselves of bad ones.

On the opposite side of our judgmental selves is the reaction we have to babies and small children. We love them all. They are not to be blamed for their shortcomings. The sight of a baby’s face triggers activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is associated with reward behavior. Loving and wanting to protect babies would be of obvious survival advantage. Some of the cues of the human baby – big eyes, proportionally large head, and dependency on others, for example, spill over into other species and probably account for our adoption of cute pets. I imagine that this basic instinct to care for babies accounts for other stories of cross-species parenting that we love to hear about. But for some reason, when babies grow up, we can stop loving them and start hating to the point of wanting to kill them.

I think that our challenge in life, if we want to successfully navigate from early primate survival to technologically complex societies, is to use our instinctual love of all babies to temper our prejudice toward adults. One useful exercise that we can practice is to look at our perceived enemies – the bosses or politicians that we hate – and picture them as the fragile and beautiful babies that they were not so long ago.

Choose a Daisy:



7 Responses to The Sun’s Not Setting… The Horizon is Moving Up

  1. Samir Hafza says:

    I would not put much credence in this flawed study that purports to have reached such broad conclusions. If the FDA relied on only one such small study (and other “reports”) to approve drugs, medical procedures or devices, half of our population would be dead.

    Bloggers should be very careful not to perpetuate inaccuracies, which can lead to misnomers that have no scientific basis. For example, Physician Drug Reference (PDR), heavily relied upon by many MD’s, contain many inaccuracies that were first printed then reprinted. Throughout the years they have become facts in the minds of physicians. Problem is the sources of these “facts” were never scrutinized or critiqued. Without delving into the internal and external problems with this study, to use the language of statisticians, Current Biology has clearly cautioned (albeit briefly and almost as a foot note) that “more work is needed.” So, for us to assert or perpetuate the conclusions of this flawed study would be a disservice.

    It would be easy to disprove (or prove) this study by replicating it, using larger population and reducing the countless weaknesses it has. Another option is to study identical twins that got separated and lived in different environments; then to look at their brain structure and political leaning. If Current Biology (or any other entity) has the time and money to sponsor such a study independently, they would sell more copies and regain their medical credibility.

    Further, what about the Independents, which constitute the majority of the American electorate? How are we going to study their brain? What hypothesis would we have for them? What are the conclusions that we expect to be derived? What about those Democrats who jumped ship and converted to Republicans, and vice versa? Did their brain suddenly shrink or enlarge?

    “Don’t go out in the cold with your hair wet: you’ll get sick,” my mother used to cry to me when I was a little boy. Repeated experiments clearly show that people get sick only through contracting a virus or a bacterium, etc. But this medical misnomer gained such traction by having it perpetuated time and again, generation after another. Truth is walking out of my warm house to the freezing temperature will only get me cold, not catch a cold.


  2. EricIndiana says:

    I cited the study to point out that there is evidence that personality and physical brain structure may be correlated. There are numerous studies that show that even the adult brain changes in response to long-term meditation on compassion, for example. I wasn’t trying to say that party affiliation or lack thereof is determined by brain structures.


    • samir Hafza says:

      This new study out of Australia hopefully should put an end to the idea that the differences between Democrats and Republicans are all in the head or genes.
      The genetics of politics: discovery,
      challenges, and progress
      Peter K. Hatemi1 and Rose McDermott2
      1 Departments of Political Science, Microbiology and Biochemistry, Pennsylvania State University, 307 Pond Lab,
      University Park, PA 16802, USA
      2 Department of Political Science, Brown University 36 Prospect Street, Providence, RI 02912, USA


  3. Ramsay Harik says:

    Eric is right. HIs point, and the point of these studies, is that right-wing thought originates in the animal brain: emotionally-based, flight-or-fight reactivity (hence the term “reactionary”). Left-wing thought, though also charged with emotion at times, originates in the parts of the brain that handle complex ratiocination and higher functions such as compassion and universal thinking.


    • samir Hafza says:

      Where are “these studies?” Where are the studies that prove your claim about the right/left wing thoughts? Have you read any of them? Have you evaluated their internal and external validity?. What was the P value? Were they repeated with identical results? Have you read the study mentioned above that flatly refutes any of your claims and cites other studies with similar findings?
      Also, what about those Republicans who decided to switch to Democrats? Did their thoughts suddenly evolve to “higher function?” And what about Ronald Reagan, who jumped ship to become a Republican? I know he’d had Alzheimer’s and lost the better part of his hippocampus function.. So, was that the reason his thought process changed? And do Independents oscillate between “higher” and “lower” functions?
      I wouldn’t give credence to much of what I read on the Internet, unless it came from a reputable scientific journal AND unless their findings were duplicated in several follow-up, independent studies by similarly-reputable publications.


      • EricIndiana says:

        – “P value” – sounds like a good subject for yet another wordplay post. ; ) –

        Well, neuroplasticity may help to explain how people evolve out of rigid thinking. It’s a hopeful sign that a person who had been stuck in their primitive brain can learn to listen more to their frontal lobes. That’s what I work on with teenagers who are battling with impulse control.


        • samir Hafza says:

          That’s all good. But I’d like to see hard studies that have been duplicated time and again that show direct relationship between the brain anatomy and political leanings. I’d also like a logical account of the brain changes in someone that has switched from being a Democrat to a Republican, and vice versa.
          The ‘synaptic pruning,’ moldability, and changeability of the brain have been mostly observed in brain injuries and amputees. Changing in behavior is a more nascent an area, and little is known, much less proved. But to try to extrapolate this information and deduce that the brain of a Democrat is so and so compared to the brain of a Republican is wishful thinking and not appealing to evidence


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: