With the upcoming general elections in India, social media is abuzz with the talk of politics and political parties. Interactions among people are interlaced with political conversations and debates about political views is commonplace.
A person’s political ideologies may be thought of as a spectrum, with liberalism on one end and conservatism on the other. Liberalism, simply put, is the political doctrine that believes in personal freedom and social equality, whereas conservatism is a philosophy that opposes changes and promotes traditional and orthodox ideas. These ideologies are seen across the globe and are often referred to as left-wing and right-wing views respectively.
The neuroscience of politics, or neuropolitics, is the interdisciplinary study of the interplay between the brain and politics. It studies the influence of the brain on political tendencies, like making political decisions and evaluating political candidates.
A study conducted in 2011 found an association between the brain structure and political inclination of an individual. Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) performs several high-level functions, including decision making, empathy responses, cognition and emotion. In the study, a higher grey matter volume in the ACC was found to correlate with greater liberalism. Further, ACC is responsible for monitoring uncertainty, and higher volume of ACC results in higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts and thus accepting more liberal views.
Amygdala is the part of the brain that plays a key role in processing emotions, including fear. Thus, a higher volume of the amygdala results in higher sensitivity to fear among individuals. Higher volume of right amygdala was found to associate with greater conservatism (volume of left amygdala didn’t seem to be of association). This agrees with previous findings that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust. Conservatives respond to threatening situations with higher aggression, as compared to liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions.
So, essentially, this seems to imply that liberals are more logic driven whereas conservatives are more emotion driven.
These findings are consistent across years of studies on political neuroscience and across a wide demographic.
However, it must be noted that simply using somebody’s brain scans would not necessarily tell you how they identify politically. Political inclination is also determined by environmental cues. Someone may be highly emotionally sensitive and have a large amygdala but also have a prominent ACC. In such cases, a single instance may be enough to swing them one way or another. But these people need not be moderates, they may be fully committed to their new ideologies as they were to the old one.
At the end of the day, however, political affiliation is a choice. Someone might have a high volume of amygdala and yet choose to identify as a liberal. The liberal/conservative ideology isn’t entirely heritable. Personality traits, including political views, are complex and the tendency of a personality type is not a genetic cause for a behaviour.