Well, it seems that the silly season is upon us. A study conducted earlier this month by the University College of London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (directed by Professor Geraint Rees) reveals a startling correlation between between people’s political beliefs and the size of two specific regions of their brains: the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex. Among those who describe themselves as liberal, or left wing, the gray matter of the anterior cingulate cortex is significantly thicker; whereas for those who regard themselves as conservative, or right wing, the amygdala is relatively larger. The study has been widely reported in the press, but has yet to be published. Believe it or not, the study was commissioned by a British actor and comedian, Colin Firth, who wanted to know if it was possible to identify people’s political belief from the structure of their brains. For example, could scientists predict whether a person was left or right wing, just by looking at their brains?
The general standard of reporting in the media on Professor Rees’s study has been so poor that I thought readers would benefit from a more critical analysis. I’d like to declare up-front my own personal interest in studies such as these: as an Intelligent Design proponent, I take a very dim view of attempts to reduce uniquely human attributes – such as the distinctively human trait of being a political animal – to purely physical processes, which we share in common with a great many other animals. Let me hasten to add that I am not accusing Professor Rees of doing this, as I haven’t read his study, which has not yet been released to the public. Rather, what I am saying is that most educated people take for granted a materialist account of the mind, according to which mental processes are caused by events in the brain. Because the media reporting of this study has been largely uncritical of this materialist paradigm, people who read about Professor Rees’s study are likely to come away with the strong impression that our brains play a very influential role in determining our political affiliations. What I aim to show in this post is that this impression is totally unwarranted.
Why study conservatives?
When confronted with a study covering an important aspect of human behavior – such as the way we tend to vote – the first question one should ask is: what are the underlying assumptions made by the scientists who conducted the study, about the people who participated in it? Well, I did a little bit of digging, and came across an article (dated September 25, 2008) in Science Daily, which contained two interesting little quotes by Dan McAdams, professor of human development and psychology at Northwestern University. Professor McAdams was the co-author of another study conducted on 128 highly religious and socially active churchgoers, investigating the psychological differences between politically conservative Christian Americans and their liberal counterparts. You can find the relevant quotes here; the italics are mine:
“Social scientists long have assumed that liberals are more rational and less fearful than conservatives, but we find that both groups view the world as a dangerous place,” says Dan McAdams, study co-author and professor of human development and psychology at Northwestern University. “It’s just that their fears emerge differently.”
“Social scientists — who are generally liberals — have for decades done research to figure out what makes conservatives tick,” says McAdams.
So there you have it. In plain English, most social scientists regard conservatives as fearful, irrational animals who are holding the human race back from a bright and beautiful future. They want to find out what’s wrong with conservatives, in order to help qualified experts to “fix” whatever is the matter with them.
And if you think that’s too blunt an assessment, you might be interested to hear from the man who commissioned Professor Rees’s recent study of the relationship between people’s political beliefs and their brains: British actor and comedian Colin Firth. Here is what he had to say (italics mine):
Talking about the experiment, he said: “I took this on as a fairly frivolous exercise: I just decided to find out what was biologically wrong with people who don’t agree with me and see what scientists had to say about it and they actually came up with something.”
And what are Firth’s own views? Firth is a former Labour Party supporter who switched to the Liberal Democrats in 2010, but broke with them earlier this month over their decision to raise student tuition fees. He is currently not affiliated with any major party, but his views are best represented by the film and political activism Website, Brightwide.com, which he helped launch in October 2009.
Some readers may argue that biased motivations do not necessarily invalidate a study, and that is true. However, a fair-minded person would admit that studies which are motivated by the assumption that a large proportion of the population has something wrong with them, are likely to yield flawed conclusions.
What’s a “conservative,” anyway? And what’s a “liberal”?
Once we’ve identified the background assumptions made by the authors of an academic study, the next thing we need to look at is their definitions. For Professor Rees’s latest study, we need to ask: how did the researchers define the terms “conservative” and “liberal,” and how did they measure those terms?
Professor Rees answered these questions when he was interviewed by BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme (italics below are mine):
“The anterior cingulate is a part of the brain that is on the middle surface of the brain at the front and we found that the thickness of the grey matter, where the nerve cells of neurons are, was thicker the more people described themselves as liberal or left wing and thinner the more they described themselves as conservative or right wing,” he told the program.
“The amygdala is a part of the brain which is very old and very ancient and thought to be very primitive and to do with the detection of emotions. The right amygdala was larger in those people who described themselves as conservative.” (AAP report by Joe Churcher, December 29, 2010.)
Another widely cited study in the literature on political attitudes and their neural correlates, assessed people’s political views as follows:
Subjects reported their political attitudes confidentially on a –5 (extremely liberal) to +5 (extremely conservative) scale.
(Reference: “Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism” by David M Amodio, John T Jost, Sarah L Master & Cindy M Yee. In Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 10, No. 10. (Oct 2007), pp. 1246-7. Published online 9 September 2007; doi:10.1038/nn1979.)
Both studies are flawed by the same underlying premise: that conservatives and liberals lie on a single spectrum. The authors really should know better than to make this simplistic assumption. Think about it for a moment. Where would you place a libertarian, on this spectrum? Or what about someone who believes the State has no place regulating people’s personal lives, but who believes the State should heavily regulate economic matters, for the good of the community? And how about someone who believes in the reverse: that the State should heavily regulate personal morality for the good of the community, but that it should leave markets alone? And why are Nazis and Communists viewed as polar opposites on this spectrum, when they’re both totalitarians? I won’t belabor the point here; instead, I shall simply refer the curious reader to the Wikipedia article, Political spectrum, which discusses two-axis and three-axis alternatives that have been developed as alternatives by various academics. One deserves special mention: the Nolan chart, a two-axis model developed by the libertarian David Nolan in 1969, which carefully distinguishes economic freedom from personal freedom. The Nolan chart is the centerpiece of the World’s Smallest Political Quiz, which you can take here.
Professor Rees’s study is marred by another fatal assumption: liberal = left-wing. Actually, the word “liberal” comes from the Latin “liber,” which means “free” (as in “liberty” or freedom). In popular parlance, “small-l” liberals are people who favor individual freedom – as opposed to “large-L” liberals, who belong to a political party that calls itself “Liberal.” The equation of “liberal” with “left-wing” is a particularly inaccurate assumption for the U.K., where Professor Rees’s study was conducted: in that country, the Conservative Party (more properly, the Conservative and Unionist Party) is centrist to right-wing; the Liberal Democrats are centrist to center-left; and the Labour Party is centrist to Left-wing. Thus in the U.K., Liberals are in the middle. In Australia (where I’m from), the Liberal Party is center-right, while in Canada, the Liberal Party is centrist to center-left. In Japan (where I currently reside), the Liberal Democratic Party is regarded as centrist to right-wing.
In short: Professor Rees’s criteria for assessing people’s political views are badly dated, harking back to the heady days of the French Revolution (1789-1796), when parliamentary supporters of the aristocracy and the Church sat on the right of the speaker (traditionally the place of honor), while the commoners sat on the left.
Confirmation bias: did the study’s authors expect to find the results that they observed?
The credibility of an academic study is severely weakened if the existence of confirmation bias can be established. The director of the latest study, Professor Geraint Rees, claims to have had absolutely no idea that the size of two specific regions of the brain – the anterior cingulate and the amygdala – might be correlated with people’s political attitudes, according to this BBC Radio 4 blog by Today programme correspondent Tom Feilden:
“It’s a remarkable finding” says professor Rees. “We were very surprised to find two areas of the brain from which we could predict political attitudes.”
All I can say is: where has Professor Rees been for the past few years? Surely he must be aware of this study, conducted in 2007: “Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism” by David M Amodio, John T Jost, Sarah L Master & Cindy M Yee. In Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 10, No. 10. (Oct 2007), pp. 1246-7. Published online 9 September 2007; doi:10.1038/nn1979. I’d like to quote the abstract of the study (italics mine):
Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty. We tested the hypothesis that these profiles relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning using event-related potentials, and found that greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.
So neuroscientists have known for at least three years that a certain kind of activity in the anterior cingulate is associated with liberalism. All right. What about the amydala? Professor Rees should have been aware of this six-year-old report in The New York Times (April 20, 2004), suggesting that the amygdalas of Democrats and Republicans show different patterns of activity in response to images containing violence (italics below are mine):
Instead of asking the subject, John Graham, a Democratic voter, what he thought of the use of Sept. 11 images in a Bush campaign commercial, the researchers noted which parts of Mr. Graham’s brain were active as he watched…
In the experiment with Mr. Graham, researchers exposed him to photographs of the presidential candidates, commercials for President Bush and John Kerry, and other video images, including the “Daisy” commercial from 1964. In that advertisement, promoting Lyndon B. Johnson against Barry Goldwater, images of a girl picking petals from a daisy were replaced by images of a nuclear explosion…
The researchers had already zeroed in on those images and their effect among Democrats on the part of the brain that responds to threats and danger, the amygdala. Mr. Graham, like other Democrats tested so far, reacted to the Sept. 11 images with noticeably more activity in the amygdala than did the Republicans, said the lead researcher, Marco Iacoboni, an associate professor at the U.C.L.A. Neuropsychiatric Institute who directs a laboratory at the Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Center there…
…[T]he researchers noted that same spike in amygdala activity when the Democrats watched the nuclear explosion in the “Daisy” spot, which promoted a Democrat.
That was six years ago. I find it interesting that the latest study by Professor Rees reports that conservatives have a relatively larger amygdala. How that ties in (if at all) with having an amygdala that’s less responsive to violent images is anybody’s guess.
Anyway, the point I wish to make here is that any clued-up researcher in the field would have been well aware that if there were any parts of the brain whose size correlated with people’s political attitudes, the amygdala and the anterior cingulate would have been two very promising places to look. At the very least, we can safely assume that Professor Rees was confirming a hunch – in which case, the issue of confirmation bias is certainly a relevant one.
What’s an amygdala for, anyway, and what’s wrong with having a big one?
Let’s get one thing clear immediately. Technically, the correct term is the amygdalae (plural), not the amygdala (singular), but I’ll conform to popular convention and use the singular throughout this article. What we call “the amygdala” is actually a collection of almond-shaped clusters of neurons, located deep within the temporal lobes of the brain. (Amygdale is the Greek word for almond.)
The amygdala doesn’t always get a good rap in the press, as British journalist Jeff Taylor observes in a very penetrating critique of Professor Rees’s study, in The Economic Voice (29 December 2010):
The amygdala is now being portrayed in a very negative light. It is, we are told, responsible for fear and other ‘primitive’ emotions. Whereas the anterior [cingulate] of course is responsible for courage, optimism, empathy and reasoning.
Ergo, Conservative primitive and bad, left wing reasoning, brave and good …. QED.
When I was writing my Ph.D. thesis on animal minds, I had to do some research on the role of the amygdala, because some scientists were arguing that it played a pivotal role in animal consciousness. I can claim no expertise in neuroscience, as my specialty is philosophy. What I do know is that the amygdala does much more than simply process our fears. The amygdala is important both for perceiving in others and having in oneself emotional or affective behaviors and feelings, including fear and anger. The amygdala performs a primary role in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events, but it is also involved in positive conditioning. It is also involved in the modulation of long-term memory consolidation: apparently, emotional arousal following a learning event influences the strength of the subsequent memory for that event.
Readers who are accustomed to thinking of the amygdala as the brain’s “fear-processing center” will be surprised to know that the amygdala is not even necessary for the early stages of processing fear-related stimuli, since persons in whom it is damaged on both sides of the brain continue to show rapid reactions to fearful faces, even in the absence of a functional amygdala. Instead, it is thought to modulate recognition and social judgment. (Tsuchiya N, Moradi F, Felsen C, Yamazaki M, Adolphs R. (2009). Intact rapid detection of fearful faces in the absence of the amygdala. Nat Neurosci. 12:1224-12225. Click here for the abstract.)
And what about the size of the amygdala? Is having a big one a bad thing, as you might think if you regard the amygdala as a “primitive” part of the brain? Not at all. First of all, there is a time and a place for “primitive emotions”, as journalist Jeff Taylor points out in his critical review of Professor Rees’s study, which I cited above:
But as I have indicated above the worst thing to come out of this [study – VJT] is the presumption that ‘primitive’ emotions like fear are bad. Remember it is fear that drives a mother to keep her off-spring safe and also something that keeps most of us safely on the road.
It turns out that having a big amygdala can be an asset. Research indicates that the volume of the amygdala correlates with the size of social networks. (See Bickart, Kevin C., Wright, Christopher I., Dautoff, Rebecca J., Dickerson, Bradford C., Barrett, Lisa Feldman (Dec. 2010). Amygdala volume and social network size in humans. Nature Neuroscience. doi:doi:10.1038/nn.2724. See also Szalavitz, Maia (December 28, 2010), How to Win Friends: Have a Big Amygdala? in Time Healthland, at Time.com.)
Additionally, there is evidence that “amygdalar enlargement in the normal population might be related to creative mental activity.” (Asari T, Konishi S, Jimura K, Chikazoe J, Nakamura N, Miyashita Y. (2010). Amygdalar enlargement associated with unique perception. Cortex. 46:94–99. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2008.08.001. PMID 18922517.)
In short: people who identify themselves as conservatives have no reason to feel bad about the fact that their amygdalas tend to be larger than those of the rest of the population.
Which way is the direction of causation? Can your political views affect your brain?
The BBC report by Tom Feilden on Professor Rees’s study was careful to avoid falling into the trap of neural determinism:
Although the results do show that political belief is reflected in the physical structure of the brain it’s not clear which comes first. Whether the structure of the brain shapes political belief or political belief leads to the differential development of brain structure.
Other reports were not so careful – for example this AAP report by Joe Churcher strongly suggests in its opening paragraphs that your brain determines your political allegiance (italics below are mine):
Neuroscientists are examining whether political allegiances are hard-wired into people after finding evidence that the brains of conservatives are a different shape to those of left-wingers.
Scans of 90 students’ brains at University College London (UCL) uncovered a “strong correlation” between the thickness of two particular areas of grey matter and an individual’s views.
Self-proclaimed right-wingers had a more pronounced amygdala – a primitive part of the brain associated with emotion while their political opponents from the opposite end of the spectrum had thicker anterior cingulates.
To be fair, the AAP report later quoted Professor Rees as saying that his research “does suggest there is something about political attitudes that are either encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that our brain structure in some way determines or results in our political attitudes.”
Still, I would imagine that Joe and Jane Citizen, reading this article, would chalk it up as further evidence for neural determinism – the view that our brains determine how we think and feel and choose. Why? Because they remain prisoners of the dominant scientific paradigm for the relationship between mind and brain, which continues to be popularized in the media: the view that the mind is a product of the brain. According to this materialist account, mental processes (e.g. thoughts, feelings and choices) are caused by events in the brain. The bottom-level events in the brain are “more fundamental” than the mental states that “supervene” upon them. And even when we do see cases of top-down causation occurring (i.e. instances when our mental attitudes alter our brain states), the materialist account tries to explain it away, by claiming that it is always preceded (and determined) by something “bottom-up” occurring in my brain. On this account, even if my mental attitudes can alter the state of my brain, it is only because prior events occurring in my brain caused me to develop those attitudes in the first place.
Joe and Jane Citizen swallow this “scientific” materialist view, because they’re not familiar with the literature on neural plasticity, highlighted by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and co-author Denyse O’Leary, in The Spiritual Brain. There is a mountain of evidence showing that you can change your brain by changing the way you think. The direction of causality is not all bottom-up; it’s top-down as well. By contrast, there is not a shred of evidence for the sweeping assertion made by materialists, that all of our mental attitudes are determined by prior events occurring in our brain. In fact, I have yet to see evidence that even one of my attitudes to any issue is determined in this fashion.
Let’s get back to the amygdala. How many readers are aware that Buddhist monks who do compassion meditation have been shown to modulate their amygdala, along with their temporo-parietal junction and insula, during their practice? (See “Cultivating compassion: Neuroscientific and behavioral approaches,” an online talk given by Dr. Richard J. Davidson, at The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford University, March 4, 2009.) Why doesn’t the media consider this “news”? But I’d be willing to bet that if there were research showing that we could induce states of deep meditation simply by stimulating the amygdala, it would be in every tabloid from Toronto to Timbuktu.
The same goes for the widely reported 2006 study which found that Democrats and Republicans alike are adept at making decisions about their preferred political candidates, without letting the facts get in the way. (Westen, D., Kilts, C., Blagov, P., Harenski, K., & Hamann, S. (2006). “The neural basis of motivated reasoning: An fMRI study of emotional constraints on political judgment during the U.S. Presidential election of 2004.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 1947-1958.) According to the Live Science report (January 24, 2006), “The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.” “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University, commenting on the research findings. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” Again, the clear implication is that we are prisoners of our brains.
But what the study overlooked is that many people vote for candidates, simply because they espouse values that voters hold dear. Once a voter has identified the candidate whose values are closest to your own, it is hardly surprising that he/she would choose to disregard adverse media publicity about your preferred candidate, whom he/she views as a vehicle for getting his/her values expressed in the political process. What needs to be examined is the process whereby we choose our values. For instance, why does abortion matter a lot to some people, and not at all to others? Why are some people passionate about income redistribution, while others remain leery of it?
Another limitation of the 2006 study is that it looked at the neural responses of 30 committed partisans in the U.S. Presidential elections of 2004. Partisans are precisely the people we’d expect to be least rational when weighing up their options. What about middle-of-the-roaders? Where is the evidence that for these people, too, there is “a total lack of reason in political decision-making”? I suspect that there is an element of “man-bites-dog” in the media reporting of these issues. Telling people that they are free won’t sell newspapers – most people believe that already. But telling people that some scientific study demonstrates that they are not free is a pretty good way to sell a newspaper. As for academia, I suspect that the root cause of many scientists’ unwillingness to believe in free will is their discomfort with the idea of an immaterial soul that makes free choices, because they can’t put it under a microscope.
Happily, there are a few academics who dare to buck the prevailing trend. The atheist, anti-reductionist, British polymath and leading humanist Raymond Tallis, who is emeritus professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester, highlights the role of what he calls “the self” in influencing brain states, in his recent article, How can I Possibly Be Free? (The New Atlantis, Summer 2010), when discussing the way in which we acquire new skills such as the ability to catch a baseball (italics below are mine):
If you really must be neuroscientific about it and talk about “neuroplasticity” (the research showing that there are changes in the brain when one acquires a skill), then you should be reminded that neuroplasticity is often self-driven, and that the self that does the driving cannot be understood without invoking the collective and individual transcendence that is the intentional world greatly expanded through language and culture. And we could extend the application of the term “plasticity” far beyond neuroplasticity: there is also bodily plasticity, plasticity of consciousness (including increased confidence in my abilities, which can be self-fulfilling), plasticity of the self, and plasticity of the world of selves (as when I decide to cooperate with others to ensure that one of us makes that so-important catch). It is a mistake to try to stuff all of that back into the brain and see it solely in terms of changes in synaptic connections at the microscopic level, or alterations in cortical maps at the comparatively macroscopic level. Stuffing it back in the brain, of course, is the first step to handing it all over to the no-person material world, and then tiptoeing back to determinism.
It is heartening to see that a professor (and renowned polymath) who is well-versed in the workings of the brain has little time for the view that our brains determine what we choose – a view he forcefully rejects in his article.
What we haven’t been told about the study
In his critical review of Professor Rees’s study, journalist Jeff Taylor remarks that although we have been told that the study was conducted on two British parliamentarians and 90 university students and post-docs, “there is no indication of the age and/or sex mix of the study’s guinea pigs.”
I should add that at this stage, the selection procedure for the students taking part in the study has not been made fully transparent to the public. All we know, from the BBC Radio 4 blog report by Tom Feilden, is that the subjects included “a pool of students and post-docs previously scanned at the Institute in other, unrelated, experiments.” This is all very vague. Were they self-selected or randomly selected? In case you think that’s an irrelevant question, ponder this: there may well be significant neural differences between people who are willing to volunteer for a study and those who are too shy to do so. If that’s the case, then the findings may only apply to extroverted conservatives and liberals.
In conclusion: I look forward to the forthcoming release of Professor Rees’s study in the New Year, but I would advise readers to take it with a very large grain of salt. It certainly proves nothing about free will, one way or the other.