But again, as before, it turns out that the claim is apparently based on spin conducted by (no surprise) scientists who identify themselves as liberals. The data from the study itself doesn't support the claim unless you squint and look at it sideways.
The short of it is that the study showed people with self-reported liberal views tending to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex -- a brain area involved in processing conflicting information. And those with conservative views were more likely to have a larger amygdala -- a region important for recognizing threats.
"Conflicting" became "complex", and "recognizing threats" became "fear and anxiety", in the spin-doctoring that immediately followed the report's release.
"To me it makes a lot of sense," said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA and director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. Iacoboni, a liberal, has been using brain imaging to study political preferences since 2004.
"I'm glad to see liberals have a large anterior cingulate cortex -- the more sophisticated part of the brain," he said. The amygdala, on the other hand, is a "really old structure, and not as developed."
News and medical outfits are following that lead, with comments like "Prior research has suggested that conservatives are more sensitive to threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty, while liberals tend to be more open to new experiences".
The reality, of course, is that the anterior cingulate cortex ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anterior_cingulate_cortex ) handles "functions such as error detection, anticipation of
tasks, motivation, and modulation of emotional responses". The ACC's main overall job seems to be the detection of conflicting data, which it then attempts to rationalize.
Consider for a moment, however, the example of the student who became flustered on realizing he was having to correct himself during an exam in order to maintain the teacher's view of correct terminology, and ended up referring to natives of the African continent as "African-Americans living in Africa".
He was presented with a conflicting order to rationalize, and was guided to a conclusion largely based on emotional response to the conflict, existing motivations in resolving it, and anticipation of task completion once the conflict was resolved.
It should be apparent, therefore, that the ACC is the part of the brain which attempts to rationalize "double-think". Given the number of political doctrines which have sprung up from the liberal mindset that require adherents to literally change the way they think about things and people, this is not necessarily surprising.
By contrast, the amygdala ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala ) has been shown in research to perform a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions --- not merely "fear and anxiety", but ALL of the emotions. Whereas the ACC may modulation emotional responses, it is the amygdala which actually processes and remembers them.
"In complex vertebrates, including humans, the amygdalae perform primary roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events."
The reason "fear and anxiety" are used by researchers to describe this, is simply because their main line of research into the subject has involved Pavlovian fear conditioning. Nonetheless, it is recognized as well that "amygdalae are also involved in positive conditioning. It seems that distinct neurons respond to positive and negative stimuli, but there is no clustering of these distinct neurons into clear anatomical nuclei".
Moreover, the amygdalae are also strongly involved in memory consolidation. Following any learning event, the long-term memory for the event is not instantaneously formed, but is slowly created and assimilated into long-term storage over time, and during the consolidation period this memory can be modulated. In particular, it appears that emotional arousal following the learning event influences the strength of the subsequent memory for that event. Greater emotional arousal following a learning event enhances a person's retention of that event. Learning can occur without the involvement of the amygdalae in modulating memory consolidation, but such learning appears to be impaired.
Another interesting fact is that Buddhist monks who do compassion meditation have been shown to modulate their amygdala, along with their temporoparietal junction and insula, during their practice. Increased activity in the amygdala following compassion-oriented meditation is thought to contribute to social connectedness.
As early as 1888, rhesus monkeys with a lesioned temporal cortex (including the amygdala) were observed to have significant social and emotional deficits. Later studies served to focus on the amygdala specifically. Monkey mothers who had amygdala damage showed a reduction in maternal behaviors towards their infants, often physically abusing or neglecting them.
* * * * *
So what does all this mean?
I COULD do the same thing that liberal scientists are doing and spin-doctor this to make conservatives look "more compassionate", right off the bat. I COULD make a comment about how these findings uphold the old saw about how "(GOP) elephants never forget".
But the reality is, both of these parts of the brain serve crucially important functions for human beings. We need the ability to resolve conflicting data, we need to be able to moderate our emotional reactions, we need to remember emotional events, we need to have compassion for our fellow beings.
We need all these things. All this study has actually shown is that liberals tend towards preference in one manner of looking at the world, and conservatives another.
Does it still mean that conservatives can be reactionary as well as compassionate? Of course.
Does it still mean that liberals can be double-thinkers as well as thoughtful? Certainly.
But beware those who would sit on the shoulders of science to tell you that your political opposition is less worthy of consideration or basic respect than those who already agree with you. We've been there before --- just google "Nazis" and "eugenics".