Friday, May 27, 2011
Bonanza Column 238 - It's All About the Brain
The eminent scholar and public policy advisor Jeremy Rifkin makes a compelling case that the history of the history of the human race is characterized by the development of wider and wider circles of empathy – starting in the hunter-gatherer days with the tribe, then affiliated groups (e.g. religions) and progressing toward the nation-state. Hence today, Americans feel closer to Americans than to, say Germans or Saudis, and this feeling extends to some very real material results such as the outpouring of aid to the areas struck by Hurricane Katrina and the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve even seen what Rifkin calls natural empathy transcend national borders after the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, and the more recent earthquake in Japan. For Rifkin, greater levels of civilization are marked by expanding circles of empathy and compassion, and he cites both biological and social data to back up his contention.
On the other hand, we have House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) saying he will block aid money for Missouri tornado victims unless Democrats agree to an equal amount of spending cuts. As Steve Benen points out in the Washington Monthly, “When part of the country is devastated by a deadly natural disaster, federal lawmakers "are expected to put aside politics and ideology" and help, not hold the victims "ransom" to their pet causes,” and I would add particularly in the case of a disaster such as happened in Missouri where the timeliness of aid will make a difference that could save families, properties, and lives.
Cantor and the GOP leadership have interpreted the results of the mid-term elections last year as a wholesale mandate to cut spending and damn the consequences. Republicans gave up "compassionate conservatism" as a Bush-era failure, and their renewed passion for small government essentially means "you're on your own," even in the face of disaster.
So how do we explain this seeming contradiction – as a human race we seem to be evolving in the direction of, as Einstein put it, “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” On the other hand we have Mr. Cantor and the GOP taking this regressive position, putting a political bargaining ploy ahead of the real need of people, many of whom are presumably in their political base.
Just as Rifkin’s research on empathy and compassion began with neuroscience, and particularly with the discovery of so-called “mirror neurons” in the 1990s, we can begin to look for an answer in the brain. A study was published last month by researchers at University College London that, the researchers say, links personality traits of liberals and conservatives to differences in brain structure and, presumably, function. The study was based on 90 young adults who reported their political views on a five-point scale from very liberal to very conservative, and then submitted themselves to brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a well-established method for studying both brain structure and activity.
The study found that self-described conservatives had a greater development in an area of the brain called the Amygdala, while liberals had greater development in an area called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. The functions of both these brain areas have been well-established. The Amygdala is a brain stem structure that is, essentially, a threat-detection sensor. When the Amygdala is activated, the result is the familiar “fight or flight” response. So people with a highly developed Amygdala will be more sensitive to threat and more likely to respond to threat aggressively.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) is a region that responds to uncertainty and conflicts. The researchers said “it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views.” They go on to say “Our findings are consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty.”
It is also well-established that a big part of the fight or flight response is to see the world, temporarily at least, in binary terms – good and bad, black and white, and to avoid uncertainty or shades of grey. Now none of this is my opinion – the London study was published in Current Biology, a peer-reviewed journal, and 90 is a good-size sample; Cantor’s remarks and the support of (and non-repudiation of) his position by other Republicans is a matter of record. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but I’m just sayin’…