[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: This Is Your Brain on Politics

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This Is Your Brain on Politics
New York Times Op-Ed, 5.1.18

Los Angeles - PRESIDENT BUSH begins his second term this
week as the leader of a nation that appears to be sharply
divided. Since the election, there's been endless
discussion about the growing gap between "red" and "blue"
America. When former President Bill Clinton said a few
months ago that he was probably the only person in America
who liked both Mr. Bush and Senator John Kerry, it seemed
it might be true.

Yet, surprisingly, recent neuroscience research suggests
that Democrats and Republicans are not nearly as far apart
as they seem. In fact, there is empirical evidence that
even the fiercest partisans may instinctively like both Mr.
Bush and Mr. Kerry, although they struggle against this
collaborative impulse.

During the eight months before the election, I was part of
a group of political professionals and scientists from the
University of California, Los Angeles, who used functional
magnetic resonance imaging, or f.M.R.I., to scan the brains
of 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, producing images like
those seen above. We measured brain activity while subjects
looked at political advertisements and at images of the
presidential candidates.

The news media have focused on our finding that the
amygdala, a part of the brain that responds to danger, was
more heightened in Democrats when viewing scenes of 9/11
than in Republicans. This might seem to indicate
fundamental differences, but other aspects of our results
suggest striking commonalities.

While viewing their own candidate, both Democrats and
Republicans showed activity in the ventromedial prefrontal
cortex, an area associated with strong instinctive feelings
of emotional connection. Viewing the opposing candidate,
however, activated the anterior cingulate cortex, which
indicates cognitive and emotional conflict. It also lighted
up the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area that acts to
suppress or shape emotional reactions.

These patterns of brain activity, made visible on the
f.M.R.I.'s, suggest that both Bush and Kerry voters were
mentally battling their attraction to the other side. Bush
voters wanted to follow Mr. Kerry; Kerry voters found
appeal in Mr. Bush. Both groups fought this instinct by
arguing to themselves that their impulses were wrong. By
recalling flaws associated with the opposition, the voters
displaced attraction with dislike. Because the process
happened nearly instantaneously, only the final sense of
dismay reached full awareness.

Simplifying the neurophysiology somewhat, one can regard
the process of reaching an opinion or making a choice as a
collaboration between two regions of the brain - the limbic
area, which feels emotions, and the prefrontal cortex,
which controls the processing of ideas and information. The
two areas work in tandem: thoughts provoke feelings, and in
turn, the intensity of these feelings determines how the
thoughts are valued. In reacting to pictures of the
opposing candidate, the voters we tested countered the
feelings of connection with even stronger hostile emotions,
which they induced by calling up negative images and ideas.

This dance between strong emotions and interconnected ideas
is well known in psychiatry, and it forms the foundation of
cognitive behavioral therapy, an effective form of talk
therapy. When there is a divorce, for example, adolescents
may induce in themselves feelings of rage toward one parent
out of loyalty to the other. A cognitive behavioral
therapist could help quench this rage by challenging the
child's beliefs about the estranged parent. Without the
beliefs to sustain it, the rage disappears.

In the case of this past election, while we witnessed an
electorate that seemed irreconcilably divided, using
f.M.R.I., we could see that the Republicans and Democrats
we tested liked both candidates. The initial reflex toward
allegiance is easy to explain: people rise through the
ranks to run for higher office because they are able to
evoke in others a powerful impulse to join their cause.
Voters sense this attraction, and to keep from succumbing,
they dredge up emotion-laden negative images as a

This suggests that the passions swirling through elections
are not driven by a deep commitment to issues. We are not
fighting over the future of the country; we are fighting
for our team, like Red Sox and Yankee fans arguing over
which club has the better catcher. Both in an election and
in baseball, all that really matters is who wears the team

Will an awareness that we are conning ourselves to feel
alienated from each other help to close the political gap?
It is unknown, because neuroscience has advanced only
recently to the point where humans can begin to watch
themselves think and feel. If we are going to solve the
nation's complicated problems, it is important to close
this gap because in a setting where emotions run high,
careful thoughts have no chance against intoxicating ones.
In divisive politics, as in highly spiced dishes, all
subtlety is lost.

So, Democrats, admit that you admire the confidence and
decisiveness of President Bush. And Republicans, concede
that you would like a president to have the depth of
knowledge and broad intelligence of Mr. Kerry. Now that
f.M.R.I. is revealing our antagonisms as a defensive ploy,
it is time to erase the red and blue divide.

Joshua Freedman, a psychiatrist, is on the faculty of the
Neuropsychiatric Institute at the University of California,
Los Angeles.


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