Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Divisive Politics – What Does Neuroscience Tell Us?


weforum | Neuroscience has offered some evidence-based claims that can be uncomfortable because they challenge our notions of morality or debunk the myth about our ‘rational’ brain.

Critically, neuroscience has enlightened us about the physicality of human emotions. Fear, an emotion we have inherited from our ancestors, is not an abstract or intangible sense of imminent danger: it is expressed in neurochemical terms in our amygdala, the almond-shaped structure on the medial temporal lobe, anterior to the hippocampus. The amygdala has been demonstrated to be critical in the acquisition, storage and expression of conditioned fear responses. Certain regions in the amygdala undergo plasticity – changes in response to emotional stimuli – triggering other reactions, including endocrine responses.

Similarly, the way our brains produce moral reasoning and then translate it in the social context can now be studied to some extent in neuroscientific terms. For instance, the role of serotonin in prosocial behaviour and moral judgment is now well documented, with a demonstrably strong correlation between levels of serotonin in the brain and moral social behaviour.

Neuroscientists have also looked at how political ideologies are represented in the brain; preliminary research indicates that an increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex can be correlated with inclinations towards liberalism, while increased gray matter volume in the amygdala (which is part of the limbic system and thus concerned with emotions) appears to be associated with conservative values. These early findings, of course, are not meant to be reductionist, deterministic, or politically pigeonhole one group or the other, nor are they fixed. Rather, they can help explain the deep and persistent divide that we see in party politics across the world. It would very valuable to look into whether these preliminary findings pre-date political affiliation or occur as a result of repeated exposure to politically-inspired partisan and emotional debates.

More recently, policy analysis has turned to neuroscience too. For example, in the US 2016 election cycle, some have correlated the appeal of some candidates to the so-called hardwiring in our brains, and to our primordial needs of group belonging, while others have explored the insights from neuroscience on the role of emotions in decision-making. Similarly, the attitudes surrounding “Brexit” have also been analysed with references from neuroscience.

Divisive politics – what does neuroscience tell us?

The short answer is: some useful new insights. To be sure, some findings in neuroscience might be crude at this stage as the discipline and its tools are evolving. The human brain – despite tremendous scientific advances – remains to a large extent unknown. We do have, however, some preliminary findings to draw on. Divisive politics have taken centre stage and neuroscience may be able shed some light on how this is expressed in our brains.

“Us” vs. “them”, cultivating fear and hatred towards out-groups that are deemed different (ethnically, ideologically, religiously, etc.), and vicious and virulent attacks against them, are all part of an unsettling picture of growing ethnic and racial hostility. Philosopher Martin Buber identified two opposed ways of being in relation to others: I-It and I-thou. I-It means perceiving others as objects, whereas I-thou refers to empathic perceptions of others as subjects. Cognitive neuroscientists have studied this distinction with brain imaging techniques and the findings – unsurprisingly – tell us a lot about our increasingly polarised world today and the ways our brains process the distinction between us and “others”.