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Liberal or Conservative? It's All in the Head
Can a brain scan reveal your political leanings? Researchers at University College, London say believe that it can, with over 71% accuracy.
Reviewing the scans from 90 college students, the researchers found that liberals tended to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, while conservatives tended to have a larger right amygdala. They repeated the study with an additional 28 college students and found the same results.
Looking only at the brain scans of these students, the researchers were able to distinguish whether a student identified her- or him-self as conservative or liberal with 71.6% accuracy.
One of the functions of the amygdala is governing perception of and response to fear. People with a large amygdala are more sensitive to fear. The anterior cingulate cortex is known to be involved in monitoring uncertainty and conflict.
The structural brain differences seen by the researchers agree with previous studies that found conservatives are more anxious when faced with uncertainty and better able to recognize a threat, while liberals are better able to cope with conflicting information and are more open to new experiences.
The volunteers were all students at University College. For the first group of 90, the average age was 23.5, and 55 were female. For the second group of 28, average age was 21, and 16 were female. Political orientation was self-reported, on a five-point scale ranging from very liberal to very conservative. None of the group of 90 identified themselves as very conservative. Brain region volume was estimated from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
The researchers warn against reading too much into their findings. They doubt that actual political orientation is hardwired into these brain regions. And there's also the question of whether brain structure might determine political orientation or whether political orientation might lead to changes in the brain.
They do think that this opens up an entirely new area of research where an individual's psychology might be told from a scan of their brain structure. And vice versa.
As to what the study truly means, that's one more point liberals and conservatives can argue about.
An article on the study was published online ahead of print by the journal Current Biology on April 7, 2011 and will appear in the April 26 issue of the journal.
April 16, 2011