NY Times: This Is Your Brain on Politics

From the New York Times....
January 18, 2005
This Is Your Brain on Politics

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

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

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 counterweight.

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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