The Neuropsychology of Politics: How Do We Negotiate Between The Isle?

Negotiation between opposite sides of the political spectrum is needed more now than ever before. Especially since about 2014 political tensions have become inflamed and it has become difficult to talk about anything without being put in a “camp”. That is the case even when your intentions are about as far away from political as they could be.

The reason why we need to keep certain things apolitical is because reality is not politically demarcated. The sun and planets do not look at Earth and say “Hmmm.. what would be politically correct way of doing this? or “Hmmm who may we offend with this solar flare”? It doesn’t matter what your political viewpoint is – when you neglect physical reality it will catch up on you.

In this way, you could imagine politics as emerging from underlying biological impulses such as physical conservation or expenditure of energy. When you have more, you can expend, when you have less, you should conserve. This is all based on the state of your physical environment; soil fertility, stored reserves. It’s actually very simple however human beings have complicated that reaction to a point where it clouds their actual perception of reality.

The bottom line is – if you cannot perceive reality objectively, you cannot expend NOR conserve your energy accurately enough that you’re even able accomplish the role you’ve set out for yourself. That is why political radicalization is so dangerous, it undermines the actual PURPOSE of politics in the first place – as a collective adaptation mechanism.

What may help the situation is having a mutual basis of understanding in the neuropsychology of politics. That way you can bring it all back to a mutually held operating system within the human brain. Whether you are left or right, you have a BRAIN and you can recognize that other people have a brain that is built differently from yours. Furthermore, hopefully you can grasp the importance of another ideology as an alternate form of prioritization things that exists for it’s own evolutionary purpose.

Politics In The Brain

Surveyed groups of people who identify as liberal/democratic/left wing posses stronger conflict related activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and more activity in the left insula on average. While groups of people who identify as conservative/right wing/republican have more activity in the right amygdala and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The anterior cingulate cortex is associated with the habitual alteration of a behavioral response pattern. When you think of people who identify as progressive it makes sense that they would have more activity in this area because they are always looking for something that they can change in order to make the world a better place. The strength in this mode of cognition is that when there is an obvious need for adaptation you adapt. As far as the anterior cingulate is concerned, that is especially the case when it comes to social learning.. but we’ll get more in to that later.

In a separate study they found people who identify as left/liberal/democratic have more activity in the Left Insula: Associated with affective-perceptual and cognitive-evaluative forms of empathy. “The role of the insula in empathy and social cognition has been confirmed in lesion studies.” As you can see the left insula share this similar feature of social cognition with the anterior cingulate. They both suggest that leftward leaning individuals are reacting to a deeply felt sense of empathy through a socially propagated form of behavioral corrective measure.

Further research on the anterior cingulate Cortex seems to exaggerate the importance of disapproval in the habitual alteration of behavioral response pattern. It would suggest that people with more activity in this region are more likely to alter their behavior in response to emotionally charged language or visuo-spatial indicators of emotional distress rather than objective cues throughout the physical environment.

Note however that these two features can also be aligned, especially during a natural catastrophe for example. With that being said it’s important to keep in mind that if you identify as “liberal” perhaps you might try “looking under the rug” every now and again to see if its possible that you are being manipulated by emotionally charged content online or otherwise. You want to keep empathy grounded with an accurate perspective.

This is especially the case in the modern world of algorithmically guided content. It is possible for example – that you are being recommended content based on your proclivity for reacting to emotionally charged language and visual imagery, rather than the actual magnitude of the problem itself. That becomes a problem when you’re trying to get an objective grasp over reality in order to determine what is required for a society to continue thriving.

People who identify as left leaning that also prefer the anterior cingulate and left insular regions of the brain should ideally maximize their auto-corrective behavioral learning routine for purposes of future societal optimization in response to felt empathy. However they might also want to watch out for socially transmitted forms of emotionally propelled over-correction that can become detached from reality.

Groups of people who self identify as conservative/right/republican appear to have more activity then average in the right amygdala and dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex. The right amygdala has a lot to do with identifying dangerous visual stimuli while the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is involved in the maintenance of working memory.

As far as the right amygdala, think of it this way – The amygdala is a highly emotional survival oriented part of the brain and the right hemisphere is more visual-spatial in it’s proclivity. This is likely why, for example – people who identify as conservative/right/republican display a more prominent electrogalvanic uptick in response to obvious visual indicators of an “out-group”. You might think of it as an evolutionary algorithm, built in to the nervous system, for avoiding what is unknown and therefor more likely to be dangerous by virtue of your ignorance.

The benefit of this mode of cognition is that you are using a standardized archetype of visual threat detection that is generally accurate in it’s discrimination based on the probability of danger having something to do with how strange a situation, person or object appears to you. The drawback is that it works most of the time but not when #1 familiar things can hurt you and #2 many people and situations that are unknown also present a much needed opportunity.

Look at it this way: In hunter gather times if you were not capable of instantaneous reaction to an out group member (think neanderthal) you would have a disadvantage, especially when scarcity has produced desperation in the overall geographic landscape. Remember how conservatism emerges from the biological demand to literally conserve resources. In the case of a drought or dry season conservatism may emerge as a survival strategy for a group to preserve resources and protect against more desperate out-group members.

That is also why the prefrontal cortex may come in to the picture – as it is related to the quality of working memory. Think about how vital working memory is when you have less than you need. It is arguable that when there is a lot of abundance – memory isn’t as vital to survival because there are a lot of things already available. How as the funnel of evolution narrows down it becomes more important to remember concrete details required for navigation and survival. Perhaps that is where the conservative inclination for memory comes from.

People that identify as right leaning, who also prefer the right amygdala and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex should utilize their grounded, sentinel like vigilance for the protection and maintenance of society. However they may also want to watch out for stereotypical over-generalization that can prevent natural adaptation to a quickly changing environment.


Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans

Individualism, conservatism, and radicalism as criteria for processing political beliefs: A parametric fMRI study

An organization opening up dialogue between opposite sides of the political spectrum: Braver Angels

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