Political Orientations and Brain Structure

By Michael Edmonds 13/04/2011 3


Over the past year or so I’ve come across a number of attempts by sociologists and psychologists to try and understand the differences in the way politically conservative voters differ from those with a more liberal viewpoint. One study which I have yet to find a copy of again suggested that conservatives tend to favour tradition and security over fairness, while liberals were more open to new experiences and rated fairness over security (if anyone can find me a reference for this study I would really appreciate it).

However, recent research is now looking to see if there is a biological component to political orientation. In a paper entitled “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults” in Current Biology (2011), in press, Ryota Kanai and his co-workers have used structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare the brain structure of 90 young adults of varying political orientations. What they appear to have found is a correlation between political orientation and two different parts of the brain – the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex.

The amygdala was found to be larger in those with a  more conservative orientation, while the anterior cingulate cortex was found to be larger in those with a more liberal orientation.

The amygdala has many functions, including sensitivity to fear and disgust, while the anterior cingulate cortex is involved in monitoring uncertainty and conflicts. Consequently, it has been suggested that perhaps conservative policies may at least be partially derived from a need for greater security (reduction of fear and uncertainty), while liberal policies result from the ability to more readily deal with uncertainty and change.

The authors of course go to great pains to stress that this work is only preliminary, and the research shows a correlation not necessarily causation. Still, it is an interesting piece of research making a tentative connection between brain structure and political orientation.

Given recent discussions on sciblogs, I can’t help but wonder if any correlations might emerge from comparisons between other groups, such as atheists and the deeply religious?


3 Responses to “Political Orientations and Brain Structure”

  • Since the research was conducted in an open society (relatively free), it would be interesting if they did the same research in a closed society, say North Korea. There is only one system in North Korea and I suspect that their citizen’s brain structure will perhaps not show anything or may be only show up 1 (rather than 2) because of the hard-wired or indoctrinated way they think politically.

  • Here is a dynamical modeling of opinion formations such as political. The model only applies to open minded agents/individuals because those agents can change their political opinions based on what they hear or see from others. So, the model can’t be applied to stubborn agents who have fixed political views (perhaps similar to those with fixed views, either conservative or liberal from the study of their brain structure as discussed in this very blog post), but the author is looking to introduce stubbornness into his model in a future research.

    “Sociophysics and the Forming of Public Opinion: Threshold versus Non Threshold Dynamics”
    http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/0803/0803.2453v1.pdf

  • Falafulu Fisi

    I agree, it would be interesting to test different groups to see if a similar correlation could be found. As the initial study was done on young adults it would be interesting to see what the results were like from older subjects.