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Are political beliefs hard-wired?

Tom Feilden | 08:10 UK time, Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Alan Duncan's brain scan

Alan Duncan's brain scan

"Give me the child until he's seven and I'll give you the man."
It's clear from their motto that the Jesuits are firmly in the acquired camp when it comes to whether our political beliefs and values are learned or hard wired from birth: the product of experience rather than genetics.

But is that true?

It's a question the Today programme's guest editor, the actor Colin Firth, was keen to explore. He wanted to know if it was possible to "see" political belief in the structure of the brain, and if science could predict whether a person was left or right wing.

MPs Stephen Pound and Alan Duncan

MPs Stephen Pound and Alan Duncan

The obvious answer was to take a look at the brains of two MP's with diametrically opposing views - step forward Thatcherite Conservative Alan Duncan, and Labour stalwart Stephen Pound, who agreed to undergo a structural brain scan using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI.

The MP's were put through their paces by professor Geraint Rees at UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience earlier this month.

Obviously a study with just two subjects - however different their perspectives might be - was not a big enough sample to produce a statistically significant conclusion, so professor Rees expanded the study to include a pool of students and post-docs previously scanned at the Institute in other, unrelated, experiments.

This larger cohort was asked to fill in a questionaire assessing their political values, and their answers (along with those from Alan Duncan and Stephen Pound) were compared with earlier structural brain scans.

The results showed a strong correlation between between political belief and two specific regions of the brain. The grey matter of the anterior cingulate was significantly thicker amongst those who described themselves as liberal, or left wing, while the amygdala - an area associated with emotional processing - was larger in those who regarded themselves as conservative or right wing.

"It's a remarkable finding" says professor Rees. "We were very surprised to find two areas of the brain from which we could predict political attitudes."

Interestingly the results from Alan Duncan and Stephen Pound were consistent with the overall findings. Stephen Pound's scan revealed a thicker anterior cingulate - consistent with those students who described themselves as left-wing - while Alan Duncan's was thinner. Both MP's recorded similar densities for the amygdala.

Although the results do show that political belief is reflected in the physical structure of the brain it's not clear which comes first. Whether the structure of the brain shapes political belief or political belief leads to the differential development of brain structure.

In that sense we haven't answered Colin Firth's original question, but what started out as a bit of fun has turned into a significant piece of scientific research.

Professor Rees has written up the results of the experiment and submitted them to a scientific journal. That paper is currently undergoing peer review and should be published in the New Year.


  • Comment number 1.

    It always seems to me to be a big mistake to make prominent news items from work that has not yet been published. It means that nobody can check the results (including the author of the news item).

    For example, you say "The results showed a strong correlation between between political belief and two specific regions of the brain." but Professor Rees tells me " a statistically significant (but weak in terms of effect size) correlation. emerged". I guess we'll just have to wait for the paper to settle that discrepancy.

  • Comment number 2.

    Dear professor Colquhoun,

    I take your point about unpublished work, but since the item was specifically commissioned by the guest editor Colin Firth it was always going to have to run on this morning's programme. We did make clear that the paper was undergoing peer review, and had not yet been published.

    On the reference to a "strong correlation", although it doesn't appear in quotation marks in my blog it is taken from what profesor Rees said in the recorded feature on the programme this morning. The actual passage reads "...we can see a strong correlation that reaches all our scientific tests of significance."

    You can find the full report (and an interesting discussion between Geraint Rees and Colin Blakemore) on the Today programme website.

  • Comment number 3.

    How disappointing to read a piece by a science correspondent misspelling "cingulate"!

  • Comment number 4.

    Could this be a candidate for Ben Goldacres Bad Science award see Peer Review is supposed to be anonymous -not now!

  • Comment number 5.

    Psychologists at NYU also found that response times on a button-pushing exercise (and the corresponding neurological activity) are predictive of political beliefs.
    "In the past, people thought that political leanings were environmentally influenced - a combination of biological dispositions as well as familial shaping.
    However a new stidy led by David Amodio, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University, indicates that political bent "is not just a choice people have; rather, it seems to be linked to fundamental differences in the way people PROCESS INFORMATION."
    Amodio reported in Nature Neuroscience that his team scanned the brains of 43 subjects during 500 trials, the task designed to test their ability to break from an habitual response.
    Prior to beginning the experiment, volunteers were asked to rate their political leanings based on a scale
    from –5 (extremely liberal)
    to +5 (very conservative).
    They were then given a computerized test in which they were shown one of two stimuli for 100 milliseconds (0.1 second). If an "M" popped up on the screen, the respondent had 500 milliseconds (a half second) to press a key on the keyboard before him or her; if a "W" appeared, the person was supposed to do nothing.
    The task, known as Go/No-Go, is an example of "conflict monitoring," which Amodio says, "came about as a way to explain how we realize that we NEED TO PAY MORE ATTENTION."
    Subjects became accustomed to pressing the button for "M," which appeared 80% of the time; thus, when a "W" cropped up, participants faced a conflict between their trained response and a new stimulus.
    Amodio says that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a forebrain region, "serves almost as a barometer for this degree of conflict..."
    People who have more sensitive activity in this area are more responsive to cues that say they need to adapt, reacting more quickly and accurately to the unexpected stimulus.
    People who described themselves as politically liberal had about 2.5 times the activity in their ACCs and were more sensitive to the "No-Go cue" than their conservative friends.
    Sorry, Colin Firth, again no answer to your question, but more proof towards a significant piece of scientific research.

  • Comment number 6.

    I found the most interesting thread of the conversation to be the proposed link between the construction of the brain and behaviour. It was suggested that our views are designated by the thickness of the anterior cingulate and thus our behaviour is fixed, we are Left or Right wing. Are our political views hardwired by the brain structure or does the brain structure change according to our experience?

    This question seems to fundamentally question the concept of ‘free will’, following what is to me a disturbing behaviourist thread in modern media ‘thinking’.

    My understanding is that free will is about our ability to challenge our habitual ‘thinking’ and to do something different? For instance the media’s opinions about genetic predispositions to smoking/ drinking/ criminal behaviour etc. Yes we do what we have always done, yet we can decide to follow our habits or not.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    Maybe an investigation into brain structure with regard to those with religious beliefs vs atheists, could be undertaken?

  • Comment number 9.

    The naive dualism implicit in the original piece and subsequent commentary is disheartening. But even more disheartening is the apparent failure to appreciate that the relationship between the mind and brain could take many forms and needs to be established if such research is to have any meaning. My view is that the relationship between the mind and brain is a bit like (I stress a BIT like) the relationship between hardware and software in computing. In my work I have demonstrated the value of such a view by showing how decomposing human visual tasks to a point where functions can sensibly be mapped onto brain structures, keeps psychological and neural terminology distinct whilst acknowledging their essential unity. The approach is very much akin to top down design in programming where decomposition provides descriptions that become ever more machine like in their form. To speak of software CAUSING hardware to do something or vice versa is clearly absurd. The same applies to minds and brains. If we fail to appreciate this we end up with what Bill Uttal has so aptly described as "The new phrenology". It is the architecture of the mind/brain that gives us free will. The idea that the mind is free but the brain is determined is surely a nonsense.

  • Comment number 10.

    A note on free will, in case anyone is still watching this blog.

    As with the closely associated term "consciousness", the term can mean lots of different things to different people and so needs more detailed specification if we are to treat it scientifically. I suggest that the capacity to have "explicit" control over what we do fits the bill nicely. I shall expand.

    Much of our behaviour is relatively uncontrolled e.g. pupil dilation to light, eye blink reflexes, optokinetic nystagmus, and orienting responses. Complex behaviours, though, are necessarily controlled. The brain is uniquely clever in the way it handles this. It's architecture is such that control becomes devolved from what I call the "meta-knowledge layer" to the "knowledge layer" as similar behaviours are repeated. This is what, in common parlance we call "automation" or "skill". Very complex automated sequences of behaviour such as buying train tickets and ordering food in restaurants are incorporated into knowledge structures that Schank and Abelson have termed "scripts".

    Control at the meta-knowledge layer is what I term "explicit control" because it allows us to reflect explicitly on options available to us and the costs and benefits of various outcomes. It even allows us to "recover" control from the knowledge layer if it is not working well (think sports training). The meta-knowledge layer may therefore be termed the "thinking layer" and it is what differentiates us from lower animals. Activity at this layer is what many people think of as being "conscious". To me this is too restrictive a definition, but that is another matter.

    So we might have biological needs and external events tending to drive our behaviour, but we have the capacity to override them or choose between them. There are two important things to add to this. First, we are (obviously) only "relatively" free. We are constrained by many factors such as our physical circumstances, the knowledge we possess and the strength of the needs or external events tending to drive us which we might find overwhelming. Second, the tendency to associated free will with the mind and determinacy with the brain (which we see in much evoked potential and brain imaging work) is wrong. It is the architecture of the brain that gives us free will.


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