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Politics correltates with brain structure. Should we be worried?

Political orientation is correlated with the structure of our brains. This is revealed in a study published last week in Current Biology led by Ry­ota Kanai, a postdoctoral fellow of the Un­ivers­ity Col­lege Lon­don.  Conservatives tend to have a larger amyg­dala, a brain struc­ture linked to threat rec­og­ni­tion, whilst those of us on the Left tend to have a larg­er an­te­ri­or cin­gu­late cor­tex, a struc­ture in­volved in cop­ing with con­flict­ing in­forma­t­ion.

Kanai said:

Pre­vi­ously, some psy­cho­log­i­cal traits were known to be pre­dic­tive of an in­di­vid­u­al’s po­lit­i­cal ori­enta­t­ion… Our study now links such per­son­al­ity traits with specific brain structure.

His study was prompted by stud­ies show­ing con­servatives are more sen­si­tive to threat or anx­i­e­ty in the face of un­cer­tain­ty, while lib­er­als tend to be more open to new ex­pe­ri­ences. Kanai’s team sus­pected that such fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences in per­son­al­ity might show up in the brain and that proved right.

Needless to say, right-wing media have mis-reported the study as suggesting that brain structure determines political attitudes, whereas in fact causality is not certain. It’s possible that brain structure isn’t set in early life, but rather can be shaped over time by our experiences.

The question is whether we should act differently, armed with this new knowledge. With a few measurements of parts of our brains, the secret police of the future will have an indication of our political views. Similar things have happened before without any scientific basis. Fortunately, we’re unlikely to be too worried by this. We do have smaller amygdala after all.

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