Colin Firth is having a pretty good year. First he won an Oscar for the King’s Speech, and now he also has a paper out in Current Biology!
When guest editing Radio 4’s Today programme in December, he suggested that it could be interesting to investigate whether there were any differences in brain structures between people who lean toward the left or right of the political spectrum.
Geraint Rees of UCL ran the ensuing study, scanning the brains of 90 people to find associations between brain properties and self-reported political preference. Previous studies had found that certain characteristics matched to either liberal thinkers or more conservative minds. People who identify as politically left-leaning are more likely to prefer change, and that has been shown to correlate with increased neural activity in the anterior cingulate cortex.
But Firth asked whether the brains actually looked different, and Rees now showed that indeed the progressive voters also had an increased anterior cingulate cortex compared to more conservative voters.
And how do you recognise the brain of a conservative? They have enlarged grey matter in the right amygdala, associated with an increased fear response, which is in line with previous work that showed that right-leaning voters have increased sensitivity to threatening facial expressions.
Huh. So do our brains predetermine who we vote for in the next election, and if so, why not get us all a brain scan instead of making us line up at the polling station? It’s not that simple. Or, to quote the paper:
“Although these results suggest a link between political attitudes and brain structure, it is important to note that the neural processes implicated are likely to reflect complex processes of the formation of political attitudes rather than a direct representation of political opinions per se. The conceptualizing and reasoning associated with the expression of political opinions is not necessarily limited to structures or functions of the regions we identified but will require the involvement of more widespread brain regions implicated in abstract thoughts and reasoning”
This brings up all kinds of complicated philosophical questions about free will, but the only question I have right now is: what’s Colin Firth’s Erdos-Bacon number?
Ryota Kanai, Tom Feilden, Colin Firth, Geraint Rees (2011). Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults Current Biology, 21 (8), 677-680 : 10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.017