With the US voting for a new president and Congress, research from the
University of South Carolina provides fresh evidence that choosing a candidate
may depend more on our biological make-up than a careful analysis of
That’s because the brains of self-identified Democrats and
Republicans are hard-wired differently and may be naturally inclined to hold
varying, if not opposing, perceptions and values. The USC study, which analyzed
MRI scans of 24 USC students, builds on existing research in the emerging field
of political neuroscience.
“The differences are significant and real,”
said lead researcher Roger Newman-Norlund, an assistant professor of exercise
science in the Arnold School of Public Health and the director of USC’s new
Brain Stimulation Laboratory.
The study focused on the mirror neuron
system, a network linked to a host of social and emotional abilities. After
declaring their political affiliations, the subjects were given questionnaires
designed to gauge their attitudes on a range of select political issues. Next,
they were given “resting state” MRIs which made it possible to analyze the
strength of connections within the mirror neuron system in both the left and
right hemispheres of their brains; specifically the inferior frontal gyrus,
supramarginal gyrus and angular gyrus.
The results found more neural
activity in areas believed to be linked with broad social connectedness in
Democrats (friends, the world at-large) and more activity in areas linked with
tight social connectedness in the Republicans (family, country). In some ways
the study confirms a stereotype about members of the two parties -- Democrats
tend to be more global and Republicans more America-centric -- but it actually
runs counter to other recent research indicating Democrats enjoyed a virtual
biological lock on caring for others.
“The results were a little
surprising,” Newman-Norlund said. “This shows the picture is more complicated.
One possible explanation for our results is that Democrats and Republicans
process social connectedness in a fundamentally different way.”
political neuroscience and study is still largely in its infancy, the
implications for future races could be big as politicians and campaign
strategists learn how to exploit brain differences to make more effective,
biologically targeted appeals to voters.
The research also suggests that
maintaining an open mind about political issues may be easier said than done. In
fact, bridging partisan divides and acting contrary to ideological preferences
likely requires going against deeply ingrained biological tendencies. And while
there is evidence that mirror neuron connections can change over time, it’s not
something that happens overnight, Newman-Norlund said.
differences could be a result of genetics, experiences, or a combination of
both,” he said. “It takes a lot of effort to see the other side and we’re not
going to wake up one day and all start getting along.”
differences and their origins, however, is a step in the right direction, he
This article was first published at www.newswise.com