We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Left Wing vs. Right Wing Brains

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Jan 4, 2011 3:50 AMJul 12, 2023 3:43 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

So apparently: Left wing or right wing? It's written in the brain

People with liberal views tended to have increased grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain linked to decision-making, in particular when conflicting information is being presented...

Conservatives, meanwhile, had increased grey matter in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with processing emotion.

This was based on a study of 90 young adults using MRI to measure brain structure. Sadly that press release is all we know about the study at the moment, because it hasn't been published yet. The BBC also have no fewer than three radio shows about it here

, here

and here


Politics blog Heresy Cornerdiscusses it...

This kind of story tends to attract chuckle-some comments.

Subjects who professed liberal or left-wing opinions tended to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain which, we were told, helps process complex and conflicting information. (Perhaps they need this extra grey matter to be able to cope with the internal contradictions of left-wing philosophy.)

In truth, without seeing the full scientific paper, we can't know whether the differences they found were really statistically solid, or whether they were voodoo or fishy. The authors, Geraint Rees and Ryota Kanai

, have both published a lot of excellentneuroscience in the past, but that's no guarantee.

In fact, however, I suspect that the brain is just the wrong place to look if you're interested in politics, because most political views don't originate in the individual brain, they originate in the wider culture and are absorbed and regurgitated without much thought. This is a real shame, because all of us, left or right, have a brain, and it's really quite nifty:

But when it comes to politics we generally don't use it. The brain is a powerful organ designed to help you deal with reality in all its complexity. For a lot of people, politics doesn't take place there, it happens in fairytale kingdoms populated by evil monsters, foolish jesters, and brave knights.

Given that the characters in this story are mindless stereotypes, there's no need for empathy. Because the plot comes fully-formed from TV or a newspaper, there's no need for original ideas. Because everything is either obviously right or obviously wrong, there's not much reasoning required. And so on. Which is why this happens amongst other things.

I don't think individual personality is very important in determining which political narratives and values you adopt: your family background, job, and position in society is much more important.

Where individual differences matter, I think, is in deciding how "conservative" or "radical" you are within whatever party you find yourself. Not in the sense of left or right, but in terms of how keen you are on grand ideas and big changes, as opposed to cautious, boring pragmatism.

In this sense, there are conservative liberals (i.e. Obama) and radical conservatives (i.e. Palin), and that's the kind of thing I'd be looking for if I were trying to find political differences in the brain.


If right wingers have bigger amygdalae, does that mean patient SM, the woman with no amygdalae at all, must be

a communist? Then again, Neuroskeptic readers may remember that the brain itself is a communist...

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.