10 June 2011

Colin Firth: stick to your knitting

Smithsonian: Surprising Science | Sarah Zielinski | Colin Firth: Actor. Writer. Academy Award Winner. Scientist?

Ideas for scientific experiments come from all sorts of places (and fewer of them originate in the lab than you might think). A study on political orientation and brain structure, published in Current Biology, for example, got its start when the actor Colin Firth—credited as a co-author on the paper—was guest-editing a BBC Radio 4 program called “Today.” “This struck me as an opportunity to explore things which compel me…but about which I’m perhaps not sufficiently informed,” he told host Justin Webb. “I…decided to find out what was biologically wrong with people who don’t agree with me and see what scientists had to say about it.” Or to put it a bit more nicely, to see if the brains of people with different political leanings were truly different.
What's "wrong with people who don't agree with me"? I understand that despite this co-authorship, Firth is no scientist, so perhaps he doesn't know any better. But that's not language I would ever want associated with one of my papers. That's language phrenologists use. I want my papers to describe what is True, not why some people are "Right" and others "Wrong."
Ryota Kanai and Geraint Rees of University College London took that idea and ran with it. They performed MRI scans of 90 college students who had been asked about their political attitudes, and then looked at various structures in the brain. They found that a greater amount of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex was associated with liberalism and a greater amount in the amygdala was associated with conservatism. They confirmed the finding in a second set of 28 participants.

These findings are consistent with previous studies showing greater brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex of liberals. One of the jobs of that area of the brain is to monitor uncertainty and conflicts. “Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views,” the scientists write.
I have read a fair number of papers about the ACC and the conflict monitoring hypothesis. This is not how it works.  The ACC does resolve conflicts, but it does so in things like the Stroop task, not grand moral judgements.

It's a far cry from mediating between the parts of your brain yelling "say blue!" and the parts yelling "say red!" from mediating between complex moral, economic and social concerns involved in politics.

Secondly: wow, how about that question begging!  I love neuroscientists, but they are not qualified to make claims like "liberal political beliefs are more tolerant of uncertainty and conflict."  Frankly poly sci researchers are barely able to make such claims, because they are far too dependent on how you want to define what "real" liberal beliefs are and how you decide how much tolerance and uncertainty and conflict is embedded in them.  What you see as a nuanced position which embraces conflict I see as a dissonant mess of self-contradiction and doublethink.  There are plenty of dogmatic positions on both left and right.  Who's to say where there are more?
The amygdala, on the other hand, processes fear, and previous studies have shown that conservatives respond more aggressively in threatening situations. “Our findings are consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty,” the researchers write.
Again, who is to say which ideology is more dependent on processing fear? Is there no (amygdala-processed) fear amongst liberals of nuclear power, or GM crops, or trade with foreigners, or economic change in general?

You can frame almost every issue in terms of fear of something, so merely having an opinion could mean the amygdala becomes relevant.

I won't say any more because the first commenter destroys this "big amygdala --> FEAR" conclusion by citing other things a large amygdala has been associated with which aren't convenient stereotypes of conservatives, like larger and more complex social networks.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go write about and build models of the prefrontal cortex.

(Via 3qd)

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