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I am a neurologist and an observer of politics. I wonder if conservative brains are really wired differently. Here is what I found...

The private market cannot do everything. There are some tasks that only the government can do. And, just because I believe that assertion, doesn't make me a Fascist, Communist, Marxist, Islamist, Czarist, terrorist, foreigner, or, per the most recent rightwing insult, an anti-colonialist (and someone needs to explain to me what is anti-American about being anti-colonialist; the whole point of our Revolution was anti-colonialist, and our bipartisan foreign policy has been anticolonialist). The corollary to this point is that there are some problems that we can, through our government, ameliorate.

The opposition is based on conservative principles as enumerated by Russell Kirk:

A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
An affection for the "variety and mystery" of human existence;
A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize "natural" distinctions;
A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.

(Russell Kirk. (2010, September 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23:36, September 19, 2010, from

Conservative commentators use a mythology to distill these principles. Americans are rugged individualists who have no need for outside help. We should exemplify the pioneers' spirit of self-reliance. If we're in trouble, we should "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps" (a violation of Newtonian physics). In the international realm, America is a country apart, "American Exceptionalism," with carte blanche from our "Manifest Destiny." The chief consequence of this dogma is that we deserve whatever resources we can take and have the inalienable right to attack whomever we want.

The present administration is trying to fix some problems:

The fix for the economic downturn is to use the principles of Keynsian economics to inject money into the economy through a combination of spending and tax cuts; the tax cuts are meant for the poor and middle class, not the richest 2% of tax-payers.
The fix for the healthcare problem is to provide health insurance for all. In exchange for insurance companies accepting all applicants without prejudice against pre-existing conditions, a tax penalty goads all citizens to join the insurance risk pool.
The fix for the misuse of the financial system is to provide a more potent regulatory body and a strong office of consumer protection.
The fix for our over-dependence on fossil fuels is the cap and trade system, using the market to create incentives to use renewable fuels.
The fix for undocumented immigrants is a combination of labor law enforcement as well as providing a path to permanent residency, not a mass deportation and repeal of the 14th amendment.

The conservative response is based on the premise that none of these problems require a solution. Even if there are problems, trying to repair them makes the fixer a "planner." There is no purpose in planning when there is a preordained "transcendent order." It's always best to let the market decide, and government should not get in its way.

Those that oppose this natural order are called "Progressives." They are responsible for several evil changes including child labor laws, direct election of senators, meat inspections, women's suffrage, social security, and Medicare.

Instead, all problems will be cured through tax cuts, especially for the upper 2%, and getting rid of government red tape. No other planning is needed. Conservatives are certain of this truth because they have discerned the "transcendent order," the "natural law." Human existence has a pre-ordained variety and mystery that all the planning liberals can muster cannot overcome. It is only natural that Orders and Classes of Men exist, and tax policies to even that outcome are unnatural. Thus, the Paris Hiltons should not have have to pay taxes on their inheritances just to achieve an artificial equality. Any attempt to reduce property rights, such as eminent domain to build highway or other infrastructure, reduces our freedom. Customs should be honored and not changed.

These words are dissonant to the liberal ear. Of course we should try to change the preordained transcendent order when people are harmed, even dying, because of it. The Market is not some natural force, it is artificial, man-made. Being man-made, people should be free to manage it. There is no need to let the entire economic system collapse when we can loan money to some banks, albeit banks that screwed the system to begin with. There is no need to let 2 of our 3 domestic auto makers go bankrupt, when loans can save them. And when one of the companies was going to default, there was no problem with the US government, temporarily, becoming a major shareholder of that company (and one year later, the financial sector and the automobile manufacturers are doing fine, thanks to choosing pragmatism over dogma.)

But this pragmatism enrages the conservative, and I don't understand why. Could it be that the conservative mind is alien to the liberal way of thinking? David Amodio and colleagues tested 43 subjects (Amodio DM. Jost JT. Master SL. Yee CM. Nature Neuroscience. 10(10):1246-7, 2007 Oct.). First they rated their political beliefs on a validated scale to determine how liberal or conservative they were. Then the subjects were told to tap a computer key whenever a "W" appeared on a screen and refrain from tapping when an "M" appeared. This go-no-go paradigm tests the function of the anterior cingulate cortex, an important frontal-lobe structure involved in new learning. They were hooked up to an electroencephalograph that measured the brain electrical activity.  The liberals were able to refrain from tapping with the "M's" significantly better than the conservatives. Moreover, the EEG measurement showed liberals had significantly increased anterior cingulate activity when reacting to the novel stimulus, the "M." One concludes liberals are better at reacting to new information, where conservatives tend to keep doing the same thing, despite new information.

This different way of thinking does not mean that conservatives are less intelligent. These two ways of dealing with new information are indeed part of a transcendent order. Either Evolution or Divine Design has generated a divide in human groups to increase our survivability. I imagine some humans sitting in a tree in Africa 1 million years ago. One of them might have grunted, "hey, let's get out of this tree and go exploring." Another, with a less developed anterior cingulate cortex, said, "no, our tradition is to hang out in trees," we should stay here. If it just so happened that a lion was hanging out on the ground, the conservative would be correct. If there were some berries and no predators in the vicinity, the liberal would be correct. Sometimes we need liberals, and maybe sometimes we need conservatives.

I am a Democrat. No, not a demorat, a Democrat. It's one of the 2 main political parties in the United States. The other is the Republicans. Not the Republif***s, the Republicans. Once we stop using these pejorative nicknames, we may start to get along a little better. We need each other. And we can never change the other, so we need to get along.

Updated by jamesabomb at Sun Apr 17, 2011 at 06:46 AM PDT

Now it's confirmed: see Kanai et al., Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, Current Biology (2011), doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.017. They ran Structural MRI scans on 90 subjects who had divulged their liberalism vs conservatism on a 5 point scale. Liberals had larger anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with conflict resolution, conservatives had larger amygdalas, an area associated with fear/disgust. The p value was <.010, meaning a 99.9% chance the findings weren't just due to chance. We really do have different brains

Originally posted to jamesabomb on Mon Sep 20, 2010 at 08:45 PM PDT.

Also republished by Psychology of Conservatives and Liberals.

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Comment Preferences

  •  What do walls symbolize to subconscious brain? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Tear down that wall vs. build a border wall.....

    Media Reform Action Link

    by LNK on Mon Sep 20, 2010 at 08:49:46 PM PDT

  •  We need liberals now... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...because the conservatives got us by the berries.

    Evreything Right is Wrong Again - TMBG (lyrics)

    by GreenPA on Mon Sep 20, 2010 at 09:13:12 PM PDT

  •  may i suggest that (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bronte17, pdrap

    if you believe this,

    The conservative response is based on the premise that none of these problems require a solution.

    you don't understand the conservative viewpoint.

    In many cases, the 2 sides don't agree on what the problem even is.

    "the healthcare problem" for some is that there are people who don't have insurance.

    The problem for others, is that prices are too high since insurance is not the right model for healthcare (insurance works for unlikey expensive events, like car accidents) and the consumer has limited incentive to price shop or even have insurance.

    •  I agree with you (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Spoc42, QuestionAuthority

      This analysis of the conservative mind we find here rests entirely on their conservative political rhetoric, as if conservative rhetoric was anything accurate to go on.

      If rhetoric did accurately depict true beliefs then the phrase "pro-life" would include children who have been born but suffer from infant mortality, and it would include opposition to the death penalty. It's obvious that pro-life is a code word for "pro-life-that-we-think-deserves-to-live." And how conservatives decide who deserves to live is where you start digging into what they REALLY believe.

      The rhetoric will fool you every time. That's why libertarians are suckered into an authoritarian party by the rhetorical (and quite annoying) lie that they are "fiscal conservatives". It's amazing that libertarians are so dumb that they fall for that and don't even seem to be astonished to rub shoulders with a bunch of corn-pone Hitlers.

      I gave just two examples there. Russel Kirk's list of conservative "principles" are just as shallow, resting on something much more fundamental - the conservative idea that you've got to protect you and yours with force in a dangerous world. It's a fear-based mindset. And yes, that's how conservative minds are different than liberal minds. Conservatives are fearful. Liberals are not. Erich Fromm and Richard Hofstadter have already covered this pretty well.

      The diarist should dig deeper.

      •  he did (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        The diarist should dig deeper.

        physiology precedes psychology.  you have to have neurons bumping before you see any observable effect in the real world.

        very interesting article.  my thanks to the diarist.

        Thank you, Keith Olbermann

        by LivesInAShoe on Mon Sep 20, 2010 at 10:54:27 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  There's still a missing link I think (0+ / 0-)

          I didn't say that physiology doesn't precede psychology. We agree on that.

          I am saying that the diarist hasn't analyzed the psychology correctly. And I am saying that the diarist hasn't done an adequate job of explaining what exactly is going on to link the observed physiology with the psychology. There's a large component of fear in the conservative mind, and the offered physiology doesn't explain that adequately. It needs more explanation.

  •  Need republicans. Not theocrats desiring the END (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Spoc42, QuestionAuthority

    or idealizing an absolute rule of only one point of view to the extent that they want to eliminate any different view holders and declare the things they believe in to be a truth that we alll must adhere to. That is anti-democratic and what exists in countries like Iran or China or...

    I agree we need both because without the other there is a chance we will careen off to extremes where the ideal must be adhered to and failure to do so means death or expulsion.

    I AM A DEMOCRAT. I cannot change but I can respect those who respect me.

  •  Interesting information. Thank you. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "If I owned hell and Texas, I'd live in hell and rent out Texas" - Union General Phillip Sheridan

    by ZedMont on Mon Sep 20, 2010 at 09:20:51 PM PDT

  •  You have hit the point! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ScienceMom, Spoc42, QuestionAuthority

    Conservatism is all about defined structure!
    To live in that structure, to feel comfortable in that structure, and to never think outside that structure! That is the essence of conservativism, and that is precisely why conservativism, from a purely mental perspective, is extremely limited.
    Congratulations, I couldn't have stated it better myself.  And no, I am not a neurologist, I am a deliberate Medical School dropout...who after two years of Medical School decided to play dumb instead of continuing my medical studies...

  •  I tend to approach it through (0+ / 0-)

    Freudian psychoanalysis.  The conservative viewpoint represents the id for a large degree of the population.

    This is largely why I think there is a seeming impotence against the actual conservative attitude when it is confronted.  The ideas of non-conservatives are viewed as representing the "Super-ego".  The key to this conflict is to see that it doesn't happen since the only alternative to behaving like the Superego is to behave like the ego.  To many people that will seem to be morally repulsive.

    The adjective that applies to Christine O'Donnell is not "DiVinyl".

    by AZphilosopher on Tue Sep 21, 2010 at 03:04:19 AM PDT

  •  Must take into consideration (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bronte17, ScienceMom

    ...that this is a very complicated subject that is difficult to write about or discuss in brief. I think both the diarist and the commenters so far are correct, but discussing different aspects of the same things.

    Religious Conservatives (which is a term I use to differentiate the "old" Republicans from the new) mix both their religious views and their political views to come up with a semi-religious, semi-fascist point of view. The old Republicans were more pragmatic (think pre-Nixon) and tended to respect the division of church and state. The "new" Republicans want to erase the division entirely. This is what makes them so dangerous to our republic.

    "Ridicule may lawfully be employed where reason has no hope of success." -7.75/-6.05

    by QuestionAuthority on Tue Sep 21, 2010 at 04:43:42 AM PDT

  •  John Dean's book (0+ / 0-)

    Conservatives Without Conscience has a section on this topic. It's hard to comprehend that these others don't just have a different opinion, they THINK differently.

    If the fetus you save is gay, will you still fight for its rights?

    by WV Democrat on Tue Sep 21, 2010 at 07:45:14 AM PDT

  •  conservative brains (0+ / 0-)

    Thanks for the comments. My main point is that the issue is with the brain, not the mind. Just to define terms, I'm talking about the brain as if it's the computer hardware, and the mind is the software (even though in reality, the brain/mind is much more complex than a computer and this is a false dichotomy). I am familiar with Hofstadter (not Fromm), and briefly wondered whether conservatism could be a mental disorder. However, although there are plenty of conservative nuts (!), most have a normal psychological makeup. I believe that their fear and paranoia (Anchor Babies, Mosques at Ground Zero, Death Panels) is not due to some psychological disease, but is a function of how their brains are hard-wired. This brain-wiring affects how their minds view the world. We Progressives believe if we sit down with a conservative, show them all the facts and reason with them, they'll come around to our way of thinking. But we're ALWAYS disappointed when they don't. The reason that we can't convince them is that their brains are hard-wired differently. Now, I suppose that some day we could develop a neurosurgical procedure to change this :), but for now, we need to learn to get along with each other. (And presenting a conservative with this brain data is fruitless, because they don't believe scientific data)

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