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Brain Scans Accurately Predict Political Party

February 15, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Which came first: the political affiliation or the brain structure?

Researchers at the University of Exeter in England and the University of California, San Diego, raise that question with an intriguing bit of research published Wednesday in the open-access journal PLOS ONE. Using functional MRI, they scanned the brains of 82 people who played a gambling game. They later looked up the participants’ political affiliations.

Republicans and Democrats showed no differences in the risks they took. But their brain activity at the time differed significantly. Democrats showed significantly greater activity in the left insula, which is associated with social awareness and self-awareness. Republicans showed greater activity in the right amygdala, which is associated with the body’s fight-or-flight actions.

Lead author Darren Schreiber, PhD, who is affiliated with both universities, has long studied political affiliation and its association with brain structure and function. The study says:

The ability to accurately predict party politics using only brain activity while gambling suggests that investigating basic neural differences between voters may provide us with more powerful insights than the traditional tools of political science.

Indeed, in this study, the brain activity predicted whether the participant was a Democrat or Republican with 82.9 percent accuracy. The traditional model—the party affiliation of a person’s mother and father—is accurate about 69.5 percent of the time. Another model, based on the difference between brain structure rather than function, has an accuracy of 71.6 percent.

The study, noting other research about changes in brain structure brought about by changes in cognitive function, suggests that “acting as a partisan in a partisan environment may alter the brain, above and beyond the effect of the heredity.” In other words, perhaps the political affiliation changed the brain structure.

Maybe. As the study acknowledges, further research is needed. At the very least, the study indicates that trying to change the mind of someone with a different political affiliation is probably a waste of time. If that finding leads to a reduction in the amount of shouting on TV news channels, then it will have been a great boon to society.

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Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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