Do liberals and conservatives have different brains?


Not quite this cut and dry. (TZA/Creative Commons)

Here in the U.S., we're adrift in a constant war of political words. On one side we have political conservatives who want to own guns, build play forts out of money and drill for oil on the moon. On the other side, we have political liberals who think marijuana should be legal, hospitals free and cats afforded basic human rights.

OK, so those are exaggerations, but the exaggerations serve to drive home the fact that liberals and conservatives often come across like two separate species who just happen to wear the same skins. But do the differences go deeper than nurtured beliefs and values? Do liberals and conservatives have different brains?

According to a recent study in Current Biology, if you were to drop the preserved brains of Alec Baldwin and Bill O'Reilly into the same brine tank, a neuroscientist would be able to tell you which one is more likely to own an NPR tote bag.

The study centered around 90 test subjects and they found political divisions correlated exceedingly well with size differences in two key brain areas:

The amygdale: This is the brain region involved in emotional processing and the larger it gets, the more "sensitive to disgust" you become and the more likely you are to respond aggressively to threatening situations.

The anterior cingulate cortex: This part of the brain is tied to reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy and emotion. Guess what? Lots of brain mass in this area correlates with a "higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views."

But are not eyes the window into the soul/brain? You bet. That's why a 2010 study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln saw researches gouge some insight from the differences in liberal and conservative gaze cues. The researchers looked at the way test subjects shift attention to follow the direction of another person's eye movements.

I look over at the fish bowl. You follow my gaze and look at it too. Got it?

The study found that liberals responded strongly to such gaze prompts while conservatives didn't. They theorizes that conservative values on personal autonomy made them less likely to be influenced by others. Good luck getting a conservative to look at your fish, hippies.

Of course, neither of these studies can settle whether neurological differences dictate politics or vice versa, but they do drive home that liberals and conservatives each view the world through different neural lenses. Good luck winning arguments.

So there you have it! You can find the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast on iTunes, Zune and the RSS feed. And don't forget the free HowStuffWorks App!

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About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.