The Brain and Politics: Neuropolitics?

*Disclaimer: I am writing this blog as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge - 50,000 words in 30 days. My goals with this and other blogs are to write a total of 50,000 words and to present the brain and learning in a less technical way. I don't know if these blogs will lead to a book, but if they do, I will acknowledge anyone who has commented on my blog (with their permission of course!) Please see my questions at the end of this blog, even if you didn't understand this blog!

A politics blog seemed appropriate for my first NaNoWriMo entry. I am so grateful the political commercials and facebook posts will stop in just a few short days. I know little can be done to sway another from his political opinion. I can present information that he might not know, but if further awareness doesn't change a political opinion, nothing will.

Jeff Stensland writes about a recent study that demonstrated significant brain differences in Republicans and Democrats. Granted, one might call himself a Democrat because of some, but not all of the Democratic platform statements and vice versa. So, is there a strict definition for a Republican or Democrat? I would argue no. Age and environment can also affect whether someone might lean more democratic than republican. These issues make reliability of this study questionable; however the study still provides the groundwork for further research.

To help my readers with this blog, here are some definitions:
  • Neurons: Cells of the nervous system that transmit information back and forth.
  • Mirror Neuron System: Consider this the biological basis for BF Skinner's theory of behaviorism. These neurons, found in two areas of the brain, develop before a person is a year old. When you imitate someone, a fMRI would show these specific neurons fire or send and receive information. The mirror neuron system is a controversial area of research based on the findings of those who have studied the area. For this study, the researchers assumed that certain areas of the mirror neuron system are responsible for broad social connectedness and others are responsible for tight social connectedness.
  • Resting-state fMRI: a technique using the fMRI where the individual being tested is asked to remain still during the test.
  • fMRI: abbreviation for functional magnetic resonance imaging, a tool that measures brain activity by looking at changes in blood flow in the brain.
This study involved 24 University of South Carolina students, asked whether they were Republican or Democrat. After stating their political affiliation, the students completed a questionnaire and submitted to a resting-state fMRI which measured behavior in the mirror neuron system.

Republicans demonstrated more activity in the area of the mirror neuron system responsible for tight social connectedness while Democrats demonstrated more activity in the area of the mirror neuron system responsible for broad social connectedness. In other words, Republicans, generally, would be more focused on immediate connections such as family and country whereas Democrats, generally, would be more focused on extended connections such as friends and world.

The results of this study might not too groundbreaking, but the fact that the results could be found at the neuronal level is. Keep in mind, there were only 24 participants in this study. The goal of any scientific study is to be able to generalize or apply the results to a larger group of people. I don't believe it is possible to apply this small study using participants who were also students at the university where the study was conducted can be applied to a larger group of Republicans and Democrats. However, given that this study's results showed clear differences in neuronal activity, it is useful to those studying neuroscience and possibly even political campaigns. Neuroscience researchers can take this study and replicate it on a larger group of people.

But what does this mean for someone who isn't a neuroscientist? Is it possible that persuading someone is of the opposite party is more likely to occur based on the relationship? Or, is it possible that only those issues that affect the focused relationships will determine one's vote? I am hoping I will find other articles on neuropolitics that may help answer these questions, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to find them this month. Stay tuned!

Words: 631/50,000 (does not include disclaimer or questions below)

Questions to my readers:
  • Was this blog too technical or too basic?
  • What did you like best/worst about this blog?
  • What questions did you have about this topic after you finished reading, if any?
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