It’s not you, it’s your brain shape: David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s political differences could be reflected by their grey matter
Politics can influence people in how they choose their social circle, what causes they support and even their choice of partner.
But now scientists believe that political thinking can even affect the brain, after new research suggests that the structure of a someone’s grey matter can reflect their views.
People who lean to the left and have liberal views are more likely to have an enlarged anterior cingulate cortex – the part of the brain associated with playing a role in regulating blood pressure and empathy.
On the other hand, those on the right with conservative tendencies tend to have larger amygdalas, the part of our grey matter involved in the processing and memory of emotional reactions.
The differences are consistent with what is known about the function of the two brain regions.
Research suggests that liberals are better able to cope with conflicting information, while conservatives have a heightened sensitivity to threats.
‘Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual’s political orientation,’ said lead researcher Dr Kanai, from University College London, whose findings are reported in the journal Current Biology.
‘Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure.’
The study was prompted by research indicating a greater anterior cingulate response to conflicting information among liberals.
That’s a big anterior cingulate you’ve got: Lefties are more likely to have this part of their brain enlarged, according to research
Psychologists had also noticed that conservatives are more sensitive to threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty while liberals are more open to new experiences.
The chicken or egg question of what comes first – a particular kind of brain or a political viewpoint – remains unanswered.
Many experts believe brain structure is not set early in life but can be shaped by experience.
To carry out the research, Dr Kanai’s team carried out magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of 90 young adults who were questioned about their politics.
Measurements were taken of the amount of "grey matter" – brain tissue consisting of nerve cell bodies rather than fibres – in different brain areas.
The scientists wrote in the journal Current Biology: ‘Our findings show that high-level concepts of political attitudes are reflected in the structure of focal regions of the human brain.’
Dr Kanai said the technique could in principle be applied to ‘political dimensions other than the simplistic left-versus-right wingers’.
Brain differences may also explain why some people have no interest in politics at all, or why some prefer Macs over PCs, he added.
However, he cautioned against reading too much into the findings.
‘It’s very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions,’ he said. ‘More work is needed to determine how these brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude.’