Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: Brain function and political attitudes - political science or science fiction?

Commentary

Brain function and political attitudes "" political science or science fiction?

You're receiving this issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter with the presidential primary season in full swing. Timely, then, is a discussion of a study published in October 2007 in Nature Neuroscience, which provided evidence of what many Americans believe must be true: "Red" brains function somewhat differently from "blue" brains.

I'm referring, of course, to the color scheme first used in 2000 to differentiate Republican-leaning conservative "red" states from Democratic-leaning liberal "blue" states, which has more recently been extended to describe different political outlooks. It should be no surprise that many neuroscientists are convinced that political orientation originates in the brain. But political scientists, even those who are interested in political psychology, have not focused that much on biology, genetic inheritance, or brain function. The study of political psychology has, for the most part, been limited to separating the influences of early life (for example, your parents' attitudes or those of your childhood community) from later influences (such as historical events or political advertising).

It is probably safe to say that no one will ever find a red/blue gene that determines who is conservative and who is liberal, and brain scans that turn red or blue to indicate party preference will not be invented. But the notion of studying political neuroscience is not exactly science fiction, either. There is ample evidence that a person's genetic endowment influences such things as temperament and social attitudes from an early age. These very human qualities are bound to have an effect on political attitudes and choices later on. Some researchers, like the psychologists in New York and Los Angeles who published the Nature Neuroscience study, have begun to look at these questions.

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