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February 25, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: Do the emotional centers of the brain guide our politics?

NEW CASTLE — People who hold specific political points of view like to think their positions are based on serious analysis.

They view their given ideologies as careful conclusions reached through assessing the world around them and examining how things work. Thus, liberals and conservatives both manage to claim the intellectual and ethical high ground.

But what if this is a bunch of hogwash? What if political viewpoints are nothing more than the result of brain patterns, neuron pathways and perhaps a little genetics mixed in? What if our political points of view aren’t shaped by thoughts, but rather, by biology?

That’s an intriguing notion coming out of some recent brain research. I stumbled upon it the other day on the Discovery News website, which cited new research where analysts said they had spotted key differences between the way the brains of liberals and conservatives worked.

Technically, the study was looking at how brains process risk when it comes to gambling. Interestingly, liberals and conservatives were both willing to take similar risks in gambling games, but in the two groups, different areas of the brains were used to process the information before them.

Specifically, conservatives tended to use areas of the brain linked to rewards, fear and risky behavior, while liberals used parts of the brain tied to emotion and what some experts believe is a sense of what others may be thinking. Intuition may be a good term for it.

Of course, this study presents something of a chicken-vs-egg argument. Did the political views of the subjects create the brain activity? Or did the brain activity generate the political views?

Or is something else going on here?

Personally, I have long observed that political ideology has much more to do with fear than reason. Spend much time listing to people with strident political views and you can easily conclude they are terrified of something.

It could be big government, big corporations, foreign threats or any suspect entity they believe is trying to control or diminish them.

So when researchers find clear links between fear and other emotions, and the political views of individuals, I’m not surprised.

The evidence in support of this connection is visible every day in the nation’s political debates. You especially see it during political campaigns, where we are bombarded with campaign ads designed to scare the bejabbers out of us. And as people become numb to these scare tactics, dangers are presented in increasingly apocalyptic terms.

I learned long ago that lots of people in politics seek to gain advantage by frightening me. It’s gotten to the point that whenever I hear anything scary — regardless of the ideological source — I see it as a red flag.

Emotions are powerful human motivators. But we still possess the intellect to understand when they are betraying us — and when others are tying to con us.

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