In preparation for the March meeting topic, Your Political Brain, please recommend any resources you have found particularly enlightening about why humans evolved political thinking. Also, please share references about how brain functions lead to political perceptions. I’m assuming political perceptions result from more fundamental cognitive orientations, and that those arise in part from one’s genetics and in part from environment (during development and afterward).
Let’s use the following description from Wikipedia:
Politics is the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance— organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (this is usually a hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities. (Wikipedia)
This description places political thinking in the realm of the brain’s/mind’s social processing.
Following are some candidate resources for our discussion preparation:
- The Republican Brain (video, 21:45 – Chris Mooney, Jonathan Haidt, Chris Hayes)
- Chris Hedges’ review of Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind
- George Lackoff’s cognitive science perspective
- Brain differences between liberals and conservatives (magazine article)
- The origin of politics: an evolutionary theory of political behavior (academic article)
- Authoritarianism (Wikipedia)
Brain imaging research indicates some aspects of individual political orientation correlate significantly with the mass and activity of particular brain structures including the right amygdala and the insula. This correlation may derive in part from genetics, but is also influenced by environment and behavior.
“there’s a critical nuance here. Schreiber thinks the current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences and changes your brain. The causal arrow seems likely to run in both directions—which would make sense in light of what we know about the plasticity of the brain. Simply by living our lives, we change our brains. Our political affiliations, and the lifestyles that go along with them, probably condition many such changes.”
Thanks to member, Edward, for recommending this article: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/brain-difference-democrats-republicans
In a similar vein, Bob Altemeyer conducted and reported on some seminal social science research and theory on political dispositions. See http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/. Note the free book link on the left.
“Until recently, scientists had thought that most synapses of a similar type and in a similar location in the brain behaved in a similar fashion with respect to how experience induces plasticity,” Friedlander said. “In our work, however, we found dramatic differences in the plasticity response, even between neighboring synapses in response to identical activity experiences.”
“Individual neurons whose synapses are most likely to strengthen in response to a certain experience are more likely to connect to certain partner neurons, while those whose synapses weaken in response to a similar experience are more likely to connect to other partner neurons,” Friedlander said. “The neurons whose synapses do not change at all in response to that same experience are more likely to connect to yet other partner neurons, forming a more stable but non-plastic network.”
New scientific findings support the idea that different humans’ brains store and recall story scenes the same way, rather than each person developing unique memory patterns about stories. Also, people generally do well recalling the details of stories. I want to see more targeted research that determines whether information packed in story structures (a person wrestling with a difficult challenge and changing as a result) is more readily and accurately transmitted from brain to brain via storytelling. This would be compared with information packaged simply to inform of facts (Wikipedia entries, technical reports, etc.). My experience agrees with this research: different people tend to recall stories equally well. (Oddly, people vary greatly in their recall of eye-witness tasks. Something about how information is delivered in storytelling greatly improves accuracy of recall.) I think our brains evolved a special facility for paying attention to stories and therefore to remember them. If true, storytellers should learn what we can about how the brain processes stories.
Technology (in some labs, for now) enables gamers to see their brain activity while they play.
Until now, gene editing has relied on cell division to propagate modifications made with techniques like CRISPR Cas9. Researchers at the Salk Institute have devised a new method that can modify the genes of non-dividing cells (the majority of adult cells). They demonstrated the method’s potential by inserting missing genes into the brains of young mice that were blind due to retinitis pigmentosa. After the team inserted fully functional copies of the damaged gene responsible for the condition into the relevant visual neurons, the mice experience rudimentary vision.
Team leader Izpisua Belmonte says of the new method, homology-independent targeted integration (HITI), “We now have a technology that allows us to modify the DNA of non-dividing cells, to fix broken genes in the brain, heart and liver. It allows us for the first time to be able to dream of curing diseases that we couldn’t before, which is exciting.”
While the team, naturally and appropriately, envisions therapeutic uses, could this method be used to modify brain function non-therapeutically, to improve normal functioning, for example?
Studies find that people with higher numeracy and understanding of the scientific method and its tools are more likely to challenge or twist the results of scientific studies that challenge their ideologies. For example, it’s the more scientifically competent persons on the political right (those who are most identified with a free-market ideology) who mount the most vehement assaults against claims of human contributions to global warming.
This article delves into the extent of cognitive biases against facts (rigorously validated knowledge claims) and the apparent variables affecting when those biases are triggered. It also raises possible ways to mitigate biases.
“the team investigated whether this brainstem-cortex network was functioning in another subset of patients with disorders of consciousness, including coma. Using a special type of MRI scan, the scientists found that their newly identified “consciousness network” was disrupted in patients with impaired consciousness. The findings – bolstered by data from rodent studies – suggest the network between the brainstem and these two cortical regions plays a role maintaining human consciousness.”
Good discussion that covered a lot of ground. I took away that none of us have signed on to be early adopters of brain augmentations, but some expect development of body and brain augmentations to continue and accelerate. We also considered the idea of bio-engineered and medical paths to significant life-span, health, and cognitive capacity improvements. I appreciated the ethical and value questions (Why pursue any of this? What would/must one give up to become transhuman? Will the health and lifespan enhancements be equally available to all? What could be the downsides of extremely extended lives?) Also, isn’t there considerable opportunity for smarter transhumans, along with AI tools, to vastly improve the lives of many people by finding ways to mitigate problems we’ve inherited (disease, etc.) and created (pollution, conflict, etc.)?