Don't Fear the Amygdala, Progressives

There are several new books out that attempt to analyze political differences in terms of variations in neurological structure. The one being most widely embraced by the left is The Republican Brain by Chris Mooney. Here's how Alternet's Joshua Holland introduced readers at Salon to the topic:

Consider for a moment just how terrifying it must be to live life as a true believer on the right. Reality is scary enough, but the alternative reality inhabited by people who watch Glenn Beck, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or think Michele Bachmann isn’t a joke must be nothing less than horrifying.

And this terrifying existence is the result of a specific part of the brain called the amygdala:

Research suggests that conservatives are, on average, more susceptible to fear than those who identify themselves as liberals. Looking at MRIs of a large sample of young adults last year, researchers at University College London discovered that “greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala” ($$). The amygdala is an ancient brain structure that’s activated during states of fear and anxiety.

Liberal descriptions of the amygdala invariably describe it as ancient or primitive. They don't come right out and say it but the suggestion is that the amygdala is sort of like the human appendix which occasionally becomes inflamed and results in appendicitis. It's a holdover, a vestigial brain function which we modern, civilized people would be better off without. Here's Mooney's description of the role of the amygdala:

In a recent interview, Chris Mooney, author of “The Republican Brain,”explained, “The amygdala plays the same role in every species that has an amygdala. It basically takes over to save your life. It does other things too, but in a situation of threat, you cease to process information rationally and you’re moving automatically to protect yourself.”

Mooney's description once again reinforces the idea that the amygdala is primitive and only of use in situations where panic would cloud rational thought. In fact, the amygdala mediates memory, facilitates emotional learning and apparently helps people identify the emotional states of others. There is even research suggesting amygdala size correlates with the size of a person's social network, i.e. how many friends you have.

But what's really missing from Mooney's description is any sense that the amygdala is an important part of the human personality, one we definitely don't want to live without. Because, as it turns out, there's plenty of credible scientific research which suggests that having a shrunken or damaged amygdala may be what makes some people psychopaths. Yes, I said psychopaths, as in people without fear or conscience.

In a 2009 study of 27 psychopaths, researchers found "deformations in another part of the brain called the amygdala, with the psychopaths showing a thinning of the outer layer of that region called the cortex and, on average, an 18-percent volume reduction in this part of brain." A more recent study of Wisconsin prison inmates found "a group of 14 psychopaths had weaker connections between an area near the front of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC, and the amygdala."

This  2003 editorial in the British Journal of Psychiatry discusses how a damaged amygdala might lead to a psychopathic personality:

The amygdala is involved in aversive conditioning and instrumental learning ( LeDoux, 1998). It is also involved in the response to fearful and sad facial expressions ( Blair et al, 1999). The amygdala is thus involved in all the processes that, when impaired, give rise to the functional impairments shown by individuals with psychopathy. It is therefore suggested that amygdala dysfunction is one of the core neural systems implicated in the pathology of psychopathy ( Patrick, 1994; Blair et al, 1999).

The point here is not to suggest that progressives are psychopaths. That's a cheap shot that a) is easily discounted and b) plays right into the psychopundit's views of conservatives as fear-mongers. I'm not suggesting conservatives should be afraid of data about neurological variation. The real point is simply that there are psychic, social and political advantages and disadvantages which can be associated with both sides of this amygdala-continuum.

For instance, Mooney and others point to liberal's openness to new experience, as one of their great psychological strengths. In this Huffington Post video, Mooney talks about this quality over an image of a man bungee jumping off a cliff. But this kind of risk taking is part of a continuum. Under the center-left end of the openness bell curve may sit things like trying exotic new foods and, a bit further out, bungee jumping. That kind of openness is certainly admirable and fun. But that tendency is not without its downsides.

Monkeys who've had lesions to their amygdala will play with snakes. Like psychopaths, their fearlessness means they may put themselves in real danger. In the case of humans, indiscriminate openness to new experiences might include a willingness to experiment with crystal meth or heroine or crack. Unlike trying new foods, there's real (as opposed to imagined) danger involved with doing these things. And, again, the extreme left end of the "openness" continuum may be a person who acts completely without fear of consequences to himself or others, i.e. a psychopath.

If we emulate Mooney's trick of politicizing our variability we might say that progressives, whose entire political identity is about leaning forward, sometimes display a conspicuous inattention to real (as opposed to imagined) dangers. For instance, maintaining a $15 trillion debt and planning to add $7 trillion more over the next decade is not something that most economists consider a good idea. Like playing with a snake, there is a real danger that this could lead to a further downgrade of our credit or even a run on banks (as has begun to happen in Greece). We don't need to be in a panic over these things, but it's rational to point out that there is real risk involved in choosing to not deal with these problems.

If having a larger amygdala correlates with conservatism, so be it. It's both ironic and understandable that the left would see mostly the social and political dangers of this. But it's also likely that having a smaller amygdala can be associated with its own social and political disadvantages. And certainly a world without amygdalas is not one that anyone but a psychopath would want to live in.


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