The Conversation

The Media and the Amygdala

A scientific study published this week further confirms that the brains of psychopaths process information differently than others. One finding is that psychopaths have "less activation in the amygdala."

The new study was performed by the University of Chicago and University of New Mexico using a grant from NIH. Researchers used functional MRI to observe the brains of eighty incarcerated men. While psychopaths are thought to be just 1% of society as a whole, they are believed to make up 20-30% of the prison population.

The study found a correlation between scores on a standard psychopathy assessment and reduced activation "in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala and periaqueductal gray parts of the brain, but more activity in the striatum and the insula when compared to control participants."

The new finding is consistent with other studies which have found reduced volume of the amygdala correlated strongly with increased scores on a psychopathy assessment (i.e. a negative correlation).

I raise all this this because in the past couple years the amygdala has become the focus of books and articles which argue the political left and right have different brains. I wrote about this last year here. Nearly all of these articles point to the amygdala as the seat of the fear response.

Occasional caveats aside, group stereotypes of left and right thinking are presented as a net positive for progressives who are described as open and flexible and a net negative for conservatives who are rigid and unscientific. Here's an example written by Chris Moody [Emphasis added]:

for liberals to make a case for an idea or cause, they come armed with data, research studies, and experts. They are convinced of an idea if all the data checks out–basically they assign meaning and value to ideas that fit within the scientific method, because that’s their primary thinking style. Emotion doesn’t play as big of a role in validation. Not to say that liberals are unfeeling, but just more likely to set emotion aside when judging an idea initially, and factor it in later...

Conservatives would be less likely to assign value primarily using the scientific method. Remember, their thinking style leads primarily with emotion. In order for them to find an idea valuable, it has to be meaningful for them personally. It needs to trigger empathy. Meaning, they need some kind of emotional attachment to it, such as family, or a group of individuals they are close to in some way.

That's clearly biased but at least takes a stab at some kind of fairness. But in the rough and tumble of political argument it gets translated into columns like this recent one by Michael Tomasky:

Conservatism, I fear (so to speak), can never be cleansed of this need to instill fear. Whether it’s of black people or of street thugs or of immigrants or of terrorists or of jackbooted government agents, it’s how the conservative mind works. I don’t even think it’s always cynical and manipulative; conservatives often do see enemies under every bed. But that doesn’t mean they’re there, and it most definitely doesn’t mean the rest of us ought to make law and policy based on their nightmares.

Ignore these troglodytes with their fear-driven brains! Tomasky is talking in part about noted right-wing extremists John McCain and Lindsey Graham. You can imagine what he must think about actual conservatives.

But as much as the amygdala has been discussed, you'll rarely if ever see discussion of the fact that amygdala size and activation is on a continuum with one end being hypersensitivity to fear/paranoia (bad) and the other psychopathic behavior (also bad). While hints are dropped that conservatives are too dependent on the amygdala, no suggestion is made that liberals might on occasion be not dependent enough. And so the fear-driven conservative becomes a stereotype to be batted around in public, but the psychopathic-progressive does not.

Surely if there's something to all this then both ends of the continuum are worth exploring. One only needs to look at the reaction to the Gosnell case to see a recent example where emotion seems to have been set aside by the left in a rather stunning fashion. Many liberal observers will admit, parenthetically, that Gosnell is a monster, but they quickly move along to other arguments. It's almost as if there was no emotional connection to what is being written. Observers on the right find it puzzling that the Gosnell coverage has been as bloodless and antiseptic as his clinic was bloody. Perhaps the problem isn't political but biological?

The left repeatedly toys with painting the right as the party of fear. Perhaps it's time to begin exploring the opposite shore. Let's see how committed the left really is to embracing the data.

Addendum: I temporarily forgot about this. A ranking of ten jobs most likely to attract psychopaths put media at #3 and journalist at #6.


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