Columbus, Ohio- Brain scans can actually predict which political party someone supports, a new study reveals. A team from Ohio State University has discovered that certain “signatures” in the brain precisely align with how someone leans politically – as conservatives or liberals.
“Can we understand political behavior by looking only at the brain? The answer is a pretty resounding ‘yes,’” said study co-author Skyler Cranmer, Phillips and Henry Professor of Political Science at Ohio State, in an academic statement.
“The findings suggest that the biological and neurological roots of political behavior run much deeper than we previously thought.”
The team adds that this study is the largest to date using brain MRIs to examine political ideology. The researchers also looked at functional connectivity in the brain and how it relates to a person’s political orientation. Functional connectivity refers to how different regions of the brain display similar patterns of activity when a person performs certain tasks. Simply put, these regions communicate and work together when focused on a task.
Your brain talks politics, even when you don’t!
The study authors used state-of-the-art artificial intelligence programs and other resources at the Ohio Supercomputer Center to analyze the brain scans. They found strong links between these analyzes and how participants responded to questions rating their political ideology on a six-point scale – ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative”.
Interestingly, the eight tasks that the 174 participants completed in this test were not politically focused! Even so, their responses gave the researchers an indication of their political leanings and matched the differences in the MRI results.
“None of the eight tasks were designed to elicit partisan responses,” says study co-author Seo Eun Yang, a former doctoral student at Ohio State. “But we found that the analyzes of the eight tasks were linked to their identification as liberal or conservative.”
Moreover, even when participants sat quietly and thought of nothing, MRIs revealed differences in the appearance of the brains of conservatives and liberals.
“Even without any stimuli, functional connectivity in the brain can help us predict a person’s political orientation,” says co-author James Wilson, assistant professor of psychiatry and biostatistics at the School of Medicine. University of Pittsburgh.
What parts of the brain predict your political party?
The study authors note that three of the eight tasks performed by the participants created the strongest links to political affiliation. One was an empathy test, where the group saw images of neutral, happy, sad or fearful faces. The second tested episodic memory and the third involved a reward task, where participants earned money based on how quickly they pressed a button.
However, only the reward task accurately predicted political extremism among participants who were either very conservative or very liberal.
“More work needs to be done to understand the relationship between reward decision-making and extreme political views,” Wilson says. “Results from the empathy task suggest that political thinking may be closely related to emotion and emotional response.”
Although the study found a link between the brain and politics, researchers cannot say for sure what is causing it. Despite this, they found that brain activity in the amygdala, inferior frontal gyrus, and hippocampus all display the strongest connection to determining which party someone follows.
“What we don’t know is if this brain signature is there because of the ideology people choose or if people’s ideology is caused by the signatures we found,” Cranmer concludes. “It could also be a combination of the two, but our study doesn’t have the data to answer that question.”
The study is published in the journal Nexus PNAS.