Liberal Brains vs. Conservative Brains: A New Neuroimaging Study

This should interest the commentariat. 


A new brain imaging study published this month in Cell Biology finds that self-identified liberals and conservatives have measurably different gray matter volume in certain brain structures. This tracks with a few recent studies linking political orientation with cognitive process patterns, activation potentials, facial recognition responses, and other measures. It adds to a small but growing body of studies linking physical brain typology, cognitive function and political outlook.

Our findings extend previous observations that political attitudes reflect differences in self-regulatory conflict monitoring [4] and recognition of emotional faces [5] by showing that such attitudes are reflected in human brain structure. Although our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work [[4] and [6]] to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes.

In liberal brains, according to neuroimaging, greater liberalism is associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain associated with conflict (i.e. contradiction) detection, detection of error and similar problem-finding activities.



It seems help detect errors involved in habitual tasks or repetitive stimuli. An adjacent area of the ACC appears to act as a link between higher cognitive forebrain activity and the emotional limbic system (empathy, etc.). From the pathology section of the wiki:

Studying the effects of damage to the ACC provides insights into the type of functions it serves in the intact brain. Behavior that is associated with lesions in the ACC includes: inability to detect errors, severe difficulty with resolving stimulus conflict in a Stroop task, emotional instability, inattention, and akinetic mutism. There is evidence that damage to ACC is present in patients with schizophrenia, where studies have shown patients have difficulty in dealing with conflicting spatial locations in a Stroop-like task and having abnormal ERNs. Participants with ADHD were found to have reduced activation in the dorsal area of the ACC when performing the Stroop task. Together these findings corroborate results from imaging and electrical studies about the variety of functions attributed to the ACC.


There is evidence that this area may have a role in obsessive–compulsive disorder due to the fact that what appears to be an unnaturally low level of glutamate activity in this region has been observed in patients with the disorder, in strange contrast to many other brain regions that are thought to have excessive glutamate activity in OCD.

In conservative brains, greater conservatism is associated with increased gray matter in the right amygdala.



Research shows that the amygdalae perform a primary role in processing memory and emotional response, particularly with the process of "emotional learning," as well as long-term memory formation. The amygdalae are commonly associated with fear and fear-conditioning, although their actual functions are quite a bit more complex and are better described as centers for emotionally-charged memory. Emotional intelligence and social network size are positively correlated (i.e. people with big amygdalae have more friends and are more "in touch" with their feelings).


Artistic types have higher than usual readings of amygdala fact given the connection from powerful emotion to memory, you could think of the two amygdalae as the 'Proust regions' of the brain.


As far as fear goes, as a component of the limbic system the amygdalae are directly involved in the physiology of fear responses, as well as fear-based (i.e. behaviorist) conditioning.

The central nuclei are involved in the genesis of many fear responses, including freezing (immobility), tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), increased respiration, and stress-hormone release. Damage to the amygdalae impairs both the acquisition and expression of Pavlovian fear conditioning, a form of classical conditioning of emotional responses.

Notable pathologies involved in over-developed amygdalae include Borderline Personality Disorder (extreme black-white thinking, paranoia, "overreacting," emotional instability), schizophrenia, the phenomenon known as "amygdala hijack," essentially, overreaction to a perceived threat. Emotion-driven decision making can be a bad thing.


By the way, one of the authors listed on the study, Colin Firth, isn't just some lab geek who has to endure endless hazing because he shares a name with noted and Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth. He *is* noted and Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth. I hope this doesn't detract from the report's credibility. 

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Waiting for the study on...

Bird Dog's picture

...liberals and why so many are so desirous in proclaiming that they're smarter than everyone else. What a sh**ty little diary.

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

--Barack Obama, January 2009

What's Wrong with the Diary?


If there's an issue, it's with the study.


IOW, messenger/message. 

Maybe libs are just....

Bernard Guerrero's picture

Speaking of amygdalae


I don't care too much for the neo phrenology of liberals vs. conservatives, but it does give me the excuse to post the coolest lecture on neuroscience I've ever seen:

Your find at the end was too cool by half.....

Bernard Guerrero's picture be entirely true.  I was hoping it would turn out Firth was a biologist in his spare time.  Alas, it just looks like he commissioned the study while guest editing for the BBC.  Still cool, but not nearly as much as the original version.

I don't believe Julia Roberts has co-authored


many peer-reviewed scientific reports, as a guest editor or otherwise. Same goes for pretty much everyone else who has a career in entertainment. It's fairly cool. :)

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

Perhaps Not. . .

M Scott Eiland's picture

. . .but a look at Danica McKellar's academic publishing record is enough to raise an eyebrow.

. . .and Don Mattingly must be fired (bye Ned--don't let the door hit you in the @$$ on the way out!).

I knew there was a reason I loved Winnie Cooper


all those years ago!


She has an Erdos-Bacon # of 6 (same as Natalie Portman)ős–Bacon_number

Eck. Pathologizing disagreement


is just nasty.  Even if you don't have the power to do anything with this pathologizing aside from patting yourself on the back, it's way too redolent of the USSR's "psychiatric" treatment of dissidents.

There's quite a bit more to the study than that, and


as the abstract notes, correlation most certainly doesn't equal causation in this case. It's entirely unclear whether these brain regions predispose people toward certain political beliefs, or vice-versa...whether certain habits of thought lead to greater activation hence development of these regions.


What's most interesting his how brain topography seems to match political's an extremely primitive study, though, and the idea of basing policy or really anything on this kind of speculative science is ridiculous.


Also, lighten up. This is fun. Poking people with the stick of science often is. :)

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

Hmm... My sense of fun is a little bit shorted out right now


But that's because--and herein is a moral lesson--it's a really bad idea to leave one's conference paper as a mass of notes, marginalia in printed/photocopied articles, and lemmata to books until the last possible moment.  It's even worse if said waiting until the last possible moment meant that preparing one's lectures and, say, an exam for an evening class got pushed back to the day of.



That liberalism is connected with increased grey matter

mmghosh's picture

volume may not be a welcome message.


There's a lot of nineteeth-twentieth century eugenicist baggage associated with "grey matter".

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

It needn't come to


distilling a master race or even social engineering.  I'm going to use it to reinforce my preconception that liberals, on average, are smarter than conservatives.  At least on the logical/mathematical and linguistic axes.



If what you say is so true how do you explain the result is a recent survey of Liberals and conservatives.Your liberal friends FAILED in their test on how their opponents would answer a question. Ye think we want bad air,5mpg cars and the sick buried while their bodies are still warm.We on the other hand Know ye are truly misguided from birth and have a better grasp on how ye would answer questions.Aks yoself the question why are 20% of Americans mildly to severely insane and 20% of Americans self proclaimed LIBERALS???
As for the smartest FOX NEWS viewers are the most informed by far as they don't have Suspect number 9_Kieth Overbite-Al not So Sharpton-and where is Katie? as "unbiased" reporters chewing the news and regurgitating it to willing Drones..

When you consider what constitutes intelligence


in terms of skill learning and application, evaluating truth statements and the like, I'd say the only really intelligent people are nonpartisan.   


I may be resorting to old wives' tales here, but it's my observation if we look at a spectrum of self-described Conservatives and Liberals strictly on an income basis, Conservatives dominate much of the lower income spectrum, but as the level of income rises, Liberals begin to appear.    But at the highest income brackets, there seems to be a rough parity.    I'll immediately stipulate to the fact that intelligence doesn't always translate to wealth, but it seems apparent ( to me anyway ) that extreme partisanship reflects a closed mindset, incompatible with higher intelligence.

Unless you have a good reason for partisanship, of course. -nt-



"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

Heh. But what if your political opponent has a good idea?


For example, I didn't hear too many Libruls praising and thanking the Tea Party folx for their vote against extending those parts of the PATRIOT Act the other day.

"not too many" is correct

brutusettu's picture

I praised one of the surname Pauls for that though.