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Today's partisan divide is rooted in biology as much as politics

An illustration of the head and brain of a person in red facing an illustration of the head and brain of a person in blue
New research using brain scans has revealed fundamental differences in the way liberals and conservatives are wired. Could awareness of the role biology plays in politics help us to step back from the current partisan abyss?

Americans are going to the polls on Tuesday to decide, among other things, which party will control Congress.

Liz Cheney, speaking recently in Cleveland, characterized it as "the fundamental fight for the soul of the country." She added that if Republicans take the U.S. House, "it will not be good for America."

No one has ever called Liz Cheney a liberal, yet she is warning voters not to embrace the current mindset of her party.

Maybe science can help explain why.

It turns out that the brains of people from the right and left ends of the political spectrum are just wired differently, according to Sunny Yang, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University.

Her research shows that today’s stark partisan divide may have more to do with biology than politics.

“We just scan the brain, and based on this scan we literally can predict someone's political orientation,” said Yang.

Yang this summer published a study that looked at how people who identify as conservative or liberal processed a variety of tasks, such as looking at emotion-laden photos, memory games and quizzes.

Yang said one region of the brain consistently lights up in people on the right side of the political spectrum.

"The amygdala is activated more in conservatives than in liberals,” she said.

The amygdala, buried deep in the brain, has long been associated with our "fight or flight" response.

She believes it signifies a sensitivity to perceived threats in decision making.

Yang said liberals, on the other hand, engage parts of the brain that tamp down the fear response, known as the anterior cingulate cortex.

Yang and her colleagues are not the first to see these findings.

It's part of the growing field of political neuroscience.

A body of research

Ingrid Haas runs the Political Attitudes and Cognition Lab at the University of Nebraska.

She's run similar brain scan studies that show the amygdala plays a prominent role in conservative people's brain function.

“Conservatives are more sensitive to negative emotional information," said Haas.

"They're more reactive, potentially, to photos or ideas or issue positions that invoke fear or disgust or some other negative emotion,” she said.

Liberals in her studies activated the anterior cingulate cortex when faced with political dilemmas, which Haas says tempered the emotional reaction.

So basically they spend more time and effort processing that information, and took longer to respond in the task,” she said.

These findings may help explain how both parties fire up the base, focusing either on threats to individual liberty or on broad social injustice.

“Liberals in some cases tend to focus more on issues like harm and fairness, whereas conservatives might care more about threats to their in-group or perceived threats to their in-group,” she said.

Haas said political neuroscience is revealing the neurological basis that may underlie the stripped-down, no-holds-barred level of political discourse America finds itself in right now.

“This conflict is not just about policy issues anymore," she said. "It's become about people's social and group identities and the perceived threats and slights they see from the other side.”

Rising social tension and even rumblings of a looming civil warare increasingly part of today’s political climate – conflicts arguably based on little more than differences in neural processing.

But where do these differences come from?

Which came first...?

Skyler Cranmer, a political science professor at Ohio State University, took part in the study with Sunny Yang.

He calls it a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma.

“We don’t know whether you have your ideology because of your neural pattern, or you have that neural pattern because of your ideology,” he said.

All scientists can safely say is that conservatives and liberals are wired differently.

Perhaps our two-party perspective grew out of that dichotomy?

Researcher Ingrid Haas reminds us that passion has always been a political tool along with persuasion and compromise.

“You're not really ever making decisions that are purely rational or only cognitive," she said.

"Your brain," said Haas, "is always processing information in terms of emotion as well, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing.”

We have to believe that the different wiring seen on either end of the political spectrum is part of normal human development and has likely served a purpose over the centuries.

But knowing that our political conflicts are, at least in part, based on biology could help us step back a little from the deep partisan divide splitting our country, provided clearer heads prevail.

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.