Tag Archives: amygdala


I came across a fascinating study the other day (hat tip to Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars). There has been a good deal of research suggesting that racism has a biological element–several studies show the amygdala lighting up in reaction when a person of a different race appeared, for example. However…

“In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14.

What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that “these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.”

The upshot of the study, at least as I understood it, was that humans do have strong “tribal” instincts, but the preference for ones own tribe is not based on any particular characteristic. It’s enough to be different–the nature of the difference is irrelevant. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, with sufficient diversity while we’re young, the differences that divide us, that bring out our tribal instincts, can be overcome.

That “nature versus nurture” argument just gets more and more complicated….


Fear Factor?

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has Cassius deliver the immortal line  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars..”

But what if our faults are “in our stars”? What if the age-old debate about how much of who we are is determined by nature, and how much by nurture, is gradually being decided, and the answer is nature? I, for one, don’t find it particularly appealing to think that the person I am was genetically determined, but there seems to be more and more evidence suggesting that who we are is less a matter of human will and reason than we may be comfortable with.

Sometimes, of course, recognition of the role of biology can be liberating. The discovery that genetics–not bad parenting or “perverse choices”–largely determines sexual orientation falls in that category. But what if it isn’t only being gay that is biologically determined? What if being a Rick Santorum is equally the result of a genetic roll of the dice?

A recent article in Psychology Today reports on a study from University College London that found self-described conservatives have larger amygdala than self-described liberals, and that the liberals had more gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that helps people deal with complexity. (The results are consistent with some other recent studies; just a year ago, researchers at Harvard and UCLU reported finding a “liberal gene,” although its reported effects were limited.) The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is active when a person is anxious or fearful.

In other words, people who are more likely to be anxious and fearful, and less able to deal with complexity, are most likely to be politically conservative–assuming we define “conservative” as a person opposed to social and political change. Social conservatives would fit this definition; fiscal conservatives probably wouldn’t.

In one sense, such a conclusion would be consistent with what we see around us. The hysteria that Obama’s election evoked in a significant number of people is often attributed to racism (and that certainly explains a lot of it), but it is equally likely that it wasn’t the President’s race per se, but the fact that the election of a black man was unavoidable evidence of dreaded social change. As I have noted before, many of the people who seem most irrational–who think the President is a Muslim Socialist, that gays and lesbians have a diabolical “agenda,” that all Muslims are terrorists–are clearly terrified of a world they don’t understand. In the words of social historian Stephanie Coontz, they’re nostalgic for “the way we never were.”

Of course, one study doesn’t settle the nature-nurture battle, and even if these results are replicated, they don’t answer the causation question: are some people born with a larger amygdala, or did it grow larger as a result of frightening childhood experiences or authoritarian parenting? (We Moms are never wholly in the clear…)

But it does suggest that we should have some compassion for folks like Santorum. Maybe he was born that way.

Of course, if he were to become President, my amygdala would grow.