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This Is Your Brain on Politics


Published: January 18, 2005

os Angeles PRESIDENT BUSH begins his second term this week as the leader of a nation that appears to be sharply divided. Since the election, there's been endless discussion about the growing gap between "red" and "blue" America. When former President Bill Clinton said a few months ago that he was probably the only person in America who liked both Mr. Bush and Senator John Kerry, it seemed it might be true.

Yet, surprisingly, recent neuroscience research suggests that Democrats and Republicans are not nearly as far apart as they seem. In fact, there is empirical evidence that even the fiercest partisans may instinctively like both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, although they struggle against this collaborative impulse.

During the eight months before the election, I was part of a group of political professionals and scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles, who used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or f.M.R.I., to scan the brains of 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, producing images like those seen above. We measured brain activity while subjects looked at political advertisements and at images of the presidential candidates.

The news media have focused on our finding that the amygdala, a part of the brain that responds to danger, was more heightened in Democrats when viewing scenes of 9/11 than in Republicans. This might seem to indicate fundamental differences, but other aspects of our results suggest striking commonalities.

While viewing their own candidate, both Democrats and Republicans showed activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with strong instinctive feelings of emotional connection. Viewing the opposing candidate, however, activated the anterior cingulate cortex, which indicates cognitive and emotional conflict. It also lighted up the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area that acts to suppress or shape emotional reactions.

These patterns of brain activity, made visible on the f.M.R.I.'s, suggest that both Bush and Kerry voters were mentally battling their attraction to the other side. Bush voters wanted to follow Mr. Kerry; Kerry voters found appeal in Mr. Bush. Both groups fought this instinct by arguing to themselves that their impulses were wrong. By recalling flaws associated with the opposition, the voters displaced attraction with dislike. Because the process happened nearly instantaneously, only the final sense of dismay reached full awareness.

Simplifying the neurophysiology somewhat, one can regard the process of reaching an opinion or making a choice as a collaboration between two regions of the brain - the limbic area, which feels emotions, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls the processing of ideas and information. The two areas work in tandem: thoughts provoke feelings, and in turn, the intensity of these feelings determines how the thoughts are valued. In reacting to pictures of the opposing candidate, the voters we tested countered the feelings of connection with even stronger hostile emotions, which they induced by calling up negative images and ideas.

This dance between strong emotions and interconnected ideas is well known in psychiatry, and it forms the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy, an effective form of talk therapy. When there is a divorce, for example, adolescents may induce in themselves feelings of rage toward one parent out of loyalty to the other. A cognitive behavioral therapist could help quench this rage by challenging the child's beliefs about the estranged parent. Without the beliefs to sustain it, the rage disappears.

In the case of this past election, while we witnessed an electorate that seemed irreconcilably divided, using f.M.R.I., we could see that the Republicans and Democrats we tested liked both candidates. The initial reflex toward allegiance is easy to explain: people rise through the ranks to run for higher office because they are able to evoke in others a powerful impulse to join their cause. Voters sense this attraction, and to keep from succumbing, they dredge up emotion-laden negative images as a counterweight.

This suggests that the passions swirling through elections are not driven by a deep commitment to issues. We are not fighting over the future of the country; we are fighting for our team, like Red Sox and Yankee fans arguing over which club has the better catcher. Both in an election and in baseball, all that really matters is who wears the team uniform.

Will an awareness that we are conning ourselves to feel alienated from each other help to close the political gap? It is unknown, because neuroscience has advanced only recently to the point where humans can begin to watch themselves think and feel. If we are going to solve the nation's complicated problems, it is important to close this gap because in a setting where emotions run high, careful thoughts have no chance against intoxicating ones. In divisive politics, as in highly spiced dishes, all subtlety is lost.

So, Democrats, admit that you admire the confidence and decisiveness of President Bush. And Republicans, concede that you would like a president to have the depth of knowledge and broad intelligence of Mr. Kerry. Now that f.M.R.I. is revealing our antagonisms as a defensive ploy, it is time to erase the red and blue divide.

Joshua Freedman, a psychiatrist, is on the faculty of the Neuropsychiatric Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.