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The right/left lobe

January 26, 2006

WHEN THE TOPIC IS POLITICAL, the discussion is often emotional. One need look no further than the nearest cable-TV shoutfest or partisan blog rant for evidence that participants let their tempers overwhelm any chance at rational discussion. It's almost as if one part of the brain gets turned off and emotions take over.

Actually, it's exactly like that, according to a new study by neuroscientists. Researchers at Emory University used brain scanners and found that, ta-da, political argument and reaction register within the realm of the brain that handles unconscious emotional thought, and not in the part of the brain that manages rational decision-making.

The study took 30 men who identified themselves as committed Republicans or committed Democrats and tracked their brain functions as they listened to political statements. The reactions were swift and clear. When the men heard a position they didn't like, activity swelled in parts of the brain that handle negative emotions; when they heard something they agreed with, there was increased activity in the region that processes empathy. The parts of the cortex where reasoning occurs, in contrast, stayed quiet.

The research, released this week, was hardly comprehensive and not surprising to everyone. Using only male subjects leaves opens the possibility that it recorded a phenomenon that may not occur in women. And campaign consultants and advertisers have long known that political opinions are largely driven by unconscious emotional reactions.

For those who still believe that it is possible to change one's mind in accordance with evidence that is presented rationally and intelligently -- say, readers and writers of editorials -- the study is a stark reminder of what we are up against. In terms of political discourse, it's a jungle out there.

The mechanics of the brain are still quite mysterious. This study reinforces what neuroscientists have been finding in recent years: that the realms of emotional intelligence -- such as empathy or love -- operate quite separately from the rational sectors of the mind. Yet they have their own kind of wisdom. Perhaps it is hoping for too much to suggest that political discussion might ever escape the clutches of human emotion.

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