A recent study has shown that the sheer level of political polarization seen in many societies these days may be related to the neurological make-up of the participants.
Researchers believe that the fact that different people see the same event or idea in completely different ways may be a sign that their brains work differently.
The study, published in the journal Science Advances in early February, begins by suggesting that previous theories overlooked some key factors when they argued that political polarization is the result of people consuming information from selective news outlets. A group of researchers at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, has suggested that strong political opinion can start early.
To prove their point, American neuroscientists recruited a group of 44 people, in which liberals and conservatives were equally represented.
Participants were shown single words such as “immigration” or “abortion” and asked to say whether the word was political or non-political. They were then asked to watch “a neutral news story about abortion and the vice president’s heated debate in 2016 about police brutality and immigration.” During the experiment, their brains were subjected to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
After studying brain activity in response to various external stimuli, the researchers concluded that “ideologically common people” have neurons that respond in a similar way to politically biased words. Their brains also react remarkably similarly to inflammatory political videos, according to the study.
The study found that the effect is especially pronounced when members of opposing political camps are presented with abstract concepts or things that have multiple definitions, such as the words “freedom” and “American.”
“Neurologically, this would be reflected in the fact that conservatives would have the same pattern of neural activity when processing the “given word,” and liberals would have a different pattern of neurons,” the researchers say.
“You can think of it as a brain that represents a word by firing neurons in a certain way,” explained Uriel Feldman-Hall, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences and one of the study’s authors.
She added that the process can be described as a “neural fingerprint,” which symbolizes the concept of the word inside the brain.
According to Feldman-Hall, this “automatic calculation” of the neurological factors behind political polarization could lead to potential ways to counter it.