April 19, 2012
In this past Sunday’s Washington Post, Chris Mooney wrote,
…at a time of unprecedented polarization in America, we need a more convincing explanation for the staggering irrationality of our politics. Especially since we’re now split not just over what we ought to do politically but also over what we consider to be true.
So true! This statement is so loaded - least of all being the implied question of what is Truth. More on that later.
The WP opinion piece focuses on differences in personality variables between liberals & conservatives (liberals more “open to experience” and conservatives more “conscientious”). Putting aside the ethical question “who funds these studies?”, I found the scientific literature on neurophysiological differences between people of different political persuasion fascinating.
A study out of the UK published last year suggests that anterior cingulate and right amygdala size are associated with political leanings (see Kanai et al 2011). As attitudes moved across the political spectrum from liberal to conservative anterior cingulate gray matter (neuron cell body) volume decreased and right amygdala gray matter volume increased.
These structures are part of the traditional limbic system, are important for a number of cognitive operations, and are implicated in mood and anxiety disorders. The amygdala is important for the emotional and social evaluation of others’ faces (emotional expression, trustworthiness, attractiveness, intelligence), and has been implicated in voting choices (see Rule et al 2010). The anterior cingulate is engaged when processing pain (your own and others’), during motivated reasoning (e.g. when making judgments about information that threatens your candidate, see Westen et al 2006) and when making judgments about social dominance (e.g. whether society should be hierarchical or egalitarian, see Chiao et al 2009).
Clearly, other brain structures are involved in processing political information. I’m not sure why anyone would be surprised that our overall tendencies and “personality style” influences our political choices. And our preferences are probably the result of our genetics and experience, both of which influence brain structure and function. But I do not believe we are completely bound by these constraints - this is moving into “free will” territory so I will stop here with this thread.
Remember: rational judgment is always subject to emotional bias, no matter how much we try to deny this.
And also remember that all generalizations are wrong, including this one.
April 17, 2012
Earlier today the space shuttle Discovery flew over my head on its way to its final resting place (for now at least) at the Smithsonian site at Dulles International airport. I must say it was a bit upsetting; I grew up watching reruns of Star Trek and associate the shuttles with exploring the Final Frontier. Of course, the shuttles never really got very far, but they did shuttle people and equipment back and forth to the International Space Station. Not too shabby. Space station resupplies and transport in the future will be provided by European, Russian, and Japanese vehicles, and apparently by commercial vehicles (Dragon by SpaceX and Cygnus by Orbital Sciences).
But enough of that, my nostalgia is running high as a result of today’s events. I not only grew up watching the Star Trek series, but also saw Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Alien movies, Silent Running, and other great movies involving space travel. In the 1990s there was Babylon 5 and more Star Trek (Next Generation & DS9); more recently there have been too many movies & television shows to name. I also grew up reading science fiction about space travel by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C Clark, and Ray Bradbury; more recently I’ve enjoyed Jack McDevitt’s novels that incorporate the space travel theme. So you can see why the death of the space shuttle era is upsetting to me.
However, there is hope! Apparently manned space missions to asteroids and Mars are planned by the 2030s. But I think I may be too old to qualify as crew (haha). I do hope we keep reaching for the stars. Our planet can only sustain so many people, and some of us will need to get off of it at some point! Here’s to striving for new planets. R.I.P. Discovery.