Brain Science Explains Why Talking Politics Is Often So Futile

But, it doesn’t have to be.

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Source: Cal Alumni Association

Have you ever had a shouting match with someone who doesn’t share your political opinion? Have you ever witnessed one?

If you think about it, these are pretty strange events. Why are people getting so angry? What’s really “on the line” for either of them?

After all, political views are just beliefs. We don’t get furious when people tell us they hate our favorite movie. We don’t start a yelling match when someone tells us they like broccoli when we despise it. And we don’t get up in someone’s face when they like one scoop of sugar in their coffee and we like two.

Our political views are preferences, just like our taste in movies, vegetables, and beverages. So, why do we go bananas when we talk politics?

It turns out that the answer to this question lies in how our brains relate to this kind of information.

The brain science of political beliefs

A study published in 2016 aimed to learn why we often discount evidence that’s contrary to our firmly held beliefs. Lead author, Jonas Kaplan, said, “We wanted to understand what happens in the brain when we resist changing our minds.”

The research team used functional MRI to watch for brain activity changes in 40 participants when their beliefs were contested. All participants identified as liberals with strongly held political beliefs. While in the fMRI, participants were shown a series of political statements they were sure to agree with (like, “The US should reduce its military budget”) and then presented with counterarguments. They were also shown a series of nonpolitical statements (like, “Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb”) and then presented with counterarguments. As they predicted, the researchers found differences in how the participants’ brains reacted to the two scenarios.

When participants’ political views were contested, they had greater activation in a region of the brain known as the default mode network, as well as the amygdala. According to Kaplan, the default mode network has been associated with mind-wandering, memory, thinking about ourselves, and our identity. On the other hand, the amygdala responds to fearful and threatening stimuli.

Putting this information together, the authors speculate “that these [brain] structures are signaling threats to deeply held beliefs in the same way they might signal threats to physical safety.”

Isn’t that interesting? Wouldn’t this explain why we freak out when talking politics? For most of us, it’s not just a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s something much more than that — it’s like we’re fighting for our lives.

But, even if this does help explain the fury and desperation so often present in political arguments, what can we do about it?

Changing your mind

Here’s a hard pill to swallow — you’re probably wrong, or at least partially wrong, about many of your deeply held beliefs. This applies to you, me, and all the rest of us.

Why do I say this? Because, even if we’re experts on tax rates, social programs, or military spending we’re still only human. And being human means we’re biased. We’re even biased about being biased! We think that everyone else is biased and irrational, but we fail to see it in ourselves. We gloss over details and jump to conclusions. This is our nature.

But, the problem isn’t that we’re wrong about a lot of our beliefs. The problem is that we can’t change our minds, even when presented with convincing evidence.

What we need to do is get some distance from our deeply held beliefs. We need to hold onto them a little less tightly. We need to begin to see that we are not those beliefs.

How can we do this?

Scientific studies have shown that meditation can reduce brain activity in both the default mode network and the amygdala. Meanwhile, experienced meditators report feeling less attached to emotions and thoughts, as well as less reactive to events.

What does this imply?

Meditation may be just the tool we need to change our minds. It might give us some breathing room from our deeply held beliefs so we can finally stop identifying with them so thoroughly. Then, it might be easier for us to change those beliefs based on good evidence.

It all starts with you

We all see the world devolving into a state of chaos. It’s rare to see a productive conversation where both sides are genuinely trying to understand each other.

We need to finally admit that all the fingering pointing in the world isn’t going to solve this problem. We need to start seeing ourselves as part of the problem. It’s time to step up and do something.

If you want to do some good in the world, I’d recommend that you meditate. In time, it might offer you exactly what you need to bridge the gap between you and the people you don’t agree with.

Now, imagine if everyone did this. Imagine everyone was a little more open-minded. Imagine everyone was a little calmer. Imagine everyone was a little more rational.

Imagine people could share their knowledge and opinions without facing a violent and intense backlash.

If this seems like a better world to live in, help to make it a reality. Take 2 minutes today to meditate. If you need some help, download an app like Waking Up or Headspace. They’ll get you started.

We won’t ever get ourselves out of this mess unless we change. And we can’t afford to wait for everyone else— we need to do the work ourselves.

Thanks for reading!

There are certain types of beliefs that we associate with our identities — who we are —and if those beliefs are threatened, we act as if our physical safety is threatened.

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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