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The Brain on Politics

In "This Is Your Brain on Politics" in the New York Times, Joshua Freedman discusses politics from the perspective of neuoroscience:

...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.... In the case of this past election, while we witnessed an electorate that seemed irreconcilably divided, using f.M.R.I. [functional magnetic resonance imaging], 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 speaks to the problems of identification. When we identify with a particular candidate, party, or country, our capacity to look and think with an open mind is diminished. Despite the seeming security of a black-and-white perspective, we must struggle to maintain it when the inevitable contradictory facts and feelings emerge. Freedman continues:

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.

While neuroscience may have only recently advanced, "to the point where humans can begin to watch themselves think and feel," we don't need magnetic resonance imaging to watch ourselves think and feel. Meditation itself is simply a name for the open, unbiased awareness of what is going on. Without effort, we can see the impulses, attractions, thoughts, and emotions arise within ourselves from moment to moment. And in that open seeing, there is a freedom from the struggles of identification.

January 18, 2005 | Science | Permalink



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