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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Issues smissues-it's all about feeling good. The neuroscience involved in Politics.

This interview with Robert Burton in Scientific American has some insight as to why being certain of our thoughts and ideas can be a dangerous thing. Apparently feelings of certainty stimulate the pleasure center in the brain and it feels good to be certain. He relates the danger to politics:

A neurologist explains why you shouldn't believe in political candidates that sound too sure of themselves.

LEHRER: To what extent do these mechanisms come into play during a presidential election? It seems like we all turn into such partisan hacks every four years, completely certain that our side is right.

BURTON: The present presidential debates and associated media commentary feel like laboratory confirmation that the involuntary feeling of certainty plays a greater role in decision-making than conscious contemplation and reason.

I suspect that retreat into absolute ideologies is accentuated during periods of confusion, lack of governmental direction, economic chaos and information overload. At bottom, we are pattern recognizers who seek escape from ambiguity and indecision. If a major brain function is to maintain mental homeostasis, it is understandable how stances of certainty can counteract anxiety and apprehension. Even though I know better, I find myself somewhat reassured (albeit temporarily) by absolute comments such as, "the stock market always recovers," even when I realize that this may be only wishful thinking.

Sadly, my cynical side also suspects that political advisors use this knowledge of the biology of certainty to actively manipulate public opinion. Nuance is abandoned in favor of absolutes.

...In short, please run, do not walk, to the nearest exit when you hear so-called leaders being certain of any particular policy. Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.

Burton also explains a bit about how this relates to religious fundamentalism and belief in UFO's and such. You know, when vehemently people believe in things that cannot be proven or explained- kinda like PalinMania. It makes sense- Palin appeals to neo-con religious fundamental types- the exact kind of people who are so 'certain' about their views all the time.

Then there are the Obamamaniacs- supporters who are just as certain Obama is the one who will save us all. Obama is the 'feel good' candidate- lifting us up and giving us hope. In fact Obama's slogan is "Hope"- and isn't that what religion sells too? So how do we explain every day average non-religious folk who are just as ardently behind Obama as the religious right wingers are behind Palin? This interview on Fresh Air with neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga gives us some insight here.

According to Gazzaniga our brains are basically wired to find answers, organize and interpret the world so that we can function in the world and religion is a construct of the left brain used to explain the world. That even if humans had no religion, we would invent it simply to explain the world to ourselves to be comfortable. We would invent it...

This interview with Neurological researcher Jill Bolte Taylor explains part of it too (around 32 minutes in). The right brain is linked to religious euphoria- the high that true believers experience- and we are wired for it. She says "religion is the story we tell ourselves" in order to quiet questioning and seeking nature of the left side of the brain so that we can access the right side euphoria that comes with feeling like we belong to a power greater than ourselves.

So it makes sense to me that the PalinFanatics and ObamaManiacs are really having the same neurological responses to their idols- just telling themselves different stories to get there. This is also compounded by the degree to which they are certain that their candidate is the correct choice. Remember- certainty doesn't have to do with whether your thought is right or wrong- it has to do with how good it feels to be certain.
And if all these neurological processes are lighting up the pleasure centers in the brain- reducing anxiety and giving us a sense of well being- is it any wonder this election has become so heated and emotional?
Since we are talking about the same regions of the brain indicated in addictive behavior I imagine it may get even more impassioned before it goes away.

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