Monday, July 31, 2006

Following Brain Research May Help Us Think Better

Read the full article "How the Brain Helps Partisans Admit No Gray" by Shankar Vedantam in The Washington Post of July 31, 2006.

"Psychological experiments in recent years have shown that people are not evenhanded when they process information, even though they believe they are.......When talking heads provide opinions after the debate, partisans regularly feel the people with whom they agree are making careful, reasoned arguments, whereas the people they disagree with sound like they have cloth for brains.......

"When Republicans saw Kerry (or Democrats saw Bush) there was increased activation in brain areas called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is near the temple, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is in the middle of the head. Both these regions are involved in regulating emotions.......More straightforwardly, Republicans and Democrats also showed activation in two other brain areas involved in negative emotion, the insula and the temporal pole. It makes perfect sense, of course, why partisans would feel negatively about the candidate they dislike, but what explains the activation of the cognitive regulatory system?

"Turns out, rather than turning down their negative feelings as they might do with the fallen ice cream, partisans turn up their negative emotional response when they see a photo of the opposing candidate, said Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"In other words, without knowing it themselves, the partisans were jealously guarding against anything that might lower their antagonism. Turning up negative feelings, of course, is a good way to make sure your antagonism stays strong and healthy......

"The result reflects a larger phenomenon in which people routinely discount information that threatens their preexisting beliefs, said Emory University psychologist Drew Westen, who has conducted brain-scan experiments that show partisans swiftly spot hypocrisy and inconsistencies -- but only in the opposing candidate.

"When presented with evidence showing the flaws of their candidate, the same brain regions that Kaplan studied lighted up -- only this time partisans were unconsciously turning down feelings of aversion and unpleasantness.

"'The brain was trying to find a solution that would get rid of the distress and absolve the candidate of doing something slimy,' Westen said. 'They would twirl the emotional kaleidoscope until it gave them a picture that was comfortable.'"

Knowing that the brain tends to reject information that goes against our political beliefs, and to accept that which confirms our prejudices, we would be well advised to bring reason to bear on our emotional response to what we see in the media!

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