Scientists ‘can tell from a brain’s response’ whether owner is left- or right-wing

Israeli study says political differences don’t just emerge when it comes to how we interpret reality around us; our brains actually ‘see’ different things depending on our politics

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustration (Evgeny Gromov; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustration (Evgeny Gromov; iStock by Getty Images)

Israeli scientists say they are able to establish where people stand on politics by scanning their brains.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University used magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to measure brain activity on several dozen people — half of them right-wingers and half left-wingers.

They found that participants’ brain responses when watching political broadcasts predicted accurately whether each participant leant right or left.

And there was a very surprising element in where, exactly, the scientists saw the differences: It wasn’t in the so-called higher brain regions, which are responsible for interpreting the world. Rather, it was in the “lower” regions that work on a much more basic, primal level.

The differences between right-wingers and left-wingers were detected in the motor and somatosensory areas, meaning the parts of the brain that are active when we move or feel things with our senses.

“Just from the brain’s response in these primary sensory areas, we could tell if a certain individual was left- or right-wing,” said TAU psychologist Dr. Yaara Yeshurun, who conducted the study with her PhD student Noa Katabi. “It could even be done by examining an area of the brain that is responsible for seeing or hearing.”

File: Ideological foes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Merav Michaeli, now Labor leader (right) attend a conference marking the 25th anniversary of the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan at the Knesset, on November 11, 2019. (Flash90)

The research was conducted just before Israel’s November election with a sample of politically active voters, and published in the January edition of the peer-reviewed journal Neuroscience.

Yeshurun told The Times of Israel that, “Until now, it was understood that political differences occur when people interpret the world differently using higher regions of their brain such as the pre-frontal cortex,” referring to the area that is responsible for complex cognitive tasks.

Just from the brain’s response in these primary sensory areas, we could tell if a certain individual was left- or right-wing

“But we see signs of political differences in very basic regions, and my belief is that people are not only interpreting them differently but also perceiving them differently.”

She noted that there is previous research into how political preferences can be ascertained from brain scans, but said none had detected it in regions of the brain that deal with basic sensing.

Dr. Yaara Yeshurun of Tel Aviv University (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

Yeshurun stressed that the research doesn’t throw any light on how the brains of people with different views come to behave differently — whether by nature, nurture or some combination. But she said that the study has a practical lesson for all who engage in political conversation.

“It’s useful research for understanding, in discourse, that people on the other side politically just don’t see the same thing as you may,” she said.

“So before going to high-level dialogue, we should answer simple questions of what we actually perceive. This is the way to build common ground.”

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