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Excuse me, potential juror, but just how big is your amygdala?

Monday, January 24, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

New research touts findings that conservatives have bigger amygdalas while liberals have bigger cingulate cortices. The bigger amygdala means conservatives could be driven by fear while the bigger cingulate cortex means liberals have more decision-making power. Hmmm. Is it possible that our politics are fixed at birth?

Probably not. Neuroskeptic takes a look at the research and makes us question, yet again, if we can believe anything we read these days. In essence, he says this is probably a fluke and that you really should not look to the brain for information on political views. Political views do not originate in the brain, according to the Neuroskeptic—but in the wider culture. Thankfully, we are not doomed to robotically carry out whatever political orientation our genes would design for us.

So—if we cannot look to the brain for insight about political orientation—what about the eyes? “The eyes are the window to the soul” after all—might they tell us something?  As a matter of fact, they do, according to researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. We wrote about this study recently but are bringing it back today. The Nebraska researchers found that there are big differences in how liberals versus conservatives followed directives to shift their attention in response to another’s eye movements. Liberals tended to look where you look while conservatives did not. Hmmm. Is it possible our politics are fixed at birth? Where is the Neuroskeptic when you need one?

We continue to make efforts to find ways to explain why we do the things we do. While we happen to think the ‘gaze cues’ research is really pretty intriguing (since we cannot whip out MRIs to scan potential jurors brains without anticipated objections) much of the brain hoopla is just that, hoopla.  We just don’t understand enough about how brains work and how they interact with our awareness and our unawareness.

We assisted on a case about two years ago in which a young mother with a very young child was hit by an oncoming train as she drove up to and then crossed some railroad tracks. The mother was killed but her child survived (horribly injured). Mock jurors questioned how she could simply not have seen nor heard the oncoming train. After these questions were raised, another juror tentatively stated that she had had several near misses. After this admission, several others agreed. The room was split. The animations of what was visible from the young mother’s vantage point were not of use to them (so they thought) since they “were not in the car with her” and did not know if she had been distracted by her child or music.

These jurors were discussing something called “change blindness” well before the gorilla videos emerged.  Now, the phenomena is well-known. We can see something and yet not recognize and understand it simultaneously.  It’s about the brain, yes. And it’s about vision. And perception. And attention.

An oncoming train—huge, loud, fast, rattling and ground-shaking—can be invisible. It’s hard to understand. But for some people who tragically experience it—it is a harsh and life-changing real experience.

Michael D. Dodd, John R. Hibbing, & Kevin B. Smith (2010). The politics of attention: gaze-cuing effects are moderated by political temperament. Attention, Perception and Psychophysics.

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