Monday, September 10, 2007

What if it's all in the wiring?

Those irritating people who disagree with you: Is it about upbringing, culture, role-modeling, class, childhood abuse--all that sort of thing? Or is it simply because they're wired up to be clueless jerks?

If it's the latter, that's good news and bad news for most of us: One can hardly be blamed for the way one's own synapses do or don't fire, after all. But on the other hand it's much harder to work up a fine froth of moral indignation and intellectual smugness toward others over differences that don't have anything to do with choice.

Difficult, yes, although it's certainly not impossible:

Exhibit A:
Exploring the neurobiology of politics, scientists have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.

In a simple experiment reported todayin the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists at New York University and UCLA show that political orientation is related to differences in how the brain processes information.

Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

The results show "there are two cognitive styles -- a liberal style and a conservative style," said UCLA neurologist Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who was not connected to the latest research. […]

Frank J. Sulloway, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Institute of Personality and Social Research who was not connected to the study, said the results "provided an elegant demonstration that individual differences on a conservative-liberal dimension are strongly related to brain activity."

Analyzing the data, Sulloway said liberals were 4.9 times as likely as conservatives to show activity in the brain circuits that deal with conflicts, and 2.2 times as likely to score in the top half of the distribution for accuracy.

Sulloway said the results could explain why President Bush demonstrated a single-minded commitment to the Iraq war and why some people perceived Sen. John F. Kerry, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat who opposed Bush in the 2004 presidential race, as a "flip-flopper" for changing his mind about the conflict.

Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.

Exhibit B:
"In other words," said Benji, steering his curious little vehicle right over to Arthur, "there's a good chance that the structure of the question is encoded in the structure of your brain — so we want to buy it off you."

"What, the question?" said Arthur.

"Yes," said Ford and Trillian.

"For lots of money," said Zaphod.

"No, no," said Frankie, "it's the brain we want to buy."


"I thought you said you could just read his brain electronically," protested Ford.

"Oh yes," said Frankie, "but we'd have to get it out first. It's got to be prepared."

"Treated," said Benji.


"Thank you," shouted Arthur, tipping up his chair and backing away from the table in horror.

"It could always be replaced," said Benji reasonably, "if you think it's important."

"Yes, an electronic brain," said Frankie, "a simple one would suffice."

"A simple one!" wailed Arthur.

"Yeah," said Zaphod with a sudden evil grin, "you'd just have to program it to say What? and I don't understand and Where's the tea? — who'd know the difference?"

"What?" cried Arthur, backing away still further.

"See what I mean?" said Zaphod and howled with pain because of something that Trillian did at that moment.

"I'd notice the difference," said Arthur.

"No you wouldn't," said Frankie mouse, "you'd be programmed not to."

Perhaps that's it--perhaps Bill Kristol's brain has been replaced with a small electronic device programmed to repeat "Bush is good," "Dissent helps Osama," and "We're winning in Iraq." It would explain a lot.

Now pardon me while I enjoy that fine froth for a little bit.

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