Brains

Part 1 of 5 in the series Biotech

Science has given us a whole new toolbox for tinkering with life, and we have the power to modify animals in profound new ways. — Frankenstein’s Cat (2013)

In his book The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney describes differences that occur due to plasticity:

The brain is highly plastic; in the words of political scientist and neuropolitics researcher Darren Schreiber of the University of California-San Diego, we’re “hardwired not to be hardwired.” Each day, we change our brains through new experiences, which form new neural connections. Over a lifetime, then, we all develop different brains.

The brains of musicians, not surprisingly, are highly unique. The brain of someone who has learned to juggle is different from the brain of someone who has not learned to juggle. Surfers have gnarly brains, magicians have tricky brains – and most fascinating, once a person has changed his or her brain by mastering some skill, that brain then responds differently than an unskilled brain when observing someone else perform the activity. That’s why magicians can tell what another magician is up to. That’s why the magician and skeptic James the Amazing Randi is so adept at detecting frauds and tricksters – and why, before him, so was Harry Houdini.

Given that we can all change our brains by living life in a particular way or learning a new skill, it isn’t really too surprising to find that liberals and conservatives have some brain differences. “Being a liberal, and being a conservative, it’s almost as lifestyle, so I would be amazed if there aren’t differences in the brain that are associated with that,” says Marco Iacoboni, another neuropolitics researcher at the University of California-Los Angeles.1

Joshua Holland reports for the AlterNet.org website:

Researchers at University College London discovered that “greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala.” The amygdala is an ancient brain structure that’s activated during states of fear and anxiety. (The researchers also found that “greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex” – a region in the brain that is believed to help people manage complexity.)2

“Another scientific paper on this subject came out – from the National Science Foundation-supported political physiology laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,” writes Chris Mooney for The Huffington Post:

The work, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, goes further still in helping us understand how biological and physiological differences between liberals and conservatives may lead to very different patterns of political behavior.…

The Nebraska-Lincoln researchers had liberals and conservatives look at varying combinations of images that were meant to excite different emotions. There were images that caused fear and disgust – a spider crawling on a person’s face, maggots in an open wound – but also images that made you feel happy: a smiling child, a bunny rabbit. The researchers also mixed in images of liberal and conservative politicians – Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

While they did all of this, the scientists measured the subjects’ “skin conductance” – the moistening of their sweat glands, an indication of sympathetic nervous system arousal – as well as where their eyes went first and how long they stayed there.

Mother Jones

The difference was striking: Conservatives showed much stronger skin responses to negative images, compared with the positive ones. Liberals showed the opposite. And when the scientists turned to studying eye gaze or “attentional” patterns, they found that conservatives looked much more quickly at negative or threatening images, and spent more time fixating on them. Liberals, in contrast, were less quickly drawn to negative images – and spent more time looking at positive ones.3

“That one ideological camp is so consumed with fear also has a lot to do with why conservatives and liberals share so little common ground,” writes Holland:

Progressives tend to greet these narratives with facts and reason, but as Chris Mooney notes, when your amygdala is activated, it takes over and utterly dominates the brain structures dedicated to reason. Then the “fight-or-flight” response takes precedence over critical thinking.4

Backyard Brains - Neuroscience for Everyone!
Neuroscience for Everyone!

“Mental health issues may seem like adult-only problems,” notes Lindsay Holmes for The Huffington Post, “but they can also have a profound impact on younger minds”:

Researchers from Yale, Duke and Vanderbilt universities examined children’s brains over the course of five years and found long-lasting neurobiological effects in those with an anxiety disorder (which includes generalized anxiety, social phobia and separation anxiety). The study showed there was weaker connectivity in the brains of these children between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, two regions that interact to play an important role in regulating anxiety, the Yale Daily News reported.…

The study reaffirms the notion that having a mental illness is not simply “all in a sufferer’s head” or a “phase” — even when it comes to children. The recent findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that these types of disorders are rooted in biology and may even lead to physically different brains.5

“Whether these physical brain changes can be fixed is not known yet,” write Sreeja Kodali for the Yale Daily News:

Helen Egger, senior author and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center, said she believes that preschool anxiety disorders are too often misperceived as transient, insignificant childhood problems. This study, she said, disproves that notion and shows that preschool anxiety disorders can leave “enduring differences in brain function.” 6

“Playing an instrument is exactly like a full brain workout,” concludes TED Ed detailing cognitive studies as reported by Tom Barnes for the Mic.com website:

The newest research on music and the brain has revealed an amazing connection with memory. Music-learning offers a huge boost to one’s memory faculties. Trained musicians can create, encode and retrieve memories more rapidly and accurately than non-musicians, showing special improvement in verbal memory.

In fact, children with one to five years of musical training were able to remember 20% more vocabulary words read to them off a list than children without such training. That’s especially compelling because highly developed verbal memory skills have numerous applications in non-musical contexts, such as helping students learn and remember more content from speeches and lectures. Musicians who began their training as children have also been shown to learn new languages more quickly.…

Music-making engages both halves of the brain equally. By stimulating the left brain, which is the more mathematical, calculating and syntactic hemisphere, and the right, which is the more creative, musicians build a strong corpus callosum, which acts as a neural bridge between the two hemispheres. Musicians who begin their training around 7 years old have a significantly larger corpus callosum than others without the same training. That means that the two halves of musicians’ brains can communicate with one another more quickly and along more diverse routes across their expanded corpus callosum. As a result, musicians are more likely to be inventive problem-solvers.

ADHD prescriptions
ADHD Prescriptions

All that plays into the strengthening of the brain’s executive functions, including the ability to strategize, retain information, regulate behavior, solve problems and adjust plans to changing mental demands. The results of one such study on the connections between music training and executive function found increased activity in the supplementary motor area and prefrontal cortex of musicians’ brains, two areas that are often seriously deficient in people suffering from executive function disorders, such as ADHD.7


Sources

1 Chris Mooney, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Songs, Inc., 2012), pp. 112-113.

2 Joshua Holland, “Why Is the Conservative Brain More Fearful? The Alternate Reality Right-Wingers Inhabit Is Terrifying,” AlterNet.org, 1 May 2012, page 1 at http://www.alternet.org/story/155210/why_is_the_conservative_brain_more_fearful_the_alternate_reality_right-wingers_inhabit_is_terrifying (retrieved: 5 September 2012); See also Kanai, Ryota; Feilden, Tom; Firth, Colin; Rees, Geraint; “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults,” 7 April 2011, Current Biology (volume 21 issue 8 pp. 677-680), at http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(11)00289-2 (retrieved: 5 September 2012).

3 Chris Mooney, “Want to Understand Republicans? First Understand Evolution,” The Huffington Post, 8 March 2012, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-mooney/want-to-understand-republ_b_1262542.html (retrieved: 5 September 2012).

4 Joshua Holland, “Why Is the Conservative Brain More Fearful? The Alternate Reality Right-Wingers Inhabit Is Terrifying,” AlterNet.org, 1 May 2012, page 3 at http://www.alternet.org/story/155210/why_is_the_conservative_brain_more_fearful_the_alternate_reality_right-wingers_inhabit_is_terrifying?page=0%2C2 (retrieved: 5 September 2012).

5 Lindsay Holmes, “Childhood Anxiety Could Physically Change The Brain,” The Huffington Post, 4 February 2015, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/04/preschool-anxiety-study_n_6605912.html (retrieved: 5 February 2015); See also Kimberly L.H. Carpenter, Adrian Angold, Nan-Kuei Chen, William E. Copeland, Pooja Gaur, Kevin Pelphrey, Allen W. Song, Helen L. Egger, “Preschool Anxiety Disorders Predict Different Patterns of Amygdala-Prefrontal Connectivity at School-Age,” PLOS One, 27 January 2015, at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0116854 (retrieved: 5 February 2015).

6 Sreeja Kodali, “Preschool anxiety changes the brain,” Yale Daily News, 3 February 2015, at http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2015/02/03/preschool-anxiety-changes-the-brain/ (retrieved: 5 February 2015).

7 Tom Barnes, “Science Shows How Musicians’ Brains Are Different From Everybody Elses’,” Mic.com, 13 August 2014, at http://mic.com/articles/96150/science-shows-how-musicians-brains-are-different-from-everybody-elses (retrieved: 9 September 2014).

See also

Chris, “Liberal and Conservative Anterior Cingulate Cortices,” ScienceBlogs.com, 10 September 2007, at http://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory/2007/09/10/liberal-and-conservative-anter/ (retrieved: 5 September 2012).

Kevin J. Crosby, “Neural Computers,” SkewsMe.com, at http://www.skewsme.com/wetware.html (retrieved: 1 May 2013).

Adam Piore, “The neuroscientist who wants to upload humanity to a computer, Popular Science, 16 May 2014, at http://www.popsci.com/article/science/neuroscientist-who-wants-upload-humanity-computer (retrieved: 23 February 2015).

Backyard Brains spiker box
Backyard Brains on Amazon.com
Neural SpikerBox
Human Muscle SpikerBox

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“How to manually change a memory: Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu at TEDxBoston,” TEDx Talks video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDXJhxLzmBQ (retrieved: 18 June 2014). (Show video)

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