Why the U.S. Response to the Pandemic Has Gone Ballistic: A Brain Science Perspective

by Fernando Perfas

Neuroscientist Louis Cozolino made interesting observations in contrasting the brains of conservatives and liberals and their politics based on comparative studies of how their brains work. At the risk of making a complex process simplistic, I’ll attempt to make some of his observations accessible. As we know, the brain is a complex organ with different specialized parts involved in detecting, processing, interpreting, and responding to experience. Our perception of the world is shaped by our genes, individual history, and adaptive strategies borne out of experience.

The conflicting drive toward the pursuit of selfish aims versus altruistic motives has resulted to the polarization between conservative and liberal thinking. It was found that the brains of liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for the feeling of attachment (to other people) and the regulation of fear. Their brains also allow them greater awareness of what they are feeling and those of others which lead to more empathy. Moreover, liberals are better able to regulate fear in their interactions with others.

The conflicting drive toward the pursuit of selfish aims versus altruistic motives has resulted to the polarization between conservative and liberal thinking. “

In comparison, the brains of conservatives make them inclined to view the world as a dangerous place and are less sensitive to the experience and needs of others. Since the fear center of their brain, called amygdala, tends to be larger, they are more likely to experience more fear in the face of threats. They have smaller anterior cingulate which is suggestive of less feeling of attachment and more difficulty perceiving the nuances in arguments. For them, any issue is seen in a rigid black and white or right or wrong with straightforward solutions. Conspiracy theories that explain away their vague source of fear are appealing to them and a source of comfort.

“Politics, it seems, triggers the altruistic inclination of liberals and inhibits it in conservatives. This difference frames the current hot political issues of racism and immigration differently for each side.”

The difference between the brains of conservatives and liberals in reference to their perception of self and others when faced with political matters determines how they view the problems and find solutions. When someone is easily triggered by fear or apprehension, it makes him or her more self-protective and more inclined to think in black and white terms and tends to have hardened beliefs. The ability to think of the welfare of others requires the attachment circuits of the brain to be active, which in turn diminishes the activity of the fear center and allows the individual to deal with shades of gray and tolerate the anxiety of uncertainty. Politics, it seems, triggers the altruistic inclination of liberals and inhibits it in conservatives. This difference frames the current hot political issues of racism and immigration differently for each side.

“If one looks at how democratic and republican politicians perceive the crisis and their prescriptive solutions, we see clearly how two different brains are at work. The question is, which one is responsible for the unredressed suffering of so many and the unfolding chaos of the U.S. response to the pandemic.”

Applying such knowledge in a real-world situation of the pandemic, we get a glimmer of which position, liberal versus conservative, is more adaptive or appropriate to the reality of the time. If one looks at how democratic and republican politicians perceive the crisis and their prescriptive solutions, we see clearly how two different brains are at work. The question is, which one is responsible for the unredressed suffering of so many and the unfolding chaos of the U.S. response to the pandemic.

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