Discussions that question political convictions trigger neurological reactions similar to those of life-threatening situations.
A new study carried out at the Brain and Creativity Institute of the University of Southern California confirms what most Facebook users can already tell: exchanging political arguments on Facebook — or, for that matter, in almost any scenario, either online or offline — provokes a neuronal reaction like that experienced in other threatening situations, which compels us to defend our beliefs with twice as much strength.
As Emily Glover explained in her article for Paste Magazine, the emotional and identity centers in the brain are activated when the political beliefs that we have most deeply rooted in our value systems are questioned, even if we are presented with compelling evidence that should, in other conditions, make us change our mind. On the contrary, what is produced is a defensive reaction rather than an opening to what in effect sounds reasonable.
Glover interviewed Jonas Kaplan, assistant professor of psychology research at the same Brain and Creativity Institute, who explains that, in general, people feel that “there is more at stake when political beliefs are discussed that when non-political beliefs are questioned. Political beliefs are linked to our identities, to our sense of who we are.”
The study involved monitoring the reactions of 40 people who considered themselves to be “liberal,” by using magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) to observe the neurological reactions caused by the questioning of their beliefs. Participants were exposed to eight political statements and eight non-political statements with which they should express their agreement or disagreement. In non-political issues (for example, that Edison did not invent the electric light bulb), the subjects changed their positions in relatively significant percentages, but there was practically no change in mentality as far as political issues are concerned.
Magnetic resonance imaging indicated that participants who did not change their beliefs experienced an increase in brain activity in areas such as the amygdala and the insular cortex. “We believe the amygdala and insula, in this case, are reflecting the emotional nature of being challenged. When we are challenged on our most important beliefs, it doesn’t feel good, and we take action to mitigate those negative feelings,” Kaplan told Glover. “Consistent with this idea, we found that people who activated these structures more when being challenged were less likely to change their minds.”
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