Are Political Views Hard-Wired in the Brain?

By Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD

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Think you made up your own mind? Think again

You may have noticed that the term “tribalism” has recently become the lingua franca of political gurus and talking heads on cable TV. What they mean when they use the term is that loyalty to the tribe, be it a literal tribe (for instance, the desert Bedouins in the Middle East), the home team, or your political party), trumps (pardon the language) all other considerations of fairness, ethics, justice, and even self-interest.

Memories, memories

There are different kinds of memories: good, bad, funny, sad, etc. But these subjective classifications don’t really tell us much about their underlying neurobiology. However, classifying memories temporally can be quite revealing.

  • Short-term (a.k.a. working) memory lasts only a few minutes, just long enough to be useful. The highway patrol arrives 15 minutes after the accident and asks you to retrieve from your memory what you saw. The trees on the side of the road, the smell of burning rubber, and the thud of clashing metal are no longer relevant. What they want to know and what you actually remember is the description of the cars, their size, color, and the speed and direction in which they were traveling. In the process of consolidation of your memory of the accident, irrelevant and distracting information are stripped away. All of the inputs from the immediate memory are fed to the prefrontal cortex which is located behind your eyes and forehead. The process of consolidating relevant and “forgetting” the irrelevant and distracting information takes place there. What would happen if you never again have a chance to recount that particular accident? The longer time elapses since the event, the more details will become fuzzy or forgotten completely. But if for some reason you recount the event often, more and more details will be remembered.
  • Long-term memory is used to store facts, observations, and the stories of our lives. This is the memory we are the most familiar. It is the most important in shaping who we are and how we perceive who we are. For instance, if you try to recall that traffic accident many years later, you would probably only remember the bare facts that you witnessed two cars crashing into each other. The details of the accident and the vividness of the event will largely be gone. For example, when I was 5 years old, I remember being taken to kindergarten for the first time and I remember that I cried my heart out. Period. I don’t remember much more. I am sure that this event meant a lot more to me then. The separation anxiety, the many unfamiliar faces, all these had an emotional content that is now forever lost, never to be retrieved. This bare-bones memory is stored in a brain structure called the hippocampus and several other areas that neural links to it.

How immediate is “immediate memory”?

A story in Scientific American about “The Neuroscience of Changing Your Mind” drew my attention to a study published in the journal, Neuron, that describes an ingenious approach to study what’s involved in changing ones’ mind.

What’s this got to do with fixed political views?

There is still a big gap in our knowledge between the neuronal fixation of immediate memory in the brain and the neuronal and psychological fixation of political views. But if it is so difficult to change one’s mind after embedding a decision that has been 200 milliseconds old, think how much more difficult it would be after a few minutes, when working memory is operative, and even more so after days, weeks, and years. That is when experiences are embedded in long-term memory where thick protein bridges between the neurons “solidify” the circuits where these memories are stored.

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