Believe it or not, this old riddle may hold the key to understanding how your brain functions. You'll see in a minute, but first, let me give you the necessary background. Last week, I wrote in my column, "The self-righteous mindset of the fringe right requires that "stand-your-ground' stability that ever-changing reality refuses to provide." Besides the howls of protest from e-mailers and the usual Daily Republic bloggers, I met a man who, after reading that line, stopped and said. "You know, the brains of Conservatives are actually physically different from those of Progressives." I was intrigued by his statement and told him I'd look into it.
In earlier Daily Republic articles, I had written that right-wingers seem more oriented towards "Faith and Trust" whereas Progressives were more "Doubt and Test" people. I was merely noting obvious, observable differences in their belief systems, logic, and politics, but I never imagined there could be an actual physical causal factor. I always thought right-wingers were just raised wrong; that it was a "Nurture," rather than "Nature" problem. To my surprise, when I visited the Oracle at Google, she revealed many articles onto me. One study examined brain scans of 90 Progressive and Conservative adults and found that the left-wingers had bigger anterior cingulates than right-wingers, but the right-wingers had more pronounced amygdalas.
So, what do these brain components do? According to a 2001 New York Academy of Science study, the anterior cingulate, " Functions central to intelligent behavior; that is, emotional self-control, focused problem solving, error recognition, and adaptive response to changing conditions, (which) are juxtaposed with the emotions in this structure." Very cool stuff. Walk tall, Progressives, flaunting your impressive, enlarged anterior cingulates.
But what about the Conservatives' big amygdalas? What does that thing do? Well, the amygdala is often called the brain's "fear-center" and that may explain why right-wingers seem so fearful of new information, the unknown, and most everything in between. Its prominence in Conservatives could also clarify why, in this day and age, the Daily Republic still publishes articles and letters to the editor from right-wingers promoting creationism over evolution, worried about U.N. overlords controlling Fairfield's freeway metering lights, and that President Obama is a scary socialist trying to take away our healthcare, guns, and Constitutional freedoms. But take heart, right-wing brain sufferers, there are many "amygdala retraining" exercises and DVDs available designed to help you reshape your troubled minds. Alternatively, you can walk around in a tee-shirt that says, "Big Amygdala. Big Deal."
This one brain-scan study is not the final word on this subject, but it does open up a new area for further scientific investigation, which will no doubt be embraced by those with massive anterior cingulates and dismissed as poppycock by those with enlarged amygdalas. Also, this study was done on adults, so there's no way to tell which came first, the fear or the enlarged amygdala. Does the large amygdala cause excessive fear or does a lifetime of living in fear build a larger amygdala, like exercising some sort of "brain muscle?" It's a classic chicken and egg conundrum, which brings us back to the old riddle.
So, which came first? The answer is: The egg. Primordial fish and prehistoric reptiles laid eggs for many hundreds of millions of years before the advent of today's evolutionarily advanced, feathered chicken. If your brain is able to process that information and you are able to agree without having conniptions, you probably possess a Progressive mind. However, if after reading that scientific explanation you feel angry or unsure, well, you just might be a Conservative.