Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Born that way? Lady Gaga might have a point

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As I've noted, my understanding of science is woefully lacking. Usually I'm trying to catch up with those pointy heads in the lab coats. For once, they're playing catch-up with me.

Sort of. At least I like to pretend they are.

In a December 2006 column, I prophesied that scientists eventually would identify a gene that causes some people to hold extremist political or religious views.

Now my theory partly has been validated. British neuroscience scholars recently found that people who identify themselves as liberal and those who identify themselves as conservative have different brain structures.

According to news reports, scientists from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London have released a study showing liberals have larger anterior cingulated cortices, while conservatives have bigger amygdalae.

The anterior cingulated cortex deals with uncertainty and conflict. The amygdala processes emotions related to fear.

Before you fire up your emails to inform me that brain structures and genetic codes aren't the same things, let me assure you I do recognize a difference.

But bear with me. Genes or brain cortices, I don't care. My main point was that political and even religious differences often seem to be hard-wired.

It's not just that opposing groups choose to embrace different truths; it's that they perceive and process the same facts and events in starkly different ways.

It's not a choice; it's biological. They couldn't agree even if they wanted to.

That's what I was trying to say in 2006.

That's what this British study appears to show, although it certainly won't be the last word on the subject.

Liberals are programmed to enjoy complexity and vigorous debate.

Conservatives are built to interpret ambiguity, differences of opinion and the questioning of long-held assumptions as threats, not as pleasures.

No one knows whether liberals and conservatives are born this way or whether their brains adapt in those directions as a result of their life experiences.

In February, Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times reported on other research of comparative physiology that has produced similar findings.

One study, conducted by a team led by Kevin B. Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, measured the startle blink reflex, which indicates how "we flinch and blink when startled by a possible danger," Kristof wrote.

Smith and his colleagues found that people who were the most bothered by unexpected noises — who blinked vigorously, who were primed to feel vulnerable and quickly perceive danger — also took conservative stances on issues such as gun rights, warrantless searches and foreign aid.

A dimension that this new research doesn't address, apparently, is the physiological makeup of really whacked-out left-wingers.

They're as legalistic, intolerant and apocalyptic as those on the farthest right. I'd bet their brains are identical.

It also doesn't explain conservatives — and there are many — who are unafraid, tolerant and open to pragmatic compromises.

And none of this means we ought to quit debating controversial issues. I imagine, and the researchers agree, according to the news stories, that most of us are neither particularly liberal nor conservative. We're in- between. We can be persuaded.

I'm a good example of that.

In college, I majored in English. I'm all about complexity and abstract thinking and goodwill-toward-mankind and whatnot. I get along well with liberals.

On various issues, though, I see things purely black-and-white. Economically, for instance, I'm more locked down than Dave Ramsey, the evangelical personal-finance guru. Maybe that's why I get along with conservatives, too.

On other topics I'm middle-of-the-road, have no opinion or don't care.

But if nothing else, these new discoveries illuminate a lot about what we witness daily among people who hold immoderate views.

The finding that resonates deepest for me reinforces something I've long maintained. Based on a lifetime of observation, I've thought for years that those who are the least flexible, whether they're political right-wingers or religious fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists or paranoid Marxists, are driven primarily by fear.

A lot of times this comes across as hatred, and of course it can be hatred.

They bristle at mainstream liberals and moderates and reasonable conservatives and racial minorities and foreigners and gay people and Muslims and Jews and other Christian denominations and public-school teachers and emos and their own government and, well, anyone who isn't exactly like them in every detail.

It's absurd. It's irritating. It's dangerous.

For all those reasons, it helps me to remember that beneath their venom often lies stark, hand-sweating, stomach-gnawing fear. We can't know yet how much of this misplaced anxiety stems from a quirky gene, a runaway amygdala and a lifetime of brutal injustices.

In any case, I find it difficult to stay too mad at another human who's so terribly frightened, even if most of his fears are baseless. That's got to be a tough way to live.

I prefer assuming a person is scared to assuming he's just plain mean.