politics, neuroscience and autism

George Saunders has been following Trump around the last few months (Saunders is a writer for The New Yorker). He was just on National Public Radio (NPR) here in the US and talked about how Right and Left have gotten so far apart it’s like they’re in different universes.

I’ve followed the neuroscience of political difference for the past few years, but have never heard it stated so simply as Saunders did when trying to explain the different views.

he said something like this: “I think it hearkens back to cave days. Imagine you have 2 groups – one the curious group, one the cautious group. The curious group sees a bunch of guys coming toward the cave and thinks, “Oh, look, they’re dressed in an interesting way. What’s that they’re carrying and isn’t it interesting the way they talk.” The cautious group looks and says, “Wait a minute, what’s that expression on their faces? Are they carrying spears? We better get ready to attack.”

(Left and Right, respectively, in case it wasn’t obvious).

And one more somewhat tangentially related story from NPR, I heard a few days ago, which gives a kind of scary sense of how utterly different other people may be from you even when they seem to be somewhat similar.

They interviewed a 60 year old woman who only recently discovered she was mildly autistic. When it was explained to her, so much of her life made sense to her, especially her life long difficulty reading social cues.

So they did an experiment. They showed her a video, then did some minor electrical stimulation of her brain, then showed her the same video. Here was her response.

She sees a video where this guy has borrowed some CDs and is returning them to a woman. The CD cases are empty. He says to the woman, “Is this alright?” and she says, “Yes, it’s alright.’ Then he says, “Can I borrow some more?” And she says, “Sure, you can borrow some more.”

The woman watching the video is dumbfounded. She can’t understand why the woman isn’t outraged that the guy brought back the CD cases without the CDs and on top of that, she’s going to let him borrow more??

She then watches the video after the brain stimulation. She has a completely different experience. Initially, she perceived the woman as stating calmly that it was ok that he returned the CD cases without the CDs and that it was fine with her that he borrow more (I don’t know if this will come across in writing – maybe if you say it out loud it will make a stronger impact). She now, after the brain stimulation, hears the woman saying, YEAH, ITS ALL “RIGHT”!! in an angry, sarcastic tone, and then saying “YEAH, “SURE” YOU CAN BORROW MORE.” (meaning, no way you’re going to steal more of my CDs)

She couldn’t get over that she had completely missed the meaning of the woman’s statement the first time she watched the video.

I think if you look at about 98% of conversations on the net where people are arguing (which means, about 100% of those 98% of conversations), this is pretty much what is happening. Almost nothing to do with logic or reason.

2 thoughts on “politics, neuroscience and autism

  1. And for those who are skeptical of neuroscience, from what I’ve heard researchers say, this is one of the strongest findings in the whole world of personality neuroscience.

    One of the neuroscience studies shows greater response in the amgydala – one of the brain’s major fear centers – among self described conservatives. researchers say that without one bit of information about the person – age, gender, ethnicity or political orientation – just looking at the brain scan – they can tell the political orientation with an accuracy ranging from, depending on who is reading the scan, 85 to 95%.)

  2. important point that I left out – when Saunders presented his version of the neuroscience of political orientation, he was VERY careful to say that both groups are equally important. If everyone was in the cautious group, we’d never learn anything new. If everyone was in the curious group, we’d probably all be dead.

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