The Oscar for best neuroscience research goes to…

Both of this year’s lead Oscar winners have published scientific papers on neuroscience. We’ve covered Natalie Portman’s work on frontal lobe development in children before, but it turns out Colin Firth has also just co-authored a study on structural brain differences in people with differing political views.

An excellent post on The Neurocritic tells the intriguing story of how the study came about.

It turns out Firth was a guest editor on the daily BBC Radio 4 news programme Today and commissioned neuroscientist Geraint Rees to scan the brains of two prominent UK politicians – one staunchly liberal and the other a confirmed conservative – to look for differences.

The piece was clearly a piece of news fluff – as you can tell very little from scanning just two people – but it was motivated by a genuine interest in whether political opinions correlate with brain differences.

Rees decided to develop the idea into a more comprehensive study, using scans from 90 people, to see whether the density of the brain’s grey matter differed in line with differences in political views.

The study didn’t look at differences across the whole brain, just the anterior cingulate, a part of the frontal lobes, and the deep brain structure the amygdala.

The areas were chosen because previous studies have found that conservatives are more sensitive to fear-inducing prompts – a response linked to the amygdala, whereas liberals show more brain activity in the anterior cingulate when they have to hold back an automatic response.

It must be said that the link between these functions and brain areas is still quite preliminary, so the study is more of an exploration than a cast-iron test of a well-defined idea.

This new study, published in Current Biology and co-authored by Colin Firth, Geraint Rees along with neuroscientist Ryota Kanai and the producer of the Radio 4 programme, found distinct differences in these areas.

We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala

This doesn’t tell us anything about whether conservatives or liberals are “born or made”. Despite the fact that the whole question is daft and over-simplified, a simple association between beliefs and brain areas doesn’t help us understand anything about cause and effect.

It could be that the brain areas differ because conservatives and liberals differ in how much they ‘practice’ alternative ways of thinking about the world, rather than brain structure ‘determining’ political orientation.

I really recommend the Neurocritic piece for more background, but the fact that the 2011 winners of the best actor and actress Oscar both have their name on neuroscience studies shows how fashionable the science has become.

And if, by chance, a certain Grammy award winning She Wolf would like to join the trend I would be more than willing to help out with the statistical analysis.

Yes, I realise my chat-up lines could do with a bit of work.

Link to The Neurocritic on Colin Firth’s neuroscience study.


  1. Posted April 11, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Searching for the “GOD” voxels in the brain clearly inspired some people to move from religion to politics. My god ! I think neurosciences is crossing the fashion border that will- at the end of the day- completely erode it’s credibility. Keep out of the catwalk, guy’s ! Keep it pure.

    Remember Dylan Thomas words

    I labor.. not for ambition or bread or the strud and trade of charms on the ivory stages”

    Dr. Georges Otte

  2. Emmy
    Posted April 11, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t Haidt already do this type of study like, 5 years ago? I’m all for citizen science, but I’m not sure just how much this study informs neuroscience. It also seems as though this could reflect geographical differences, since it’s pretty well established that certain sections of the country are more “liberal or conservative”. Whatever that means, I’d think it would be more helpful to test registered voters to see if actual parties demonstrate differences.

  3. Ann Frick
    Posted April 11, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Interesting to me that they got their results with British conservatives and liberals. Compared to their American cousins, British conservatives are a mild variant. We’ve got militias arming to take back the government from the Commie-Socialist-Nazi Kenyan who has bamboozled his way into office and his ultra-evil accomplices, public school teachers. A little amygdala action there, I suspect.

  4. Maria Portman
    Posted April 17, 2011 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    It’s funny how you completely leave out Natalie Portman from the story; what was her paper about?

    • Leona St.Louis
      Posted April 17, 2011 at 2:40 am | Permalink

      I was wondering the same thing. Why is she left out?

  5. Posted April 17, 2011 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Click the link in the second sentence.

4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] more here: The Oscar for best neuroscience research goes to… « Mind Hacks Share and […]

  2. […] once in this trap. Caught first when learning that both Natalie Portman and Colin Firth have each co-authored scientific papers and then when listening to Russel Brand quote literature, theology, philosophy and in general get […]

  3. […] Mind Hacks has already pointed out, both Natalie Portman (neé Hershlag) and Colin Firth (neé Firth) have played a prominent enough […]

  4. […] for a broader circle of others, beyond just family and friends, and perhaps including strangers). Another study showed that,  in a sample of ninety young adults, conservatives have a more developed […]

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