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Different Values – Different Lizard Brains?

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In recent months there’s been a slew of articles born out of studies designed to discern the differences between the liberal and conservative brain. The studies do shed some light on the situation and the conflict we find ourselves in. On the other hand, the studies don’t seem to be able to define a causal factor. In other words, it’s a kind of “chicken and egg” question. Which came first? The differences in the brains, or the differences in values?


My point is this: Jumping to conclusions about the results of scientific studies is both unscientific and unhelpful. Unfortunately there’s been quite a bit of that by those eager to warp reality to support their groups validity (or ascendency). If the shoe fits…


The question about the causes of brain differences arises out of the fact that recent discoveries have also concluded that our brains have Neuroplasticity. Wikipedia citing several sources states: (emphasis mine)


Neuroplasticity (from neural – pertaining to the nerves and/or brain and plastic – moldable or changeable in structure) refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses which are due to changes in behavior, environment and neural processes, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.[1] Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.[2]


So, the idea that “I was born this way, so I cannot change”, is hereby debunked. This understanding should at least cause us to hesitate before we point the finger at another group and their values claiming there’s something “wrong” with them. Environment and repeated behaviors are largely responsible for how our brains have formed (so far).


About the brain difference studies an article by ABC News Sept 13 states:


“Conservatives and liberals may have one less thing in common: neurology… ProCon.org  has gathered 13 peer-reviewed studiesof behavioral and neurological studies and come to the conclusion that differences between Republicans and Democrats are more than skin-deep.The studies looked at things like differences between groups’ perception of eye movement, and aversion to threatening noises.  Researchers also noted that Democrats had larger anterior cingulate cortexes, which are associated with tolerance to uncertainty, while Republicans had larger right amygdalas, which are associated with sensitivity to fear. …Although Markoff concluded the studies combine to mean that the different groups communicate in different ways, psychiatrist Greg Appelbaum said the studies point toward conservatives’ tendency to avoid something called self-harm, while liberals avoid collective group harm.”


So far the conclusions we can get from this information is:


  • There are differences in brain structure that result in a difference of emphasis on values.
  • Brain structure is not inherent, but attributable to environmental and behavior patterns.


However, groups on one side or the other are quick to use information like this to fuel the fires of conflict with more “factual” information which “obviously” makes the opposing group wrong or bad. From other studies focused on human development and social psychology we can gain even more insight.


We belong to groups because we are social animals. Whether that group is political, economic or religious or other, we have a tendency to adopt the beliefs of groups we associate with the most. How we behave in our social context actually has an affect on our survival possibilities. This is where the lizard brain comes into the picture. The lizard brain will engage to protect identity if it’s group or personal. Right now we see groups like the right and left wing political ideologists stratified. There is a constant barrage of finger pointing and blame in order to paint the other as less than or worse than.


This tells me that these groups feel threatened. The status of their thought system and the importance of their value structure is being eroded within the larger context of a pluralistic society. So they fight. It’s a fight about survival of identity. If the fight was about the issues, and the resolution of actual social problems, they would not be surrendering their frontal lobes to reactive and irrational arguments and behaviors.


Calls for bipartisanship and “working together” to solve problems will fall on lizard brain deafened ears until a widespread realization occurs. That realization would be: It is in our best interest to solve the paramount problems facing our society. The greater threat to our group or any group, is to let our common problems go unsolved. 


More specifically everyone involved would need to take more responsibility to engage in some self reflection to see where they are stubbornly protecting their values over others. Remember, we are humans first, then male or female,  American, ethnic, religious, political, economic and other groups have their importance or place in the heirarchy and spectrum of human expression. Ultimately we actually need each other. Not only to define ourselves, but to survive and thrive.


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