The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Colin Firth on conservatives: Is there something biologically wrong with them?

January 4, 2011 |  1:11 pm

Colin firth My wife thinks the only thing biologically wrong with Colin Firth is that, through some cruel Darwinian twist of fate, he didn't meet her before she met me. That has forced her to settle for a clearly inferior piece of manhood, not to mention someone unable to purr at her in that wonderfully plummy British accent. I'm not complaining -- Firth's loss was my gain. But as it turns out, the star of the Oscar-bound "The King's Speech" is fascinated with the idea of whether our political beliefs are hard-wired, not simply acquired by prolonged exposure to Glenn Beck rants on Fox News or Paul Krugman doomsday columns in the New York Times.

After being made the guest editor for the BBC's "Today Programme," Firth, a longtime liberal activist, assigned a reporter the job of delving into this idea about our political leanings being shaped as much by genetics as experience. As he drolly put it: "I took this on as a fairly frivolous exercise. I just decided to find out what was biologically wrong with people who didn't agree with me and see what scientists had to say about it."

The results are intriguing. As BBC science correspondent Tom Feilden explains on his blog, there actually are areas of the brain where political beliefs are reflected in the physical structure. The BBC brought in professor Geraint Rees, a specialist in cognitive neuroscience, who studied the brains of two members of Parliament with diametrically opposing views -- Labour stalwart Stephen Pound and Thatcherite Conservative Alan Duncan, which I guess would be the equivalent of studying the brains of Barney Frank and Michelle Bachmann. To make the study slightly more rigorous, the professor included a pool of students who'd been previously scanned in other unrelated experiments. They filled in a questionaire assessing their political values, with their answers compared to their structural brain scans.

The results? There was a strong correlation between political leanings in two specific areas of the brain. Liberal students had a significantly thicker anterior cingulate while the amygdala, a region associated with emotional processing, was larger in students who regarded themselves as conservatives. The same went for the two MPs: Pound, the liberal, had a thicker anterior cingulate, while Duncan's was thinner.

Of course, it's still not clear what came first -- the structure of the brain shaping political belief or political belief sparking a different development of brain structure. Still, Rees was impressed.

"It's a remarkable finding," he said. "We were very surprised to find two areas of the brain from which we could predict political attitudes."

If anyone out there has a strong opinion about this, I'd like to hear your take. As for me, I will refrain from taking sides in the matter, except to say that I have a very long list of American politicians that I would like to see undergo a similar examination -- just to see if they have a brain at all.  

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Colin Firth portraying King George VI in "The King's Speech."   Credit: Laurie Sparham / The Weinstein Co.