Do we substitute our opinions for our identities?

Synapse 13: A possible neural mechanism underlying our political polarization

As of the day this newsletter is going out, the next U.S. presidential election is only 16 days away and will take place in a world suffering from the worst global pandemic in 100 years, a crisis of misinformation, and unbelievable inequality. 

If I was afforded only one word to describe U.S. politics today it would be polarizing. It's true that I've been paying attention for only a few years, so it's unclear to me if U.S. politics have always been this way or if we are amidst a particularly polarizing climate. 

Either way, this polarization is caused by many different factors, but I recently heard an intriguing hypothesis on the latest episode of the podcast Ear Biscuits (I should note that this podcast isn't normally known for its political commentary). The hypothesis went something like this: 

Our political climate today is fraught with tension as people dig into their own camps and make an emotional and sometimes nasty argument with the other side of the aisle. Humans have an instinct for self-preservation and survival. One reason our society is so polarized today is that people have misattributed their own opinions as their identity and thus fight to preserve and propagate their opinion as if it is their own life they are saving

In other words, we've somehow conflated the survival of our opinion with the survival of our species.

Hearing this hypothesis led me to wonder if there are overlapping cognitive or neural mechanism between a formation of self-identity and a survival instinct. If this hypothesis has any truth, we would expect to find a similar neural mechanism between a sense of self and our evolutionary tendency to survive. Let's take a closer look at identity first. 

How do we form an identity?

Finding and constructing an identity is a critical function of our brains because it lets us orient our bodies in space and time, put us in a social context, find meaning in life, etc. Neuroscientists from UCLA have identified our prefrontal cortex, the region right behind your eyebrows, as critical to this process. Our prefrontal cortex takes up 10% of our total brain volume and is particularly large in humans compared to animals. This region is best known for executive functioning which controls short-term, reflexive, short-sighted decisions in an effort to promote long-term planning, self-control, problem-solving, etc. 

A particular region of the prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex or mPFC is active in a default mode or when we are not focused on the external environment and are thinking inward toward ourselves. Conversely, researchers found that another area of the prefrontal cortex, the dmPFC, is active in social contexts. Further research has confirmed that the mPFC appears to be spontaneously active when the brain is free from external demands on our attention and is thus one reason why people are always thinking about themselves.

Judith E. Glaser in Psychology Today talks about how the mPFC might be critical for something called Conversational Intelligence. In her words: 

When we learn that we share experiences, words, perceptions, and interests with other people our brains become fixated on how others view us and how to make them like us.

Here, we can already see clues as to the possible importance of the mPFC in a survival instinct. It's intuitive that making others like us, and being successful in a social context, is important for any human's survival. Now we turn to the other half of our hypothesis: survival instinct. 

Threat assessment as a survival instinct

One important aspect of survival instinct is survival intelligence including threat assessment and response. Like conversational intelligence, the mPFC has been shown to be involved in a few different aspects of threat assessment according to a 2015 review in Frontiers in Neuroscience. 

One's threat assessment includes defense strategies such as escapability, safety-seeking, and threat value. In healthy humans, the mPFC becomes active when subjects are chased by a highly inescapable threat. Activity in the mPFC has been shown to be increased in people with spider phobias after cognitive behavioral therapy. Finally, assessing the seriousness of a threat is an important aspect of our cognitive survival response and many studies have shown the mPFC and amygdala to be important in this process. 

Taken together, it's easy to see that the mPFC is very likely to be critical in our survival intelligence and therefore may have some role in our evolutionary survival instinct. 

Putting it all together

So, in the beginning, our hypothesis was that one possible explanation for today's polarized political environment was that people have substituted their opinions with their identities and therefore fight to convince others like they are fighting for their life. Then we said that if this were true, we would expect to find overlapping neural mechanisms between identity formation and survival instinct, and that was exactly what we found with the mPFC

To get there, we had to drill down into seemingly niche aspects of cognition from, for example, survival intelligence to threat assessment to defense strategies. This was necessary because disentangling how brain activity leads to behavior is an incredibly complex feat. 

But don't forget, as I wrote last week, just because a neuroscientific argument exists doesn't mean it is high quality or should be taken seriously. 

So what do you think? When you vehemently disagree with someone and feel an urge to convince them of their wrongness and convert them to your side, how does it feel? Does it feel as though the other side of the argument is an existential threat to yours? I'm interested to know your thoughts on this issue, so hit [reply] if you have an opinion. 

🔗 Links

🧬 This week, Science Magazine put out a blog post by Dr. Derek Lowe explaining the recent research breakthroughs into the re-infection rate of COVID-19. The TL;DR is that yes, re-infection can happen, but that it is an extremely rare event that we likely don’t have to worry about. Critically, none of the documented re-infections are due to mutations in COVID’s Spike protein which is the target of all the vaccines in the pipeline. This is great news for a vaccine’s chances at conferring long-term immunity.

👨🏾‍🔬 Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the incredible “immunologist-turned-virologist-turned-internist-turned-oncologist-turned-writer-turned-historian” and author of The Emperor of All Maladies and The Gene was commissioned to write an essay reflecting on the historic contributions that scientists and physicians have made in our understanding of immunology and virology and where we are headed in the future in light of this global pandemic. Mukherjee is an incredibly eloquent and vivid writer and I highly encourage anyone interested in immunology to give it a read. Here’s just a taste of Mukherjee’s brilliance:

What words does one use—what phrases—to adequately capture the difference in living in the BV versus the AV—Before Virus and After Virus? To witness the sights and sounds of this struggle is to realize that life has been pushed off its known orbit forever: the constant beeping of alarms in the wards that eventually merged together into a mind-numbing wall of sound; the terror and confusion written across the brow of a (masked) cancer patient who was told that he had the virus; and, above all, the hideous damnation of dying alone, with a handheld camera as the only fragile connection with your family—“dying on iPhone,” as one doctor friend described it.

💬 Quote of the week

“If you think research is expensive, try disease” — Mary Lasker

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