Tales Of Our Times: Partisan Discourse Forges The Hobbles It Wears

Tales of Our Times

New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Partisan Discourse Forges The Hobbles It Wears
A year before the 2016 election, this column remarked on news about the hard physical evidence that shows barriers are hardwired into partisan thinking. Since then, political discourse has shown more such evidence. A natural quirk in our brains minimizes the exchange of ideas, the essential mulch that a democratic republic needs to survive and be fruitful. Nature is not an easy friend.

In partisan issues, and other issues made partisan to stir voters, the mind judges “our side” and “their side” in wholly different ways. Physical data confirm the trait. We can watch the brain simply sidetrack anything that helps an opposing view. A study at Emory University shows how the partisan brain can discard annoying evidence. These mysteries wait in corners of the brain as if hiding in the night sky.

In the early 17th century, the telescope let sky watchers see deeper into the heavens. The new tool brought swift discoveries of truths about our solar system. The tool we use to see a partisan mind at work is functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI for short. This ingenious device can look at each separate part of a brain, and know at each instant if the part is active or idle.

Happily, fMRI does its detecting with invisible forces, not wires. It has to do with blood flow in busy parts of the brain that is detected by magnetic differences between blood with more or less oxygen in it. Ah, the wonders.

The next piece in the story is using fMRI to map the brain, much as the telescope keeps mapping the heavens. The mapping tells which sites in the brain are activated for specific purposes. A purpose might be tied to sights, sounds, moving the fingers, handling language, sorting out clues, booing in disgust, or laughing with glee. With the powers of fMRI, a modern brain map is pieced together. As with the heavens, the brain map slowly gains details, which fit with observed effects.

What effects are seen? The researchers studied a sampling of committed Democrats and Republicans during three months before the presidential election of 2004. The brain functions of each partisan were probed by fMRI while he or she read a series of statements in pairs. Six pairs of statements were from George W. Bush, six from his opponent Senator John Kerry, and six from a politically neutral figure, such as actor Tom Hanks.

Each pair of statements was chosen to show a clear contradiction between the figure’s words and deeds, implying the person was lying or pandering. Each partisan was asked to consider the discrepancy and rate the extent to which the party nominee was devious. Then each partisan was given a statement that might explain away the discrepancy. Each was asked to reconsider and again rate who was slippery and who was straight.

Can you guess the gyrations in the partisans’ minds that were seen by fMRI?

In starkest terms, information that threatens a partisan’s avowed stance is simply not processed. “Not processed” means “routed to bypass the parts of the brain that reason.” In detail, the brain of its own accord routes news we scorn to the brain sites known to boo, hiss and laugh, and it avoids sites able to analyze, reason or judge. Think of it. The logical sites are never sent the data.

As a result, partisans’ minds easily saw the contradictions in the despised candidate. The same failings in their prized candidate were invisible. Democrat and Republican minds mirror the same bizarre action. All minds worked alike on Tom Hanks.

We see the trait because fMRI shows strong blood flow in the emotion sites and quiet flow in the analysis parts. The brain at work—its need for oxygen and blood flow in busy parts—is physically measurable. Science points to the dark truth: Once a mind sets its political course, it can auto-reject facts that weigh for the other side. In this way, perspectives can only grow more and more partisan.

The full story is harder to gather than we knew.