Skip navigation.
articles and commentaries

Politics and the brain - an attempt at understanding a divided America

Printer-friendly version

A constant theme of the American politics in recent years (the '00 decade), at all levels, is the great and apparently increasing polarization of the political spectrum. Politicians talk about "partisan politics", and if you look at the number of votes in Congress neatly divided on "party lines", as if mindless robots are casting the votes, not living human beings, you understand these are not empty words. Commentators and pundits have observed an increasing tendency of some neighborhoods to become "unicolor" politically, as if there's some selection mechanism pulling diverse people apart. Changes happen at the high levels of any of the three branches of government and then people talk about that saying how they need to "get their country back" or how they just have gotten it back, as if an invasion has happened at some point and some foreign or alien force has taken over or has been defeated. And finally the media, supposedly neutral, allegedly existing just to inform citizens about events, seems to be shifting towards more partisan positions.

It is perhaps easy to dismiss these things as being just "politics as usual" - and maybe that's the case, at least presently. But this is not a random universe and things tend to happen for a reason, and when you observe trends which are this large and deep and persistent, you are entitled to start looking for a cause. It is this way because something caused it, and trying to find an answer to the question "why?" often sends you off in directions which are as surprising initially as they are satisfying (from the point of view of knowledge) in the end.

The thesis which I am advancing here is that the seemingly deep division in modern American politics has come to pass because this is a scene with two main actors - the two major parties - whose positions have slowly changed over many decades until they have stumbled upon two great attractors in the field of human psychology, and now are stuck. It's essentially the supremacy of psychology over politics, certain features of the human mind acting as mooring posts far from each other, preventing not only any further drift, but also most attempts at bridging the gap.

Let's begin with looking at the way the human mind works, using the triune brain theory, Transactional Analysis, and related models - the clues we'll find there will make the explanation pretty obvious.

In 1973, the neurologist Paul MacLean, senior research scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, proposed that the brain is made of three different working units, each one of them having separate roles, stacked upon each other in a hierarchical system which is also an indication of the evolutionary past. This is what is known as the "triune brain" model. His theory is controversial nowadays, and we'll discuss the controversy soon, but let's see first what this model consists of.

According to MacLean, the three parts of the brain are:
- The R-complex, or the reptilian brain
- the limbic system, or the mammalian brain
- the neocortex, or the human brain

The R-complex is supposedly inherited from our distant reptilian ancestors. It consists of the brain stem and the cerebellum. It governs the most basic functions required to keep the body functioning - breathing, the heart beat. It influences the circulation, digestion, elimination. Sex and the territorial behavior - pecking order, defense, aggression - are also localized here. Psychologically, it is involved with fear and anger, it is rigid, paranoid, obsessive, ritualistic and repetitive, opposed to change and attached to the past. It only cares about the individual at all costs.

The limbic system, according to MacLean, is the invention of the old (earliest) mammals. It is the primary seat of emotion - everything in the limbic system is either agreeable or disagreeable. Attention and affective memories are also located here. Love, bonding with a partner for a long time, caring for offspring in an involved and attentive way, are governed by the limbic system too, and so are creativity and hope, and also passion in both its positive (drive) and negative (jealousy) aspects. It cares about creating and maintaining inter-personal bonds, sometimes at the detriment of the individual.

The neocortex is the newest part of the brain. It comprises most of the two hemispheres. Evolutionarily, it has started with the superior mammals, but has grown explosively during the primate and human phase. It is the seat of the rational mind. Reason, speech, intelligence, sapience are located here. To quote MacLean, it's "the mother of invention and father of abstract thought." A mouse without its tiny cortex has an almost normal behavior, while a human being who has lost the overwhelmingly larger human cortex is a vegetable.

Together these three parts form a stack, with the R-complex at the bottom and the neocortex at the top. The higher levels are more complex and usually possess more control, however the lower levels exert their influence too. What makes us human is the neocortex, of course, but always the other two components are visible from underneath. In some people, out of the two lower levels, the limbic system (mammalian brain) appears more visible, while in others it's the reptilian brain (R-complex) which seems to assist or influence the neocortex more often.

Today, the triune brain model divides the scientists. In neuroanatomy, the science which studies the anatomical organization of the nervous system, the "hardware" as it were, this model is disputed. Apparently, the brain functions are not physically distributed the way MacLean originally envisioned. However, the psychiatrists, or those who study the "software" of the brain, accept the triple division as implicit truth. To them, the three different parts of the mind are obviously real and this model is used as a matter of course.

In fact, psychology and psychiatry have come up with similar models before and independently of MacLean. Eric Berne created Transactional Analysis in the 1950s, postulating that a person's Ego (speaking in freudian terms, albeit T.A. is post- and even extra-freudian, but it uses a similar language) is made out of three different elements: the Adult, or neopsyche, which is rational, dispassionate and objective (MacLean's neocortex); the Child, or archaeopsyche, emotional, creative, spontaneous, intimate (the limbic system, or mammalian brain); the Parent, or exteropsyche, rigid, authoritative, inherited from the past (the R-complex or reptilian brain).

All this might indicate that MacLean was probably right when he divided the works of the mind (conscious and unconscious) in three different parts, but was perhaps wrong when he assigned these parts to particular structures of the brain. Now, for the things discussed here what matters is the end result, the behavior, the interaction with the environment, the fact that there are these three main "programs" running on the brain's "hardware." Whether or not they are located on separate physical "processors" is irrelevant. We are looking here at the human being in its dialogue with the world, and we note that there are three agencies in the human mind working together to create tendency, thought, speech and action.

In fact, the triune model is not a new idea. Before the modern science, St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 1200s, under the aegis of Plato and St. Augustine, was talking about spirit (in the head - neocortex), soul (in the heart - limbic system) and body (in the belly - R-complex) in a way reminiscing of MacLean's triune model. In the eastern hemisphere, similar ideas have been discussed for a similarly long time - perhaps the most recent, and to the modern mind most intelligible, example is Aurobindo Ghose (philosopher and poet, one of the architects of the Indian revolution, later a spiritual figure in 20th century India) who formally divided the human nature in three principles: Matter (also including the so-called "physical mind", destined to govern the life-sustaining processes of the body - similar to the R-complex), Life (including emotions, passion, ardor - the limbic system) and Mind (reason - the neocortex).

Finally, the model has permeated the modern popular culture to some degree. To give just one example, the Pulitzer prize winning novel "The Dragons of Eden" by Carl Sagan uses it extensively to talk about the way the human mind works, the way myths and innate fears are created and influence people and society.

So it seems like this model has been with most or all of us for a long time, either consciously or as subliminal knowledge. The triple division appears to correspond to something real, and while the various ideas differ with regard to the prime cause of this division (spirit/soul/body or Mind/Life/Matter according to the older pre-scientific systems, three major "programs" comprising the brain's "software" according to modern psychology), from an external perspective the descriptions match each other pretty well. Moreover, it produces results when used by the modern psychiatrists.

It's real, and it works. Let's put it to use in the realm of politics.

Investigating the current ideology of the Republican Party in the US, the recurring theme is one of the R-complex (reptilian brain) supporting and driving the rational activities of the neocortex. More specifically:

- The overarching theme of individualism in most if not all Republican policies (economic, social, national defense) is a typical R-complex influence. To the reptilian brain, the individual is all that matters. Everything else in the universe is either food, or aggressor/victim.
- Anything related to sex is a major concern (as opposed to the laissez-faire, take it for granted attitude of the Democrats) and is supposed to be strictly regulated and controlled: homosexual behavior is at the very least frowned upon, same-sex marriages are opposed, there is a much greater concern for limiting sexual behavior and attitudes (even hetero-). This is again the R-complex, with its focus on sex but also with its ritualism and rigidity.
- Religion is important. The R-complex again, ritualism.
- National defense and military spending are emphasized - the R-complex, aggression, fear.
- Gun ownership is seen as a right - same as above.

Looking at the Democratic Party, the theme here is one of influence of the limbic system over the neocortex:

- It believes in alleviating poverty - the empathy of the limbic system, caring for the other.
- Legalization of same-sex marriage is favored, sex in general is less debated or is taken for granted - what matters is the emotional bond, not sex, a typical limbic system attitude.
- Cultural pluralism is favored - the limbic system, building inter-individual bonds.
- Opposition to unilateralism, building international alliances and support - same as above.
- Opposition to torture - the limbic system, the suffering of the other is not irrelevant.

There seem to be also some mixed influences, e.g. the Republican doctrine is one of opposition to abortion, which may be interpreted as an influence from the limbic system (although how much of it is compassion and how much is religious dogma is open for debate). But overall, there seems to be a pretty strong R-complex influence in the Republican policies, and limbic system in the Democratic.

Empirically, many people seem to have an intuitive knowledge of this situation, even though most of them probably are not aware of the triune brain model, or of Transactional Analysis in an explicit way. Looking at the stereotypes thrown over the political fence, the following can be observed:

- The Republican ideology is stereotyped as the "politics of fear." There seems to be the perception that what drives the Republican way of thinking is the same thing which is responsible for fear and aggression in the human mind - the R-complex.
- The Democrats are derided as "bleeding-heart liberals." Again, the intuition seems to be that the major psychological influence over the Democratic ideology is the seat of emotion in the mind - the limbic system.

Moving further into the empirical, non-rigorous domain (but what is rigorous in psychology after all?) similar connections can be seen when looking at talk show hosts and other public figures affiliated with one party or the other - we're not talking about politicians per se, since those are much less prone to express and manifest themselves freely (most politicians are under tight neocortical control most of the time they are active in the public arena - slipping up is almost always a source of embarrassment).

Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, all of them strongly leaning Republican, tend to manifest more rigid personalities (R-complex), bring up and are more focused on topics related to war, terrorist attacks, in general the psychological field of fear and aggression (R-complex). Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Bill Maher, leaning Democratic, are affable, emotionally relaxed individuals (limbic system) - and the very fact that all three of them are comedians indicates the limbic influence, since an actor or comedian connects with the public using emotion as an instrument.

It is perhaps not surprising now that the most powerful Republican in recent times (George W. Bush) used to repeat the words "axis of evil" (fear, an R-complex theme) in his speeches, while his Democratic successor (Barack Obama) used "hope" as one of his election's mantras (a typical limbic system product). Of course, the reality is more complex than just these influences, but the connection remains, and is obvious.

So now that we know there is a connection between ideology and the way the brain works, what does it mean for the current situation of polarized politics and a country divided?

The bad news is - we've painted ourselves in a corner pretty badly. The triune brain might be a new theory (relatively speaking), but it's the way the human mind has always functioned, since the "beginning of time" (for our species). If the political game has happened to fall into this hole, it is going to be difficult to dig itself out. After all, this is a major, deep, persistent groove in the human psyche, and anything that happens to align itself with the workings of the three chambers of the mind will tend to depend on this ternary division for as long as the division will persist. Which is to say - for as long as the human species will exist in its current form.

The good news is - the division appears to have settled along the R-complex / limbic border. The only parts of the mind involved in drawing the "war zone" on the map are the R-complex and the limbic system. The neocortex is not involved in this highly polarized opposition. Indeed, the neocortex alone does not care about partisan politics. It only cares about reason, and knowledge, and sorting out the correct conclusion from a mound of useless or distracting facts.

But that is hardly surprising. We knew already that reason alone stands aside, not involved in this pointless tug-of-war. The question is - will reason be capable of bridging the gaps, smooth the rough edges and bring solutions to apparently untractable differences? Based on past experience, the prospects look unpromising. The rational mind is fairly capable and powerful in its own domain - the abstract, the virtual worlds - but its power seems to vanish like water in dry sand once it hits the cold hard material reality, or the hot smoldering netherworlds of primal impulses, fears and reflex responses. Just look at any frenzied mob, it's all instincts, the mind is all gone.

So, in place of a conclusion... I don't know. This political situation - it, too, is a system, an aggregate with a beginning, a mode of operation, an evolution, and an end, like any other. This, too, will cease to exist at some point. What remains to be seen is: will it die giving birth to something new and better and less irrational and more suited to face the complexities of this ever changing modern world, or will it go under (or spiral down in flames) dragging with it a country and a culture and a way of life? I wish I could say this is just a flashy sprinkle of cheap drama packaged in a faux-rhetorical question. Unfortunately, I feel it is not, and quite a few things may depend on the way this conflict will end.

Time will tell.