Saturday, October 04, 2008

Born blue?

Every time Sarah Palin winked during the debate the other evening, signals from my sensory cortex were relayed to the thalamus and ultimately to the brain stem, resulting in heightened noradrenergic activity in the locus ceruleus. Acetylcholine, acting primarily through my amygdala, but also through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, stimulated release of epinephrine, which in turn led to activation of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system.

I'm not making this up. Except for the personal pronouns, I quote verbatim from an article in the September 19 issue of Science, "Political Attitudes Vary With Physiological Traits," by Oxley, et. al., a gathering of political scientists and psychologists who studied the physiological responses -- eye blinks and skin conductance -- to sudden noises and threatening visual images of a group of forty-six Nebraskan adults with strong political views. The subjects who displayed higher startle reflexes to threatening stimuli also tended to favor school prayer, Biblical truth, defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq war, and oppose gun control, foreign aid, gay marriage, and so on. Subjects who were less sensitive to threatening stimuli tended toward the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Say the researchers:
Our data reveal a correlation between physiological responses to threat and political attitudes but do not permit firm conclusions concerning the specific causal processes at work. Particular physiological responses to threat could cause the adoption of certain political attitudes, or the holding of particular political attitudes could cause people to respond in a certain physiological way to environmental threats, but neither of these seems probable. More likely is that physiological responses to generic threats and political attitudes on policies related to protecting the social order may both derive from a common source. Parents could both socialize their children to hold certain political attitudes and condition them to respond in a certain way to threatening stimuli, but conditioning involuntary reflex responses takes immediate and sustained reinforcement and punishment, and it is unlikely that this conditioning varies systematically across political beliefs.
The implication is that genetically-determined physiological traits -- involuntary reflexes to perceived threats -- correlate with political postures.

I'm not sure how this jibes with red-state/blue-state politics, nor am I convinced that forty-six Nebraskans who would walk into a laboratory to have their blinks and sweat measured qualify as a meaningful sample of political opinion. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if we are born with liberal or conservative predispositions.

Fer sure, every time Palin winked, my eyes twitched and my skin conductance shot up, a response to a perceived threat that -- according to the study -- should put me at the conservative end of the political spectrum.