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The Biology of Political Differences
It often seems that people who hold political or social views diametrically opposed to your own are so bull-headed that they just won't listen to logic and facts. Now a study by a team of political scientists and psychologists suggests that the reason for such impasses lies deep in the primitive areas of the brain.
The study, reported last fall in Science, found that people who reacted most strongly to disturbing photographs—such as the image of a large spider on the face of a frightened woman or of a dazed man with a bloodied face—were likelier to endorse policies viewed as protecting the existing social structure. For example, they were likelier to favor increased defense spending, capital punishment, warrantless searches, and the Iraq War. Those who had the mildest physiological reactions to the photographs strongly favored more generous and liberal policies, such as foreign aid, relaxed immigration laws, and gun control. The findings suggest that those who advocate more aggressive social and political policies may have a stronger need to protect their boundaries, and that what may seem like bellicose aggressiveness may just as often be a fear-based response.
This is the first study that suggests that sociopolitical positions may evolve out of physiological hardwiring. Understanding how that happens is well beyond the scope of the study, but political scientist John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska Lincoln, one of the researchers in the study, argues that it makes sense that people who experience threats more viscerally would develop attitudes different from those of people who are innately more sanguine.
In recent years, the principles of mindfulness meditation have become part of many new therapeutic approaches, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Internal Family Systems, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Now it appears that mindfulness may be a powerful tool for successful dieting and the treatment of eating disorders. The preliminary research is promising enough that the National Institute of Mental Health has funded a project studying a treatment called Enhancing Mindfulness for the Prevention of Weight Regain (empower).
Psychologist Ruth Wolever, from Duke University's Center for Integrative Medicine, one of empower's developers and researchers, points out that food-related problems are inextricably tangled with issues that mindfulness addresses. People who struggle with their emotions and thoughts often externalize their psychological battles by denying themselves nourishment to starve unwelcome feelings or overeating to smother them. They often have difficulty recognizing the physical sensations of hunger or satiation, conflating them with feelings of panic, sorrow, or anger.
"Mindfulness teaches people that control can be achieved not through struggle, but through acceptance of their unwelcome emotions, thoughts, and physical cues," says Wolever. "It helps people practice identifying and experiencing emotion without reacting to it."
Mindfulness seems to produce not just a psychological realignment, but physical changes. In a study of another mindfulness-based program for binge eaters, researchers found that participants showed significant improvement in metabolizing glucose—which would affect not just weight, but cravings.