Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Gridlock vs. Brainlock in Washington?

Why there is so much political gridlock in Washington related to the country’s finances?

It is pretty clear that there are plenty of policy solutions out there.   Here is information from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation Solutions Initiative.   This comes from a program in 2011 that asked six think tanks across the political spectrum to suggest approaches to the long term financial challenges facing the United States.   So, the first thing everyone needs to recognize is that there are plenty of ideas out there.

Then why are our political leaders having so much trouble finding middle ground, compromising and “cutting a deal”?   The standard arguments go something like this:

  • The country is more polarized than ever so there is little middle ground.
  • There are not enough moderates in either party who can cross party lines to make a deal happen.
  • There is a media echo chamber so that each side has their position constantly reinforced.
  • The current political leaders lack the political and negotiating skills that were once common in Washington that made deals possible.

I have another take and it comes from brain scanning studies and what parts of the brain are activated in people who are interested in politics.   A technique called functional MRI is used in these studies.  Here is a summary of the results from one such study:


“Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we scanned individuals (either interested or uninterested in politics based on a self-report questionnaire) while they were expressing their agreement or disagreement with political opinions….Behavioral results showed that those political opinions participants agreed with were perceived as more emotionally intense and more positive by individuals interested in politics relative to individuals uninterested in politics. In addition, individuals interested in politics showed greater activation in the amygdala and the ventral striatum (ventral putamen) relative to individuals uninterested in politics when reading political opinions in accordance with their own views. This study shows that having an interest in politics elicits activations in emotion- and reward-related brain areas even when simply agreeing with written political opinions.”


The take home message for the authors was that:

“…..increased amygdala activity in individuals interested in politics for political opinions in accordance with their views may be related to an increased emotional intensity associated with the sense of belonging to a social group and/or the importance of their beliefs to constructing a positive sense of self.”


If you think about these results and the explanation above, perhaps they explain why it is so hard to compromise and negotiate.   Activation of emotional parts of the brain might make it hard to get past your own world view.  There are other interesting findings about how brain structure differs in conservative vs. liberals and how they process political information differently.

Finally, motivated reasoning is a term used to describe biased information processing when people have an emotional stake in the outcome.  It is interesting to note that there is also brain imaging evidence to suggest that political thinking activates specific areas of the brain involved in motivated reasoning distinct from the areas involved in cold or unbiased reasoning.

Based on the ideas presented above it seems to me the issue in Washington is Brainlock and not Gridlock.   I wonder if there are training programs or other techniques that politicians and pundits on both sides could use to increase their mental flexibility.


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