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Are you voting with your lizard brain?

With a national election getting closer and closer, I find myself thinking about our political system and the increasingly divisive tone of policy debate today. As I recall, there was a time when Americans could have different political views and still enjoy a cordial, even friendly relationship. Sadly, even our elected representatives seem to be increasingly incapable of being civil to each other, setting a poor example for the rest of us. The “personalization” of American politics has been well-documented, but no one seems to know quite when it started or how we could ever reverse the trend. When this nation elects our next president, one side will win and the other will lose. If the past eight years are any indication, we don’t seem to be very good at winning or losing graciously. Maybe the cause of all this gridlock is a by-product of how most people make a political decision.

Your Voting Decision is Probably More Emotional than Logical

Most people assume that they are making a logical choice in the voting booth, but science tells us something else. A recent study out of McGill University shows that most voting decisions are heavily influenced by our first impressions of the candidate, which become extremely difficult for our brain to dismiss once we made a decision. The lateral orbitofrontal cortex (LOFC) appears to mediate this decision, pulling signals from multiple parts of the brain and combining them into a single decision, which we perceive as rational and evidence-based. Logical thought is produced in our cerebral cortex, but many “decisions” are actually made by the brain stem, the most primitive part of our brain, which regulates unconscious reactions such as the “fight or flight” response. The brain stem is sometimes called “the lizard brain” because there is a similar structure in more primitive creatures like snakes and lizards. It is believed that these brains are not capable of conscious thought, but go through life making pre-programmed reactions to stay alive. Our subconscious determinations of physical attractiveness, trustworthiness and competence usually carry a far greater weight in our decision than a purely rational evaluation of the facts about a candidate.

Your “News” is Self-Fulfilling

In fact, this same behavior was recently discovered in a study of how people get their news. According to the New York Times, Facebook and Twitter have become the primary sources of news for most people. This might not concern me if these and other social media sites had been built to be unbiased, verified sources of news, but that is not the case. What passes for “news” in social media is filtered by what we’ve liked and viewed previously. That means it is highly unlikely that you will even see information about a candidate or position that you haven’t already liked or followed. You will, however, see plenty of criticism, anger, fear and even hatred aimed at people and positions that are in opposition to your own. In 2014, a study revealed that U.S. voters are more polarized than ever before in our history. And my guess is that same study would show an even greater divide if it were conducted today.

We are Hard-Wired to Fear the “Other”

I’ve mentioned before that the brain is a remarkably successful survival tool. Over time, everything that happens in the brain occurs because at one time or another this behavior offered a significant advantage for survival, both of individuals and ultimately of our species. Yet those hard-wired responses aren’t always optimal in our modern world. For example, we have a built-in tendency to fear “the other,” meaning members of any group that is not our own. This could mean fearing people from a different party, a different gender or race, or other differences. If we allow these instinctual, subconscious reactions to govern our behavior, we never really allow ourselves to hear the case for the other side. In fact, we develop a sort of tunnel vision where only the people in my group can be “right” and everyone else must be “wrong.” Why let the facts get in the way of my decision, right?

Once we make that decision on an unconscious level that has nothing to do with logic, we spend a great deal of energy justifying it by selecting only those external facts that support our “logic.” What does it say about us as a people? How have we become so deeply divided that our instinctive reaction to people with different opinions is so instantly, so viscerally negative? Why are we so quick to throw logic and common sense out the window if it doesn’t fit our world view? Why do we seem to care so little about the truth when we are making such an important decision?

I honestly don’t know how to pull out of this terrifying pattern. Neuroscience offers us hope. Through the discovery of brain plasticity we know that it is possible for us to change. In fact, we are continually changing, right up until the moment of death. We can’t help it. Your brain is doing this automatically all the time, in response to new information. We can also consciously rewire our brains, by focusing on the specific concepts, knowledge or behavior that we wish to exhibit. The belief that you can change is a powerful one. But it takes a conscious choice and consistent actions to make the change. Still, we have to try.

In a few months, the U.S. will select a leader who will have to face a host of known and unknown hazards. I think we owe it to ourselves and the rest of the world to make an effort to use all of our brains – not just the “lizard brain.” And then pray that enough of us have made a conscious choice to save us all.

Margie Meacham


  1. Bodil Nissen on August 18, 2016 at 12:59 am

    Hi Margie. My name is Bodil, and I am from Denmark, where we have the same concern. I am 55 years old and remember going on my honeymoon to USA in 1988 under your election. My husband and I were so astonished and sorry to see on television how the American candidates spoke to and about one another… But now we see the same thing in Europe…

    I have recently come up with a theory, that I would like to hear your thoughts about: We agree that our brains are made to ensure our survival as a species and that our instinctive actions to secure our survival (eating, learning, having sex and so forth) are rewarded by brain hormones. Man is born with this instincts, but as soon a baby is born something else ads in. Culture. The parent – typically the mother – starts the upbringing of the child; “Autch, don’t bite me” – “No, no you can’t have that toy – it belongs to Carl” and so on. Where the instincts directed by the lizard brain are about your inner drive positioning yourself the best way possible for survival by finding the best spot, the best tools, the best food, the best partner and so on – the upbringing and socializing is about restriction and learning the rules to be accepted in the group, tribe or society that you are born into. If you don’t obey you are put outside the flock.

    From ancient times we know the picture of hawing an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other – both of them whispering in our ears and giving us a hard time making our decisions. If the angel is our conscious brain; our culturally learned moral and ethics, the devil is our reptile brain with instincts and lust ruled by brain hormones. It might be a little wrong to call the reptile brain the devil since is crucial to our survival. But at the same time it is true, that it over and over again puts us into dilemmas – especially in our modern world of bounty- which it’s not designed for. As an example we have more and more people getting addicted to food, sex, games, social media and so on simply because it’s everywhere in the modern society – and the interaction with it rewarded with brain hormones.

    I have allways wondered why there are leftwings and rightwings all over the world. And I think it might have to do with us being part genes part culture: Where the leftwings focus on making rules that support solidarity among people (remember that you could become ill and poor to) – then the rightwings focus on your industry vidual right to do as you please and to have fewer rules (we cannot innovate and conquer new ground if we are held back by taxes and rules). Amusingly it reminds me a bit of a common conflict between men and women. The latter are making rules for behavior that men often see as a burden and therefore like to escape from on (hunting)trips with their mates where they can act in a more primitive way. And in fact – more women are leftwings and more men are rightwings. Though of course both men and women are part nature part culture this could be a reminicence from the thousands of years that women have had the task of staying in the village and socializing the children while the men went hunting – emphasizing their different interests and focus.

    But why is USA more rightwing than Europe? It could be that when Europeans immigrated to America – due to hunger in Europe – it was mostly men and mostly curious men willing to put their life at stake for the opportunity of a better life. It wasn’t just an average segment of the european population. And only the toughest survived. This could allso be some of the reason why it’s so hard to get rid of the gun law and why so many seemingly admire a powerful and reckless man like Trump.

    But why then are we seeing a right turn in Europe. History has shown us that human rights and animal rights evolve in times of progress whereas fascism evolves when people are under pressure feeling inferior, poor and marginalized. With the financial crisis and the massive immigration we se in Europe to day – fear of own survival – becomes a bigger force.

    My point though is – that neither the right og the left wings have the one and only solution to the the huge challenges we all face given the late population explosion and the following pollution, climate crises and resourse scarcity. Our only hope is using the best of two worlds: Both our thinking and reptile brain – and start the true listening and dialogue between left and right. To do so we have to stop dehumanizing each other and talk respectful with one another.

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

    Best regards


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