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The Oscar-winning English actor Colin Firth has co-authored a neuroimaging paper on the contrasting brain structure of liberals and conservatives (Current Biology: tinyurl.com/5t6swm8). Firth's collaboration with Ryota Kanai and Geraint Rees at UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience stems from his guest editorship of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme in December 2010. The BBC science correspondent Tom Feilden is also listed as a co-author.
For the radio show, Firth commissioned Rees to scan the brains of Conservative politician Alan Duncan and Labour's Stephen Pound. Rees and Kanai then extended the study by surveying the political attitudes of 90 participants who'd previously had their brains scanned. Those with more liberal attitudes were found to have thicker tissue in the anterior cingulate whereas those with more conservative attitudes had a bigger right amygdala. No other brain differences emerged.
These main findings were replicated with a separate sample of 20 further participants. The researchers estimated that they could use a person's brain structure to predict their political leanings with 72 per cent accuracy.
So, is the study any good? We asked New York University Professor John Jost, one of the world's leading authorities in political psychology. 'Yes, I do think that it is a useful contribution,' he told us, 'because it builds on and extends previous work in social, personality, and political psychology as well as previous findings with respect to neurocognitive functioning, all of which suggests that there are fairly basic differences in orientations toward uncertainty and threat that co-vary with left - right political orientation.'
However, Jost cautioned, as did the study authors, that the dynamics of cause and effect are yet to be established - does brain structure shape people's political attitudes or does holding certain attitudes shape the brain, or both? 'In that sense,' Jost said, 'it will probably be several years before we understand the full meaning of these results. In the meantime, the field of "political neuroscience" could do worse than having Colin Firth as a scientific ambassador.'
Firth is not the only Oscar-winning actor to have taken part in a psychology study. Natalie Portman, a psychology graduate and former research assistant at Harvard, co-authored a study in 2002 under her real name Natalie Hershlag. The study was an investigation of the neural correlates of object permanence in infants (NeuroImage: tinyurl.com/3clle3).
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