Reminders of death tend to inspire specific—and predictable—thoughts and feelings.
Previous research has shown that, when faced with our own mortality, most of us cling tight to the affiliations that give our lives meaning, such as religious faith and allegiance to our nation. These increased feelings of certitude and connectedness provide personal comfort, but they also can increase prejudice against outsiders (just ask an American Muslim).
In a startling new study, researchers report they have identified the specific part of the brain that at least partly controls this often-problematic unconscious mental response. What's more, their results suggest it can be modified—and by surprisingly simple means.
"The results provide the first evidence that group prejudice and religious belief are susceptible to targeted neuro-modulation," a research team led by University of California–Los Angeles anthropologist Colin Holbrook writes in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Our usual ideological responses to reminders of death were far less pronounced when one specific region of the brain was largely de-activated.
The team's work suggests the threat-based hatred of immigrants, which has driven so much nasty political rhetoric in both the United States and Europe in recent months, may not be as implacably ingrained as we thought.
The researchers—who also include University of York psychologist Keise Izuma, and UCLA's Choi Deblieck, Daniel Fessler, and Marco Iacoboni—describe an experiment featuring 38 undergraduates of a variety of ethnicities and political persuasions. Half of them underwent a brief (40-second) episode of transcranial magnetic stimulation, which dampens activity in a specific, targeted region of the brain for at least one hour. The others received a sham treatment.
The researchers quieted activity in participants' posterior medial frontal cortex—an area of the brain that "plays a key role in detecting discrepancies between desired and current conditions," they write. Previous research found that reminders of death trigger activity in this region, which has been linked to "increased ideological investment in a range of topics, including national identification."
After being given the real or fake stimulation, each participant wrote a brief essay on the subject of their own death. They then read two essays "that were ostensibly written by immigrants to the U.S. from Latin America," one of which described the author's new country in positive terms, and another that portrayed it in a harsh light.
After each essay, participants reported how much they liked the writer and agreed with his or her views.
Participants then revealed their level of religious faith by responding to two sets of statements: one focusing on its positive aspects (such as belief in heaven), and another on the negative (including belief in the devil).
The researchers report that participants who received the magnetic brain stimulation "rated the critical immigrant 28.5 percent more positively" than those given the fake treatment. They also "reported an average of 32.8 percent less conviction in positive religious beliefs" than their counterparts with fully functioning brains.
Our usual ideological responses to reminders of death—to cling more tightly to the comforting components of religion, and to (in Izuma's words) "double down on your group values" by denigrating a critical outsider—were far less pronounced when one specific region of the brain was largely de-activated.
Admittedly, this research brings to mind a troubling Clockwork Orange-type scenario, in which malcontents have their minds adjusted to better fit in. Before we get too upset, however, it's worth noting that the researchers were modifying knee-jerk reactions, as opposed to carefully thought-out ones.
If we really could damp down the sort of instinctive responses that often get us into trouble, thereby giving us the opportunity to consciously decide how to react to difficult situations, wouldn't that be a good thing?
"History teaches that investment in cherished group and religious values can bring forth acts of both heroic valor and horrific injustice," Holbrook and his colleagues conclude. "Understanding (the biology that drives these shifts in attitude) may ultimately help us to identify the situational triggers of, and individuals most susceptible to, this phenomenon, and thereby gain some leverage over the zealous acts that follow."
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.