“This is your brain on political arguments
Debating is cognitively taxing but also important for the health of a democracy—provided it’s face-to-face.
18 January, 2021
– New research at Yale identifies the brain regions that are affected when you’re in disagreeable conversations.
– Talking with someone you agree with harmonizes brain regions and is less energetically taxing.
– The research involves face-to-face dialogues, not conversations on social media.
You probably know the feeling: a rush of heat that assaults your entire body; your fingertips and forehead suffering fiery consequences of conflict; restrictions around your chest and throat; quickened breath, as if your lungs can no longer draw in the required oxygen; ears on alert, biding time for a break in your opponent’s rhetoric to let loose the torrent of thoughts crowding your brain.
Of course, not everyone is an opponent. You likely know the opposite as well: the cool excitement of agreeableness, when the words in your head are returned to you from another being as in a mirror; unconscious head shaking as your sense of righteousness is validated; the warm exuberance of easy dialogue with a fellow tribe member.
In a digital age in which physical contact seems foreign and long past, we might have forgotten what it’s like to agree—or debate—with someone in person. Pandemics are temporary, while societies are—well, nothing is forever, but we’ve outlived diseases before. According to new research from Yale University, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, disagreeing with someone takes up a lot of brain real estate, while finding a compatriot is a much less cognitively taxing endeavor.
Senior author Joy Hirsch notes that our brain is essentially a social processing network. The evolutionary success of humans is thanks to our ability to coordinate. Dissonance is exhausting. Overall, she says, “it just takes a lot more brain real estate to disagree than to agree,” comparing arguments to a symphony orchestra playing different music.
As the team notes, language, visual, and social systems are all dynamically intertwined inside of our brain. For most of history, yelling at one another in comment sections was impossible. Arguments had to occur the old-fashioned way: while staring at the source of your discontent.
Leading us to an interesting question: do the same brain regions fire when you’re screaming with your fingers on your Facebook feed? Given the lack of visual feedback from the person on the other side of the argument, likely not—as it is unlikely that many people would argue in the same manner when face-to-face with a person on the other side of a debate. We are generally more civil in real life than on a screen.”
“Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
13 January 2021
Interpersonal Agreement and Disagreement During Face-to-Face Dialogue: An fNIRS Investigation
Joy Hirsch 1,2,3,4,5*, Mark Tiede 1,4, Xian Zhang 1, J. Adam Noah 1, Alexandre Salama-Manteau 1 and Maurice Biriotti 6
1 Brain Function Laboratory, Department of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, United States
2 Department of Neuroscience, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, United States
3 Department of Comparative Medicine, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, United States
4 Haskins Laboratories, New Haven, CT, United States
5 Department of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, University College London, London, United Kingdom
6 Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University College London, London, United Kingdom
Although the neural systems that underlie spoken language are well-known, how they adapt to evolving social cues during natural conversations remains an unanswered question. In this work we investigate the neural correlates of face-to-face conversations between two individuals using functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and acoustical analyses of concurrent audio recordings. Nineteen pairs of healthy adults engaged in live discussions on two controversial topics where their opinions were either in agreement or disagreement. Participants were matched according to their a priori opinions on these topics as assessed by questionnaire. Acoustic measures of the recorded speech including the fundamental frequency range, median fundamental frequency, syllable rate, and acoustic energy were elevated during disagreement relative to agreement. Consistent with both the a priori opinion ratings and the acoustic findings, neural activity associated with long-range functional networks, rather than the canonical language areas, was also differentiated by the two conditions. Specifically, the frontoparietal system including bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, left supramarginal gyrus, angular gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus showed increased activity while talking during disagreement. In contrast, talking during agreement was characterized by increased activity in a social and attention network including right supramarginal gyrus, bilateral frontal eye-fields, and left frontopolar regions. Further, these social and visual attention networks were more synchronous across brains during agreement than disagreement. Rather than localized modulation of the canonical language system, these findings are most consistent with a model of distributed and adaptive language-related processes including cross-brain neural coupling that serves dynamic verbal exchanges.”