For Republicans, the region of the brain that was most active during risky behavior was the right amygdala. This region of the brain is primarily responsible for producing fear, although it can also create anticipation of reward. It’s the part of the brain that teenagers often rely on to make decisions, one of the reasons that teens are more impulsive and aggressive than adults. The larger role of the amygdala in teenage brains—a role that diminishes as people reach their mid-20s—is one of the justifications for laws that prohibit people from drinking alcohol and doing other things until their early to mid-20s. (Apparently the U.S. military still doesn’t care whether its soldiers have brains that are able to mitigate impulsivity and aggression.) This higher level of activity in the amygdala in Republican brains is something that scientists have observed before, although not directly in this risk environment.
So, what does this mean? Is this a blank check to write off Republicans’ decisions as rash and fear-inspired? Not exactly, although it does begin to give us some clues into the human behavior that could be behind some of this year’s most important political battles. If anything, it helps put into context the insane debt ceiling / fiscal cliff / sequestration cut controversy, which is pretty much screaming Amygdala, Amygdala!