Money, Politics, and the Mind

I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. “ – Jesus Christ

I’m no longer a religious person, but truth can be found almost anywhere. Unlike so many who believe a wallet stuffed with Benjamins is the key to happiness, but Christ wasn’t so hot on money. Christ’s words seem a little odd though. Why a camel? It’s hard enough just getting a thread through the eye. As the story goes the actual “eye of the needle” was a smaller secondary entrance into Jerusalem which only an unpacked camel could pass through. Unfortunately, there is no concrete proof to the story, but it’s the oldest, and it gives Christ’s words a practical meaning: it’s difficult for the rich man to enter because it’s difficult for the wealthiest to give up, or “unpack” their temporary status and income. Throughout history the wealthy have always sought more wealth, typically at the expense of others, but what if they couldn’t help it? What if they were driven by a force they weren’t consciously aware of?

Neuroscience is slowly unlocking the mystery behind our brains, but doing so is putting some powerful human ideas to rest. The soul, freewill—our diets and dispositions have more to do with what the bacteria in our stomachs want than what we believe we want independent of external forces. We have a long way to go before we fully understand the brain, but it’s giving us clues to how and why people think and practice the things they do.

Scientists can predict a person’s political stance by simply showing them disgusting images and watching what part of their brain fires—with 94% accuracy. Overall their study demonstrates an evolutionary need to stay away from rotting things. Before the days of doctors and antibacterial soap a rotting dead carcass was a real risk to one’s health (Feltman). Another study done reveals the same pattern. Scientists monitored the brain scans of people weighing a risky gambling decision. Marina Koren of the Smithsonian sums up the findings:

Building on this, the new research shows that Democrats exhibited significantly greater activity in the left insula, a region associated with social and self-awareness, during the task. Republicans, however, showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala, a region involved in our fight-or flight response system.

Koren’s article focused on brain plasticity, comparing the data to another study that showed cab drivers developed more gray matter in the part of the brain responsible for navigation. I think that’s a bad comparison. It makes sense that someone who drives all day, everyday, would develop the brain wiring needed to do such a task well, but how do we do that with politics—which for many of us isn’t a day job.

Brain plasticity makes it very difficult to determine if our worldviews are inherent and beyond our ability to control, or if our environment plays a greater role, which gives us some control. It’s probably both, but if so than how much of which? It may seem trivial, but a lot goes into our politics—not just money. Laura Meckler reports the differences found by the Pew Research Center, “Conservatives are more likely to value teaching religious faith and obedience. Liberals are more likely to value teaching tolerance, empathy for others, curiosity and creativity.” Those observations cut to the core of our nation’s political divide. If we can figure out the chemistry of political breakdown then we can resolve many of the problems in Washington.

Right now there’s a lot more correlation than causation, but notable insights can be taken. It’s very important to be aware of the forces that drive our decisions—like voting. Had the rich man in Christ’s story unpacked his possessions for the kingdom’s sake he’d have gained spiritual wealth. We too have the opportunity to unpack our thoughts and emotions by being aware of our biases, be they genetic or environmental. That awareness allows us to more deliberately and conscientiously weigh our decisions. And although we won’t live forever, our legacy may live on.

Works Cited

Feltman, Rachel. “Your Brain’s Response to a Gross Photo Can Reveal Your Political Leanings.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 30 Oct. 2014. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Koren, Marina. “Study Predicts Political Beliefs With 83 Percent Accuracy.” Smithsonian, 14 Feb. 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Meckler, Laura. “Study: How Liberals, Conservatives Split on Religion and Tolerance.” Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal, 18 Sept. 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.


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