Neuroscience and Geopolitics

Extracts from an essay by Professor Nayef al-Rodhan in

Neuroscience has emerged as a new form of philosophy in recent years, with implications far beyond healthcare. At a time of divisive and turbulent politics, the study of the way the brain functions has opened the way for a new understanding of ourselves and our societies.

The tools of neuroscience, and especially functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have provided unprecedented insights into the real-time workings of the human brain. Topics and debates previously reserved to philosophy can now be mapped in neurochemical and neuroanatomical terms.

We are now beginning to understand some facets of human emotionality, decision-making, morality, trauma and the drive for political power down to the cellular level, by observing changes in neurochemistry, neural pathways, and neuro-anatomical transformations in the brain.

Neuroscience has offered some evidence-based claims that can be uncomfortable because they challenge our notions of morality or debunk the myth about our ‘rational’ brain.

Critically, neuroscience has enlightened us about the physicality of human emotions. Fear, an emotion we have inherited from our ancestors, is not an abstract or intangible sense of imminent danger: it is expressed in neurochemical terms in our amygdala, the almond-shaped structure on the medial temporal lobe, anterior to the hippocampus. The amygdala has been demonstrated to be critical in the acquisition, storage and expression of conditioned fear responses. Certain regions in the amygdala undergo plasticity – changes in response to emotional stimuli – triggering other reactions, including endocrine responses.

Similarly, the way our brains produce moral reasoning and then translate it in the social context can now be studied to some extent in neuroscientific terms. For instance, the role of serotonin in prosocial behaviour and moral judgment is now well documented, with a demonstrably strong correlation between levels of serotonin in the brain and moral social behaviour.

Neuroscientists have also looked at how political ideologies are represented in the brain; preliminary research indicates that an increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex can be correlated with inclinations towards liberalism, while increased gray matter volume in the amygdala (which is part of the limbic system and thus concerned with emotions) appears to be associated with conservative values. These early findings, of course, are not meant to be reductionist, deterministic, or politically pigeonhole one group or the other, nor are they fixed. Rather, they can help explain the deep and persistent divide that we see in party politics across the world. It would very valuable to look into whether these preliminary findings pre-date political affiliation or occur as a result of repeated exposure to politically-inspired partisan and emotional debates . . .

The urgency to barricade oneself from “outsiders” or “intruders” is largely based on fear and ancestral predispositions, which regard belonging to a tribe, a group, or family as pivotal to survival and reproduction. The neurocircuitry for tribal behaviour has been studied with non-invasive methods, revealing that the distinction between “us“ versus “them” occurs in the prefrontal cortex. There, we normally distinguish someone as being an “outsider” or part of “our group” within 170 thousandths of a second from the moment we see them. This instantaneous bias occurs subconsciously and is linked to a primordial hard-wiring . . .

However, while the hard-wiring for creating such a distinction is there, we are faced with a more complex picture – unlike in prehistoric times, the definition of “us” vs. “them” in our modern societies is more subtle and variable. Divisive leaders today play a key role in manipulating such fundamental human predispositions and, indeed, accentuating and unleashing our fears, often even for the most enlightened or informed members of societies . . .

Based on insights from neuroscience, I previously described human nature as emotional, amoral and egoistic. Humans are born as a predisposed tabula rasa, with no innate conceptions of good or bad, only an inherited predilection for survival. In addition, neuroscience has demonstrated that emotionality plays a central role in decision-making, and that our moral compass is malleable, largely determined by circumstances. Therefore, apart from a basic set of instincts, we are otherwise “written upon” by experiences and our environments.

Also part of our hardwiring is what I called the “Neuro P5”: power, profit, pleasure, permanency, and pride. These powerful human motivators can lead us to excesses and a search for gratification, even when such endeavours are not moral. This also gives us further insights into divisive politics and its connection to political power. Studies of the neurochemistry of power have found that power, as pleasure, is based on the same neural reward circuitry, leading to an increase in the dopamine level and a subsequent drive to seek more power. Power, in short, is addictive and even more so in authoritarian regimes, where there are few institutional mechanisms to prevent abuses. This neural mechanism is also associated with manic behaviour, paranoia, and exaggerated self-perceptions. In their quest to maintain power at any cost, leaders could resort to any means, evoking real or imaginary enemies and furthering divisions without regard for consequences.

That is why good governance plays a key role in staving off the malign effect of divisive politics. Education, accountable institutions, responsible electioneering, and a more sensitive entertainment industry contribute to addressing this challenge. They play a key part in reducing biases, increasing exposure and tolerance, and treating the ‘Other’ with dignity in order for societies to remain peaceful, tolerant, and progressive. . .’

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Professor Nayef Al-Rodhan is Honorary Fellow, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University and Senior Fellow and Head of the Geopolitics and Global Futures Program, at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Geneva, Switzerland. He holds an M.D. and a Ph.D. and trained in neurosurgery/neuroscience research at the Mayo Clinic, Yale University and Harvard University. He was on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, and has published extensively on neuroscience research and won several research prizes. He was born in Saudi Arabia in 1959. For further information see