This Is What Happens In Your Brain When You Disagree

The polarization of people is happening worldwide. We disagree about politics, religion, ethnicity, sports teams, vaccines and even milk (raw or pasteurized).  

You name it.

Signs of tribalism politics and the ordinary man populism are everywhere. It seems like it’s all the news can talk about. Unfortunately, every day the divide seems to get a little bit wider.

Like me, you might be fed up with the pervasive “us versus them” mentality and are valiantly trying to remain calm and objective when it feels like you’re caught in the middle of a storm. Or perhaps you’ve doubled down on what you know to be true and have dug in your heels to take one particular stand about something. No matter how vehemently you believe your position and communicate your conviction, someone with a different view is just as convinced that they have the “right” opinion or solution.

Why is that?

Why is it that we, as a species, can’t seem to reach a consensus and convince someone holding an opposing view using intellect, logic, or emotional appeals?  Well, as it turns out, our brains may be to blame.  Let’s look at what’s going on in your brain when you are confronted with a different opinion to gain a little more understanding.

What’s Happening in Your Brain When You Disagree

Liberals and Conservatives Use Different Parts of Their Brains

To make things interesting, people on the “opposite side” of your argument, may not even be using the same parts of the brain that you are. You might find it surprising that political affiliation can be foretold fairly well by a brain scan.

Research found that people who identify as liberal and conservative have somewhat predictable and different brain activity. The studies showed that liberals tend to have a larger and/or more active anterior cingulate cortex — a part of the brain useful in detecting and judging conflict and error. Conservatives were more likely to have enlarged amygdalas, the fear center of the brain, where the development and storage of emotional memories take place.

This discovery raises the age-old chicken and egg question. Does brain structure determine your beliefs, or do your beliefs change your brain structure?

Your Brain Responds as if You’re Being Threatened

In one study,  scientists studied brain scans of people to see what parts of their brains were most engaged when they were being challenged by differing political opinions. Researchers saw that people who were more resistant had greater activity in their amygdala and in the insular cortex. These areas of the brain are tied to emotion and decision-making. The amygdala would be the first to perceive threats, and the insular cortex determines the emotional salience of the incoming stimuli.

These areas of the brain are also involved in thinking about who we are and with the kind of deep thinking that takes us away from here and now. In other words, challenges to political beliefs cause increased activity in the parts of the brain associated with our sense of self and disengagement from the external world. This may be why people are so resistant to changing their political beliefs. To do so threatens their very idea of who they think they are.

Your opinions are controlled by the neural systems in your brain that manage emotion and your sense of self. Anything that challenges those beliefs is a threat to be taken seriously according to your brain.

Your Thinking Brain Shuts Down

The stress of conflict can cause your body to go into fight or flight mode. Too much stress long-term harms your physical brain and it’s functioning. Chronic stress can make you forgetful and emotional, increase your susceptibility to anxiety, depressionAlzheimer’s and many mental illnesses.

While a threat has to be pretty intense for your body to get involved, any degree of stress affects your basic brain systems of attention, energy, and memory. Basically, your brain eliminates all functioning except focusing on what it perceives as the danger, fueling your reaction, and committing the experience to memory to learn from it for future reference. So, getting amped up on stress hormones during a heated conversation is a surefire way to totally blank on remaining cool and calm, and become a shrieking harpy who has trouble getting even a single logical point across.

And that’s where most of us get stuck.

How to Win Over an Opposing Brain

With Words

Dr. Frank Lutz, language architect and public opinion guru, tells us that human brains think in terms melodrama: both logic and emotion together. They are inseparable. To change a mind, you have to physically change the brain pattern by reframing a concept using the correct words. In his book Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear :

Yes! There’s a way to hack people’s brains so that when I tell them what I know to be true, they’ll finally listen!”

Dr. Lutz has used his knowledge of “constructing phrases that persuade” to help dozens of Fortune 500 companies grow and political candidates get elected. To understand the philosophy fully, you’ll have to read the book. (I’m not sure I do.) It seems like some kind of Jedi mind trick that leans toward the dark side to me. However, Dr. Lutz is a sought-after consultant and has had notable success teaching his technique.

With Empathy

Professor and longtime researcher of linguistics and neuroscience, Dr. George Lakoff, tells us that our brains are built to run our bodies, not to perform logic and reasoning, like a computer. In fact, the entire 18th century Enlightenment was based on the belief that the human mind is naturally adept at reasoning. Nope, not according to Dr. Lakoff.

He wants to take the long game approach: get to the root of the problem when communicating about hot-button topics. How do we do that? Empathy. It’s entirely possible that the key to helping each other solve the world’s most contentious issues is an inherent aspect of humanity that we’ve almost forgotten in the modern world.

For millennia, Buddhists have made empathy the cornerstone of their philosophy and lifestyle. They have consistently proven to science that their mindsets give them the abilities to impact human neurology in very real, very positive ways. Even their brains perform differently during a debate. The two debaters brains synchronize.

The article, Picking the brain of a monk: Where Buddhism claps its hands for science, explains that:

For Tibetan monks, debating is not just an academic exercise. It is a way to understand the nature of reality and gain knowledge, through a careful analysis of ordinary real-world phenomena. ‘An important objective is to apply the knowledge to practical situations. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often emphasizes that mere learning is not as useful as practical applications of knowledge,’ said Ngawang Norbu, a key member at the Sera Jay Science Centre…..’The monks see this as strengthening Buddhism. This is all part of the ancient Nalanda tradition… Our data shows that as the debate progresses, their concentration levels go up,” said Johnson.

Although Buddhist lifestyle habits aren’t specifically packaged to make you a not disagree with anyone or become a better debater, it stands to reason that their approaches could benefit many areas of your life, including your interpersonal communication skills. Making a daily commitment to mindfulness practices can positively impact your brain and overall health in many ways, as well as making you smarter and more empathetic.

My Favorite Mindfulness Tools

Here are some practices I’ve incorporated recently, and I’ve seen great results:

Pranayama breath practice

Pranayama breathing is a detailed discipline within yoga. It teaches that by training your breath, you can train your mind and body. When we get angry, our awareness of our body is the first thing to go. If you aren’t aware of the fact that your brain is sending out specific chemicals to prepare your nervous system for danger, it’s a lot easier to get wrapped up in the perceived “threat”. But if you’re able to detach from your physical sensations long enough through a breathing exercise, you’re well on your way to gaining back your control.

Finding common ground

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot tells us that focusing on a shared motive is essential to bringing people together for real, collaborative discussions with the goal of solutions*. This skill is greatly enhanced by being able to connect with your empathy. Buddhist meditations that focus on loving kindness can help you build your empathy. Remember, just because a practice is simple and free doesn’t mean it’s any less effective.

If these suggestions seem too “woo” for you, and you’re skeptical of approaching your hardcore debate skills with a mindfulness practice, perhaps it’s a good idea to immerse yourself in learning about the neurobiological realities of your brain.  It’s something I’ve been doing, and my ability to remain calm even in the face of an opinion or ideology that’s appalling and intended to upset me has become a lifeline in an age where hysteria, outrage, and cycles of crazy are the accepted norm. Knowing how something works means you can transcend and override its default networks, and stop taking your thoughts and feelings so seriously or definitively.

Bottom line

You can disagree less, become a better debater, and a happier, healthier person. No, it won’t be an overnight transformation, nor will it be “sexy” or worthy of an epic “mic drop”. Those goals are purely ego driven and without the intent of actually helping the world progress in engaging in productive dialogue. And most of the time, when you do drop your mic, you’ve only further convinced the people who were already on your side to begin with. And managed to further alienate the people on the other side.

As Albert Einstein famously said,

*Note – There is a real mistrust among people when being given “expert” statistics or results. It’s widely accepted among political debaters that almost everyone has an agenda, including scientists. This is somewhat true. It’s impossible for a human being to remain entirely objective and without bias. But it’s important to remember that the scientific method relies on remaining unbiased; it was created to weed out any inherent human bias. Science has long been accused of having a “liberal” bias. If we can’t trust at least some outcomes from the scientific method, then we are adrift in a sea of philosophical wormholes and rabbit holes where nothing is true. Anything can be debated as “real” or otherwise. It’s tough to find solutions in that kind of intentional anarchy.

Guest Author

Corrie Brundage is a New Yorker, a Sci Fi novelist, a suicide attempt/coma/brain injury survivor, and a biohacker. She’s hard at work in her lab developing a lifestyle protocol for single women AND men to harness neuroplasticity and benefit their dating lives. She loves cats and baby goats, wishes sugar wasn’t such a good substitute for love and is an aspiring polerina. Check out her author page here.
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  1. Developing empathy in my mindfulness practice has been huge in lowering my stress and finding common ground with others. By putting myself in the other person’s shoes, seeing the world through their whatever-colored glasses, I can better understand where they’re coming from and how to connect with them on a topic. In doing this, it becomes evident that there aren’t ‘right’s’ and ‘wrong’s,’ only interpretations of what is.

    • Yes! A big reason why we are so polarized is because we are objectifying each other- we’ve forgotten we are all human and sharing the same planet, and we all want the exact same things.

  2. Fascinating. I find it especially helpful to know how the brain eliminates all functioning except on the perceived danger. And these are helpful tips for moving out of conflict. Thank you.

    • It’s strange that our central nervous systems can’t distinguish between an angry relative debating politics at Thanksgiving and a hungry lion on the Savannah- a million years ago!

  3. What a fascinating read Debbie. I read somewhere before about the difference in our brains between political groups…and it was interesting to have it explained here so clearly.

    I’ve long since held the view that having an open heart allows heart centred energies to flow between us if we seem to be on the opposite side of issues.

    Not that it’s always easy to do…but I’m sticking with it. 🙂

    • It’s not easy but it’s a labor of love and it’s the only way we can find solutions. Anger can’t be a place to find solutions, for biological reasons and philosophical reasons too!

  4. This is so interesting, Debbie – “Research found that people who identify as liberal and conservative have somewhat predictable and different brain activity. ” Fasinating that it can be determined by a brain scan. What has worked for me is to understand that everyone has a right to their opinion. Meeting in the middle or agreeing to disagree seems to be the best answer.

    • Exactly! And we lead by example. If someone holds a view that’s not very nice and we don’t respond with anger or fear…that tends to diffuse the situation immediately!

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