Blame the Brain, Not Bolsonaro, for Brazil’s Riots

Neuroscience Shows That We’re Wired to Rebel—But Also That We’ve Evolved to Do Better

Research from the burgeoning field of neuropolitics supports the claim that political violence—such as the recent uprising in Brazil—originates in a primitive part of the brain, linked to humans' fight-or-flight instinct. Political scientist and former biologist Matt Qvortrup explains. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

Why do people take part in insurrections, like the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the storming of the presidential residence in Sri Lanka, or January’s sacking of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace in Brazil?

Sometimes, that question is answered by pointing to precipitating events—elections and their results, protests that descend into anger, or the speeches of powerful demagogues. On other occasions, we blame insurrections on prejudices, or bigotries—racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, white nationalism.

I’d suggest that we think about insurrections differently—because they originate in our brains.

Indeed, I’d suggest that the insurrections in Washington, D.C. and Brasilia are due to overactivity in the limbic system in the brain—a primitive part of the brain that evolved millions of years ago, which we share with rats and cats and lizards and other creatures.

Social scientists used to focus on rational actions. But in recent years we have made great advances in understanding what goes on in the brain when we think politically. The biology of radical politics is no exception.

Scholars have explored why people rebel as long as there has been political science. In the early 1970s, one sociologist hypothesized that the reason was poverty, or “relative deprivation.” Political scientists and economists, using sophisticated mathematical models, also tried to explain rebellion, but found it hard to come up with a rational explanation. Very few people, the math showed, had any personal incentive to risk life and limb for the rather abstract benefits of overthrowing a government.

From a rational point of view, rebellions seem pointless. A political scientist even coined the phrase “the paradox of revolution.”

Enter neuroscience.

Since the early 2000s we have been able to look at what happens inside our heads when we think. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans which measure changing blood flow to brain cells, we can now see which parts of the brain get activated when we engage in various activities, like shopping, thinking about sex, and feeling remorse.

I started out as a biologist before becoming a political scientist. Together, those two different academic fields offer a similar lesson: To prevent rebellions and insurrections, we should avoid angry and polarized debate.

This perspective has also entered into the realm of political analysis—finally putting the “science” in political science. Of course, fMRI isn’t useful for studying rebellions in real time; there’s no way to scan people’s brains at the moment they storm the palace. But we can design experiments that observe how people who share insurrectionist views react to hate-speech and views that are articulated by politicians on the far right. Presenting subjects with statements about vulnerable minority groups during some brain scan studies, and showing them photos of political candidates they didn’t agree with during others, researchers could literally see what happened in would-be insurrectionists’ brains.

When neurologist Giovanna Zamboni and colleagues conducted such an experiment a little over a decade ago, they found that a part of the brain known as the ventral striatum, which is associated with the limbic system, was activated when individuals who were identified by psychological tests as “radicals” were exposed to hate-speech statements or other intolerant  assertions about other groups or minorities. These studies have been replicated in recent years and their findings confirmed and refined.

That the ventral striatum was activated is remarkable. This part of the brain is one of the oldest, in evolutionary terms. It is what makes animals respond positively to simple rewards in social situations and to negative stimuli in dangerous moments, such as fear that they might be attacked. The ventral striatum is linked with amygdala, the fight-and-flight center in the brain. When people hear statements about—or see images of—groups or individuals that they fear, the brain reacts as if it is attacked.

In contrast, study subjects who, based on personality tests, were identified as “moderate” or “conservative” used parts of the brain that only humans have evolved, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for planning and working memory and associated with listening, speaking, and reasoning. In another study, from 2011, young people with far-right views showed greater activation of amygdala, indicating that they were less likely to reflect on political statements and more likely to revert to fight-or-flight mode.

The most interesting part of this body of research: Generally, brains respond differently to politics than to policy. Scans show that when people think about politics—as in the rough and tumble partisan struggle—the fight-and-flight amygdala gets activated. But when people are exposed to questions about policy, they use the more advanced parts of the brain. In fMRI studies dating as far back as 2009, scientists found that the dorsolateral frontal cortex lit up in people exposed to arguments about economic policy.

I started out as a biologist before becoming a political scientist. Together, those two different academic fields offer a similar lesson: To prevent rebellions and insurrections, we should avoid angry and polarized debate. And when possible, we should avoid political hot-buttons and instead talk about the policy issues that affect our lives.

Biological research suggests the advantages of such an approach go beyond de-polarizing the public square. When we really listen to each other in debates about policy and related politics, we learn new things. And learning new things may make us less likely to develop degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Humans are the product of 8 million years of evolution. We have the capacity to use the powers with which we have been endowed, namely to learn by being attentive, and through open deliberation. Human evolution hardwired us to process information, and make progress, through listening. But when we engage in hate speech and angry rebellion we revert to an evolutionarily primitive stage.

Neuropolitics shows us a way out of the current polarized debate and into a better future.

Matt Qvortrup is a political scientist at Coventry University in England. He is co-editor (with Liya Yu) of the forthcoming book The Routledge Handbook of Neuropolitics.
Explore Related Content
, , ,


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.