As another mass murder of school children strikes the country, the fire of a familiar debate is reignited. Both sides accuse each other of apathy and disrespect for the victims as they push their own stances. Conservatives shame liberals for prematurely politicizing a tragedy and scorn establishment media sources for using it to feed their ratings. Liberals condemn conservatives for valuing individual rights and obsolete amendments over human lives. In reality, apathy or lack of sympathy can be attributed to very few, regardless of political identity. But despite the emotional consensus towards shootings, little more than an echo of political consensus has been heard.
And yet, consensus is what human progress depends on. Any advancement, from scientific to political, requires multiple people to arrive at a shared understanding of the world. Oftentimes, crises are catalysts for remarkable unity, so it seems counterintuitive that an act as objectively horrible as the murder of children yields such opposing interpretations.
Of course, it’s significant that the most recent tragedy has brought with it more discourse between the people and their government than ever before. But why has it been so hard for us to have a conversation, much less reach an agreement, with our fellow citizens, who experience the same sadness and fear that we do upon hearing about these constant tragedies? There are many arguments to be made about this, but one place we often forget to look is within ourselves, within our own heads. Perhaps, the answer isn’t in how different our worldviews are, but in how similar we are in holding on to them.
Psychologically, political convictions are more akin to religious values than to say, scientific principles, which we believe because of evidence that supports them. They fall into the category of what ethicists have named “protected values,” the values we believe are inherently good, and thereby the ones we are least likely to give up, no matter what the benefit may be.
Experiments on the neural correlates of sacred and protected values show that they are also key to our definition of who we are. When presented with scenarios that evoked these non-negotiable values, participants showed preferential activation in a group of interconnected brain regions called the default mode network (DMN), which is important in facilitating our sense of self and identity.
More recently, neuroscientists have begun to study political values, and the findings have been strikingly similar. A study on maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence revealed that evidence against strong political beliefs elicited significantly more activation in the default mode network than did arguments against equally strong non-political beliefs. The researchers also posited that resistance to counterevidence requires disconnection from external reality and increased inward focus, psychological processes which the default mode network appears to support.
Resistance, or at least ignorance toward counterevidence is something all of us have taken part in, often unknowingly. Social psychologists call this “motivated reasoning,” because it is inspired not by rational synthesis of facts but by a desire to reinforce what you already strongly believe. A neuroimaging study on judgement of political candidates provided evidence for this phenomena by showing that motivated reasoning was not associated with neural activity in regions previously linked to cold reasoning tasks and conscious, explicit emotion regulation.
If we process our political values as unassailable components of our identity, without reasoning or conscious regulation of our emotions, it is not surprising that we have a hard time letting them go, even in the face of blatant evidence. In the case of gun control, you don’t have to look far for evidence—any statistic about mass shootings in countries with strict gun control and no second amendment is sufficient. Clearly, this is not enough.
It seems that our political views are threads so tightly woven into the core of who we are, that if we even tried to pull out a single one of them, our entire self-identity would unravel. Well, perhaps, that is exactly what we ought to do. But how? Is it even possible to get rid of our self-concept, our understanding of ourselves as an individual, our awareness of our own being?
Psilocybin, the active ingredient in LSD and other psychoactive drugs, says yes. Anecdotal and popular conceptions of LSD have long described it as an “ego-dissolver” and a “mind opener.” Scientific evidence can now support these claims. While political and protected values activate the default mode network, studies have found that psilocybin does the opposite, causing decreased cerebral blood flow and functional connectivity within the network. Additionally, the disconnection between the medial temporal lobe, responsible for long-term memories (which heavily contribute to our sense of self), and the default mode network also supports the idea of loss of a strong sense of self under psilocybin.
Of course, we can’t just all take LSD every time the country needs to come to some kind of political consensus. However, this does not mean that the situation is hopeless. Identification and articulation of the political values that are protected and sacred in our minds can facilitate understanding, both for and from the other side, as well as focused discussion. Instead of blindly ridiculing people who own guns, we must ask why they so strongly believe their actions are justified. Most importantly, we cannot forget that the facts that we see as evidence are, for others, just background noise, noise that only becomes a sonorous, urgent call to action when it is recognized and understood.