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UW neuroscientist: Our brains are biologically wired for political hatred

The National Mall during the inauguration of President Joe Biden. (AP)

The presidential inauguration was filled with speeches from President Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and others about finding unity, bridging political gaps, and beginning to heal from years of vicious political strife. But just what causes this political hatred — and how can Americans move forward?

Dr. René Levy, professor emeritus of pharmaceutics at the University of Washington, has some insight into this phenomenon.

Unlike other writers who analyze parties and voting, Levy is not a political scientist, but a neuroscientist. He has served as chair of the UW Pharmaceutics Department for more than a quarter of a century, and has received numerous awards over his career for his contributions to the treatment of epilepsy.

While these areas of study may not look related to politics at first glance, Levy says the inner workings of our brain can offer much in the way of an explanation for our political feelings.

Some have theorized that tribalism is behind America’s increasing political conflict. Levy, however, said that the very normal need to bond with a group is not the issue; political hatred is the issue.

The reason for the all-time high we have reached in polarity — in which we have red and blue population spikes on either side of the political spectrum with very little in the moderate middle — is rooted in biology, Levy said. Humans’ brains are predisposed to regard those who think differently as dangerous.

“The primitive brain … makes us perceive the policies of the other party as an emergency … or a threat to our country, ” he said. “So now we start, as individuals, to identify with our country. And we look at the other side as really putting our country at risk.”

This leads to humans seeing themselves as a sort of superhero.

“Each one of us, driven by our political hatred, we become ‘Mr. or Ms. America’ — not one 330-millionth of the country,” Levy said.

Levy’s theory is that we have a 150-year taboo with word “hatred” because we associate it with racism; as a result, this political hatred has gotten swept under the rug and gone largely unnoticed. In the last 20 years or so, he said, the hatred has gotten especially strong.

“Because we wanted to distance ourselves from hatred, we didn’t realize we had this thing called political hatred — which comes from simply having a prejudice, which is a negative feeling toward a person, because they’re affiliated with a particular group,” Levy said.

When the “hatred emerges subconsciously,” we find ourselves hating not just the ideas of the other party, but the people.

“We see the political differences as something that becomes completely life-threatening, and so we all play in the drama,” he said.

That political hatred becomes an addiction, as powerful as drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. We thrive off fighting with our opponents, or hearing about how terrible their policies are for our well-being.

“You crave larger and larger doses, and it becomes impossible to turn off cable news, whichever of the two sides you’re listening to,” Levy said. “Your primitive brain makes you live in that state of emergency.”

Social media only exacerbates the problem.

“It gives meaning to your life like nothing else can,” he said. “The people you interact with on social media who are not nice, they have nothing else in their life that can compete with it. And so that’s why this continues to take them over and obsess them.”

The reality, Levy believes, is that we need a mix of both political sides in our country.

“Our society needs both the beliefs in equal rights of liberalism, as well as the attachment to tradition of conservatism,” he said. “The question is only the dose, the degree.”

Levy says this hatred, more than anything, makes him fear for our democracy. Yet he also has hope that we can do better going forward.

In his 2020 book, Mending America’s Political Divide, Levy gives tips for how Americans can begin to help work toward understanding between two parties that have perhaps never been more polarized.

He said there are little things we can all do to help bridge the gap.

First, we need to separate identity from politics. When someone has a different idea from you and your brain automatically reacts with anger, don’t look at the person as a threat.

“Don’t feel threatened by anybody else because of their ideas. … Don’t transfer their ideas to them, because they can change their ideas,” he said.

The negative feeling that you have when you hear someone share an idea contrary to your belief system is “a trick of your primitive brain,” Levy said. But you have to ignore that and look beyond the ideas to see the human being.

“They are not their ideas,” he emphasized.

Then, perceive yourself as individual. You are your own person, not part of a mob. You can decide not to hate other people, despite the gut, biological reactions you might have at their ideas.

“We realize that we’re sovereign, and we can choose the significance that we attribute to our differences,” Levy said.

If someone tells you that you are betraying your side by reaching out across the aisle, Levy suggested you respond with this:

“I can listen to conflicting viewpoints, and it doesn’t mean I agree with it, and it doesn’t mean I’m betraying myself at all. I’m still deeply attached to my politics.”

Seeing the kind of politically-motivated violence that occurred at the U.S. Capitol this month makes Levy nervous for the future of our country based on what has happened throughout history when insurrections begin in a society.

Every day going forward, Levy said, don’t stop fighting for humanity over political squabbles.

“I get very scared for our country when I see millions of people who are infected by hatred … but please, don’t give up,” he said. “This is one of the most important things you could do to save the country.”

The national government also gives Levy reason to hope. Because President Biden began his career in Congress before real the onset of the political chasm that got rid of the middle ground, he is optimistic that the new president will truly work toward understanding the other party.

“The way he speaks, he looks to me like he’s not infected by the virus of political hatred,” Levy said with a laugh. “I think he got his two shots of vaccine long ago.”

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