A study published in the December 2016 Scientific Reports journal reveals that brain activity increases when people’s political beliefs are challenged. (Screenshot Scientific Reports)

A study published in the December 2016 Scientific Reports journal reveals that brain activity increases when people’s political beliefs are challenged. (Screenshot Scientific Reports)

Now is the time to make friends with enemies

We can be civil to others who have different political beliefs


Late in 2016, a week before the presidential election, my daughter and I checked into a yoga and Ayurveda camp in India. It was to be a month-long retreat. The setting was idyllic. The somewhat rustic accommodations in the small town of Coonoor amid rolling green hills of tea plantations was a change from the comforts and absorptions of our lives in America. The air smelled fresh, fruity, different, and it seemed to me that we had managed to escape the overwrought emotions of disturbing news cycles in the days leading up to the election.

Nate Silver, the founder and editor of FiveThirtyEight, had given Hillary Clinton a 71.4 percent chance of winning. Lulled into the reliance on robust forecasting models, we were reasonably confident of the results and had planned to stay up and watch the state-by-state reveal.

At dinner that first day we were introduced to the other guests: an octogenarian U.K. businessman; a student in her 20s from Austria; a yoga teacher from Puerto Rico; a former Navy Seal and his wife from Midwest America; a British Indian entrepreneur; and another mom-and-daughter duo from the U.K.

Over the next few days, we became acquainted with each other. The irony of the situation didn’t escape us. This was a mostly white group that had come together in a remote hill station in India, one that still bore the scars of Western colonization.

It was the day before Election Day. We were at breakfast. And my daughter remarked that the 2016 American elections were likely to be a referendum on women’s rights. The Navy Seal said quietly that he disagreed with her. That he was supporting Donald Trump and that he considered Hillary Clinton’s policies harmful for America. Then the British businessman said that if the Brexit vote was anything to go by, American citizens were going to be surprised. And he proceeded to tell us that he had voted for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and that he thought Boris Johnson was an able steward of the new British order. After an awkward silence, someone changed the subject.

That day, my emotions swung from enjoying the company of amiable strangers to disapproving and even disliking some in the group whose political views differed from mine. It was a shock.

My reaction is not uncommon among those with strong political beliefs. In fact, a study published in the December 2016 Scientific Reports journal authored by Jonas T. Kaplan and others found that “when people are confronted with challenges to their deeply held beliefs, they preferentially engage brain structures known to support stimulus-independent, internally directed cognition.” In other words, emotions run riot when our beliefs, particularly political beliefs, are challenged.

In the study, 40 adults between the ages of 18 and 39 who identified as strongly politically liberal were asked to read a series of statements, some that aligned with their beliefs, and others that contradicted their viewpoints. Then they were presented arguments challenging the statements that they had read. An MRI was performed to measure brain activity during the entire process.

The study’s findings were consistent with the theory that the amygdala and other structures involved in regulating emotions are activated when one’s strongly held beliefs are contradicted. Additionally, the researchers found that when non-political beliefs — like beliefs about paper bags — were questioned, many were flexible and open to changing their minds when provided with counter-evidence.

True to this study, four years ago, I was emotionally triggered by the political viewpoints of a group of strangers. But they were nice people, decent people, if not for their politics, we told ourselves. And so we carried on. And in order to continue to interact with each other politely, we deployed some survival techniques: No talk of politics. Keep it general. Keep it non-personal. Keep it friendly.

Four years ago we tried to escape to another country, and we found that there really was no escape. The internet had shrunk the world. Today, it is more true than ever. The real world is our ever-present screens.

The 2020 elections are now just days away. And emotions are at a stretching point once again across the length and breadth of America. Perhaps the only way to survive the emotional upheaval of the days ahead is to disconnect from the relentless stream of disconsolate, ecstatic, angry, screaming and accusatory posts and articles.

Even the polls don’t hold a huge sway any more. Nate Silver predicts that Biden is “favored to win,” and he gives Biden an 88 percent chance of winning. Even more bullish than last time.

What the Kaplan study did point out is that it is virtually impossible to change another person’s political beliefs. Our identities are tied up in it. So it’s best to find other ways to connect with each other.

My daughter and I spent four weeks In India at the camp with the same group, largely. During our time there, we told each other stories of our successes, escapades, romances and tragedies and displayed our skill, or lack of, at the various tortuous yoga asanas. We shared meals and chores on the property, played games, went on walks (even on an illicit late night hike into the nearby hills), day trips to the nearby city, and I grew to regard each one in the group with affection.

I have warm memories of that retreat. Besides eating healthy, and living simply, it taught me the very valuable skill of how to inhabit a space with decent people I don’t politically agree with.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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