- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Presidential politics may spark frustration and fascination, argument and camaraderie. But the horse race, high-profile debates and petty scandals are also good for people’s brains.


Political engagement actually increases the number of our healthy memory circuits, according to one researcher.

“The psychology and fervor of the election really does affect our brains in a good way as we’re busy wondering if Hillary is better than Obama, or if McCain is a conservative or a liberal,” said neuro-pharmacologist John Roache, a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

He puts the experience right on par with sexual drive and hunger.

“Our brains are hardwired genetically to pay attention, to process information and learn from it. When people get aroused, excited, emotional and involved with politics, it really does facilitate the formation of new neural connections,” Mr. Roache continued. “This involvement grows neural connections and increases the neurochemical signaling that is associated with learning and memory.”

The 2008 presidential race provides piquant stimuli, he added.

“It’s taken on historical proportions. We could have the first black president, the first women president. People are really paying attention. Regardless of political orientation, this involvement is activating the brain,” Mr. Roache said. “Greater levels of emotion or commitment further enhance the brain processes.”

Vigorous political engagement can particularly benefit the youth voting bloc — the 44 million Americans ages 18 to 29 who account for more than 20 percent of eligible voters. On Feb. 21, Wake Forest University released the results of the “Democracy Fellows Project,” a four-year study which schooled groups of students in deliberative political discussion.

“We were concerned about the lack of political participation by young voters,” said Katy Harriger, chairwoman of the Political Science Department on the campus. “Studies found that young people had trouble finding their way into a political discussion, partly because of the polarized debate you see on television with people just screaming at each other.”

Students were taught how to moderate a discussion, organize community forums and become privy to “real world” issues that actually mattered to them. The test groups ultimately were inspired to open a student-run coffeehouse.

“This just totally surprised us,” said Jill McMillan, a communications professor who coordinated the project.

“These students began to talk about deliberation far beyond politics. They began to talk about how they were doing better in their classes, that they felt more confident to talk in their classes, they were more comfortable leading their student organizations. Several of them mentioned that they could talk to their families better because they had these deliberative dialogue skills,” she said.

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