Have you ever felt like people of a different political persuasion are, in some quirky way, from another planet or belong to an alien race of humans? It turns out that there might be something to that. Yaara Yeshurun has been examining how having different beliefs affects not only the way we interpret the same narrative; it also affects brain activity in unique ways.i They found “…that responses in higher-order brain areas—including the default-mode network, language areas, and subsets of the mirror neuron system—tended to be similar among people who shared the same interpretation, but different from those of people with an opposing interpretation. Furthermore, the difference in neural responses between the two groups at each moment was correlated with the magnitude of the difference in the interpretation of the narrative. This study demonstrates that brain responses to the same event tend to cluster together among people who share the same views.” When you wonder why those on the other side of the political divide can’t see what you’re seeing, it’s because they literally can’t see it. Their brains have an entirely different orientation and configuration that allows them to see only one side of the story.
There is a fascinating folk tale that beautifully illustrates this phenomenon. Two farmers who had been friends for nearly all their lives cultivated their respective land on either side of a dusty road. One day when each was in their fields hoeing, a man sauntered down the road wearing a fez on his head. When he came to the spot in the road directly across from the farmers, he stopped and cleared his throat, causing each farmer to glance up from their work for a moment. As it turns out, the fez was painted black on one side and red on the other. The man then continued down the road.
As was their custom, early each evening, the two men gathered in one of their kitchens to share a drink and talk about the events of the day. One of them remarked, “Did you see that man stop in the road today wearing that handsome fez?”
His friend replied, “Oh, yes. I don’t think I have ever seen a more handsome black fez in all my life.”
The other farmer was quick to reply. “Friend, certainly the sun was in your eyes, distorting your vision. It was a handsome fez, but it was most assuredly red.”
“Perhaps you need to have your eyes examined, friend,” said the other farmer. “I saw it with my own eyes and would stake my life on it. It was black, I tell you!”
“Are you calling me a liar? Or worse yet, a fool. I tell you it was red.”
Well, the conversation escalated, getting more and more heated by the moment until one of the farmers swiped the glasses off the table in anger, and they crashed to the floor breaking. The other farmer rose and demanded he clean up the mess. More words were exchanged in anger until one of the farmers, insulted, punched his friend in the nose. The fight escalated, and the men tumbled out of the kitchen into the road, wrestling to get an advantage. They each landed blows as best they could while tangled in the hold of the other. Neighbors rushed out to attempt to stop them to no avail. Soon the constable came and arrested them both for disturbing the peace.
When hauled before the judge, he attempted to get to the bottom of the argument that led to violence. Each told his story, now more convinced than ever that his version was the correct one. The more the judge listened, the more perplexed he became. Suddenly a man sitting in the audience burst out laughing—the same man who had been wearing the fez. The judge banged his gavel on his desk, demanding order, and asked the man why he found this tragic rift between two old friends so humorous. The man chuckled. “I find this funny because you humans seem so incapable of seeing the other side of the story.” End of story.