Can neuroscience explain nationalism?

brain research

Farah Dustdar

To person

Dr. phil., born 1948; Political scientist and writer, 59, Boulevard Prince Felix, 1513 Luxemburg-Kirchberg / Luxemburg.
Email: [email protected]

Political history, electoral, extremism and democracy research, as well as political education could benefit from the findings of brain and emotion research.


Feelings play a much more important role in democratic decisions than we previously thought. In political theory, however, feelings are not given high priority. Democracy relies on the intellectual power of political actors. Homo rationalis, the ideal subject of the modern social sciences, symbolizes a person who has his feelings and inclinations largely under control and is guided by "purposeful" considerations. This image of a person who thinks and acts purely rationally has been refuted by the new findings of brain research. The old demand of politics to suppress emotions and let the mind rule is, according to neurobiologists, purely physiologically impossible.

Because in reality, mind and feeling are always inextricably linked. Feeling is involved in thinking. Therefore, the question of whether behavior can be justified rationally or emotionally is incorrectly posed: There is no displacement or competitive relationship between understanding and feeling, but a complementary relationship. It is not about the duality of understanding and feeling, of ratio and emotio, but rather which feeling is the condition of the possibility of the respective rational decision and which promotes it. The mechanisms of rationality cannot function without feelings. Emotional impulses guide us every second, even when we make politically rational decisions and act.

In the field of emotion research, the breakthrough came around the mid-1990s with the development of imaging methods in neurobiological research. Since then, scientists have been able to visually capture the dynamic processes in the brain of a healthy, living person and, so to speak, watch them think. The emotion boom in neurobiology is also affecting other areas of science.

In everyday parlance, emotions and feelings are identical terms. Under the microscope of cognitive neuroscience, emotions are acts or movements that are largely public and visible and of short duration, while emotions as an ongoing phenomenon are always hidden and primarily recognizable to their owner. Emotions occur on the stage of the body, feelings on the stage of the mind. [1]