Study: Disagreeing with someone uses more ‘brain real estate’ than agreeing with them

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — There’s an old saying that it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile. In that same vein, a new study reveals it seems to take more of your brain to argue with someone than it does to agree. A team from Yale University finds there is more “brain real estate” active when two people are disagreeing with each other compared to when they are in sync.

The study finds that when two people disagree, their minds activate more cognitive functions to counter the information they’re hearing. When two people have the same opinion however, their minds show calm and synchronized activity “similar to a musical duet.”

“Our entire brain is a social processing network,” says senior author Joy Hirsch in a university release. “However, it just takes a lot more brain real estate to disagree than to agree.”

Where do disagreeing brains differ?

The study examined the brain activity of 38 adults recruited by the team at Yale and University College London. Researchers asked each person to state whether they agree or disagree with several several opinions including “same-sex marriage is a civil right” and “marijuana should be legalized.”

From their answers, study authors paired each participant with someone who either agreed or disagreed with them. While the two engaged in a face-to-face conversation, the study looked at brain images using functional near-infrared spectroscopy.

The results reveal that when people agree on a topic, brain activity is harmonious and tends to center in the mind’s sensory areas. This includes the visual system, which researchers believe is a person’s response to receiving social cues from their partner.

When people disagree, the brains frontal lobes become more active and sensory area activity drops. The frontal lobes are home to higher order executive functions in the brain. These functions cover a plethora of different skills including planning, problem-solving, memory, abstract thinking, self-control, emotional regulation, and decision-making.

“There is a synchronicity between the brains when we agree,” Hirsch, a professor of comparative medicine and neuroscience explains. “But when we disagree, the neural coupling disconnects.”

The Yale researcher adds that understanding how the brain works when we’re disagreeing with someone is a key tool given the polarizing nature of politics and other social forums today.

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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