Political brain waves

New York Times More help from neuroscience for those hard-nosed cigar-smoking backroom boys who run American politics. Two months ago Nature Neuroscience reported that political liberals are better able to handle "informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty", while conservatives "show more structured and persistent cognitive styles". This time another group of neuroscientists has claimed in a New York Times op-ed that they can analyse the mood of the electorate with functional magnetic resonance imaging machines. They recorded the brain responses of 20 people as they were looking at political photos and videos inside an MRI machine. Here are some of the findings:

  • The word "Republican" lit up the amygdala and the insula, the areas of the brain associated with disgust.
  • Images of Hillary Clinton shown to men activated the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with conflicting feelings. This meant that they were battling "unacknowledged impulses to like Mrs Clinton".
  • Mitt Romney's video sparked the greatest amount of brain activity. Photos lit up the amygdala (disgust and anxiety), but a video calmed their brains down.
  • Barack Obama's images sparked the least amount of brain activity.

Although the authors of the op-ed had impressive academic credentials, they were attacked by 17 of their neuroscientist colleagues in a subsequent letter as purveyors of junk science. "A one-to-one mapping between a brain state and a mental state is not possible," they said. Furthermore, they expressed their distress at "the publication of research in the press that has not undergone peer review, and that uses flawed reasoning to draw unfounded conclusions about topics as important as the presidential election."

A blogger at Nature Neuroscience, Noah Gray, dismissed the solemn analysis of the op-ed as an advertorial for a company linked to the authors, FKF Applied Research, which specialises in "neuromarketing". "If these researchers can determine the secret opinions that men have about Hillary Clinton, then certainly these researchers can figure out why those same men prefer Coke to Pepsi! Shame on the New York Times," he commented. ~ Action Potential, Nov 14; New York Times, Nov 11, 14

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