March 1, 2024

Political brain waves

Magnetic resonance imaging machine can be used to assess political choices, claim neuroscientists.

New York Times
More help from neuroscience for those hard-nosed cigar-smoking
backroom boys who run American politics. Two months ago Nature
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
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
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

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