brain on fire (123RF)

On November 11, I read an Op-Ed article in the New York Times titled, “This is Your Brain on Politics.” Being interested in neurobiology, and an addict of all things political, I homed in like a laser beam: Is this the holy grail of neuroscience? Are we capable of deciphering our innermost thoughts (in this case, political thoughts) using brain imaging techniques?

The article was written by three neuroscientists: Marco Iacoboni, Joshua Freedman, and Jonas Kaplan of the University of California, Los Angeles, Semel Institute for Neuroscience; a communications professor, Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania; and Tom Freedman, Bill Knapp and Kathryn Fitzgerald of FKF Applied Research.


The experiment

The authors used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the subjects’ brains while they viewed images of political candidates. This imaging technique can be used to measure changes in oxygenated blood and hence to infer changes in metabolic activity in different parts of the brain. Some parts of the brain reliably alter their activity under certain conditions, and scientists have used this fact, along with information drawn from other techniques in both humans and animals, to document which brain area is associated with which cognitive function. For example, greater activity in the insula is often reported when people experience disgust, whereas more activity in the amygdala is reported when people are anxious.

While in the scanner, the subjects viewed political pictures through a pair of special goggles; first, a series of still photos of each candidate was presented in random order and then video excerpts from speeches. Then, they were shown the set of still photos again. On the before and after questionnaires, subjects were asked to rate the candidates on the kind of 0-10 thermometer scale frequently used in polling, ranging from “very unfavorable” to “very favorable”.


The results

Here are some excerpts from the findings:

1. Voters sense both peril and promise in party brands. When we showed subjects the words “Democrat”, “Republican”, and “Independent”, they exhibited high levels of activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala, indicating anxiety. The two areas in the brain associated with anxiety and disgust—the amygdala and the insula—were especially active when men viewed “Republican”. But all three labels also elicited some activity in the brain area associated with reward, the ventral striatum, as well as other regions related to desire and feeling connected. There was only one exception: Men showed little response, positive or negative, when viewing “Independent”.

2. Emotions about Hillary Clinton are mixed. Voters who rated Mrs. Clinton unfavorably on their questionnaire appeared not entirely comfortable with their assessment. When viewing images of her, these voters exhibited significant activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an emotional center of the brain that is aroused when a person feels compelled to act in two different ways but must choose one. It looked as if they were battling unacknowledged impulses to like Mrs. Clinton.

Subjects who rated her more favorably, in contrast, showed very little activity in this brain area when they viewed pictures of her.

This phenomenon, not found for any other candidate, suggests that Mrs. Clinton may be able to gather support from some swing voters who oppose her if she manages to soften their negative responses to her. But she may be vulnerable to attacks that seek to reinforce those negative associations.

7. John Edwards has promise—and a problem. When looking at pictures of Mr. Edwards, subjects who had rated him low on the thermometer scale showed activity in the insula, an area associated with disgust and other negative feelings. This suggests that swing voters’ negative emotions toward Mr. Edwards can be quite powerful.


Oh, Yeah?

Take John Edward’s “problem”, for example. Does the fact that the insula showed higher activity doom his campaign? Increased activity in any brain area is rarely exclusive to any one function. That insula activity did not necessarily mean the subjects were disgusted. Insula activity has also been associated with drug craving, the taste of chocolate, pain, and the quality of orgasm (!). Not necessarily such bad news after all.


This is not “junk Science”; it is purely junk

The authors wouldn’t dare publish such an article anywhere else but on an Op-Ed page; a peer-reviewed journal would send a rejection notice by return mail.

Here is a response by Brandon Keim in Wired science magazine:

“As science, it was a joke. As political theory, it was shallow. As an op-ed, it should have been thrown out at first glance. Uninformed opinion is tolerable in an editorial, but not when it purports to be validated by bad science.”

And the response of 14 heavy-weight neuroscientists:

“The results reported in the article were apparently not peer-reviewed, nor was sufficient detail provided to evaluate the conclusions.

As cognitive neuroscientists, we are very excited about the potential use of brain imaging techniques to better understand the psychology of political decisions. But we are distressed by 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.”

Why shame on the NYT?

After all, you might think, why not open a window of expression to all scientific observations, valid or not? We do publish rubbish like “intelligence design”, or “creationist theory” side by side with “evolutionary theory”. As chief Justice Brandeis famously said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” But as Nature magazine stated,

“What is troubling about the NYT is that the results described in the op-ed are apparently the claims of a commercial product posing as a scientific study. This is only partially transparent. Three of the authors list their affiliation with FKF Applied Research, a company based in Washington DC, that is notorious for using similar brain-scan analysis to conclude which TV adverts (pardon the Britishism) aired during a major sporting event were most effective. In its own words, the company is a ‘business intelligence firm selling fMRI brain scan-based research to Fortune 500 companies’.

More troubling for a mainstream newspaper that prides itself on its balanced reporting is the absence of declarations from three other authors. Rightly listed as affiliated to a neuroscience institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, one is also a co-founder of FKF Applied Research and all three, according to a previous publication, have benefited from funding from the company.”


Any harm done?

Yes, and yes. First, harm was done to the reputation of Science as a self-monitoring and self-correcting mechanism, whose only fealty is to the Truth. It gives credibility to political hacks in Congress and other branches of the government who claim that global warming is a figment of statistical models conjured up by “UN scientists”, that Evolution is “only a theory” propagated by atheist-scientists, that the medical harm of tobacco smoking is not supported by credible evidence, and so on and so on. In a day, when the assault on science has not reached such a magnitude since the days of the medieval church, we don’t need to provide more weapons for their armamentarium.

And second, the “Twinkies Defense”, used in supervisor Dan White’s defense of his murder of S.F. mayor John Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk, was a harbinger of things to come. This junk science was presented to the court by a psychologist-“scientist”. Brain imaging “evidence” is now being presented in court by hired gun-“neuroscientists”. Genetic information is being twisted beyond recognition in the service of racists and other malevolent rabble.

This is why an article such as this one is not just an innocent romp through neuroscience and politics, maybe even with a faint sense of humor. It is harmful, and shame on the NYT for publishing it.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.