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Imaging the Political Brain

In an interesting study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2006 but widely circulated earlier, Drew Westen and his colleagues at Emory University used fMRI to image the brains of committed Democrats and Republicans before the 2004 Presidential election. Although the subject matter was topical, the aim of the study was not to contribute to the political debate but to shed light on the neural processes involved in emotion-driven motivated reasoning. But an opinion piece published about a week ago in the New York Times goes quite a bit further. Authored by a group of neuroscientists, the piece reported the results of brain imaging scans of 20 registered voters who were showed still photos and video excerpt from speeches of the leading Democratic and Republican candidates for the upcoming presidential election. The piece included amusing remarks such as

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.

Neuroscientists have now started playing political pundits and, as some might put it, are risking confusing solid science with something worryingly close to astrology. The confident, chatty interpretations given by the authors to activation in various areas of the brain in response to the image of a politician go well beyond anything backed by serious science. To be sure, there is plenty of evidence that the anterior cingulate cortex has a role to play in certain emotions, and in some forms of decision-making, but it’s a very big jump to conclude that the subjects in the study were ‘battling unacknowledged impulses’. It is a VERY big jump to suggest, on the basis of such responses from some of the twenty (presumably) Californian voters, that this is what American voters feel.


Such uses (or abuses) of science raise many ethical issues. Let me just draw attention to a few. The first of course has to do with the relation between science and the popular media. Should neuroscientists write such opinion pieces? It would be fat better if they didn’t. But whether we like it or not, we are likely to see more of such neuropunditry. Like many cultural-technological innovations, what is a curiosity today might be an obvious fact of life tomorrow.


The first thing to point out is that such an opinion piece, although written by scientists, is nothing like a peer-reviewed article in a major scientific journal. We are given interpretation but no data and little information about the methodology. We cannot say if the methodology is sound or rule out various forms of bias. The problem is, however, that such neuropunditry isn’t really compatible with the existing peer-review process. It needs to come out fairly quickly to be really relevant commentary on ongoing political events. The peer-review process is too cautious and slow. But perhaps a similar kind of scientific ‘quality control’ could be developed to serve a parallel role.


Another issue is that it not yet clear that using fMRI technology in this way can really teach us anything about the psychology of voters that we couldn’t learn using the traditional methods of questionnaires and polling. The public should be made aware of the limits to what brain imaging can tell us. Nevertheless, fMRI offers, at least in potential, a uniquely direct access to unconscious processes the subject may not even be aware of—as well as a way of spotting all too real responses some subjects do not acknowledge. Indeed it is possible that even some the loose empirical speculations in the New York Times piece do identify something real about the psychologies of many American voters. In any case brain imaging and our ability to interpret its findings is advancing fast—we will certainly know much more about the neuroscience of emotion or political judgment in four years—so it is also, finally, worth asking what good it would do to have such insight into the hidden psychology of voters. Unsurprisingly, the answer seems to be that very little. Perhaps brain imaging can reveal to us that some voters have mixed feelings about Senator Clinton, but it tells us little or nothing about their reasons for that, let alone whether these are good reasons. Brain imaging studies of emotional bias such as that mentioned above, could in principle be used to seek ways of increasing rationality in politics but, like what I called ‘neuropunditry’, are far more likely to be used in the service of psychological manipulation.





1. Drew Westen, Pavel S. Blagov, Keith Harenski, Clint Kilts and Stephan Hamann  Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election   Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 2006;18:1947-1958


2. ‘This is Your Brain On Politics’ , New York Times, 11 November 2007

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