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Political neuroscience is an attempt to apply technological and conceptual advances in neuroscience to political movements and campaigns. It is primarily a mixture of media and pop science, with maybe a little actual neuroscience mixed in. The upsurge in popularity surrounding political neuroscience is mostly mediated by the increasing sophistication of awe-inducing brain imaging tools. Most of the "science" is superficial and offers fundamental misunderstandings of the tools used in analysis. While all this is amusingly used in "smile" pieces on major media networks, a more unsavory group of private firms have begun peddling a highly questionable form of "political neuroscience for hire" to various political and advertising firms.
The man behind the curtain
The initial media darling for most of this research was UCLA professor Marco Iacoboni who made a mark during the 2004 election cycle. Iacoboni claimed to show with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that people respond "emotionally" to their preferred candidate and "rationally" to the opposing candidate. A month or so after this initial research Iacoboni did it again and failed to show the same emotional response to a preferred candidate. This, of course, was not interpreted as perhaps a problem with research paradigm but rather that people "lost empathy" and he claimed this was all due to negative ads .
Iaccoboni ratcheted up his claims for the 2008 election, with massive expansion of scans performed on voters watching ads, viewing pictures, answering questions, and many other activities. Activation in a wide variety of brain regions are linked to feelings of "fear", "disgust", "empathy", and many more. This activation is then linked back to political ads and candidates in vast stories about how they demonstrate the inner most feelings of voters not revealed in polls .
What is actually going on?
First, a little background on fMRI. Most people are at least a little familiar with MRI machines from their experiences in hospitals. MRIs of backs, knees, hips, guts, heads and every part of the body are now standard practice. An MRI has at its heart a big magnet, big enough that it can actually cause the atoms of objects placed inside it to align with its field. Once the atoms are aligned a pulse of energy is sent into the object and the atoms are perturbed and align away from the magnetic field, however, with in a few seconds the MRI pulls them back into alignment. As they are pulled back into alignment they release energy that is picked up by various detectors in the MRI machine. The time it takes to return back to magnetic alignment differs between different molecules, this timing difference can be used to contrast between different types of material and atoms, leading to very impressive images.
So far this is just standard MRI, and it is commonly called anatomical MRI because all it does is make picture of the anatomy of what is in the machine. However, taking advantage of the basic principles behind how the MRI machine works we can create far more interesting images. One of the most exciting applications of MRI technology is the fMRI. As stated before, images are constructed by taking advantage of the fact that different molecules return to alignment at different times. It turns out that blood that contains lots of oxygen and blood that contains little to no oxygen differ significantly in their "relaxation times." This is important because when neurons in the brain start to fire they use up a lot of energy and to fuel this energy expenditure they need oxygen, so highly oxygenated blood pools around active neurons. The idea behind fMRI is that if you image places that have increased oxygenated blood this correlates with increased neuron activity and as such you are imaging the "functioning" of the brain. This all becomes important later when we try and examine the claims being made by proponents of political neuroscience as many of them far exceed what can actually be done with fMRI.
So this is the technology that Iacoboni is using. The actual experiments involve first assessing political leanings of subjects, and then placing them in an MRI machine and exposing them to various visual and auditory stimuli in the machine. The major stimuli used are in a few basic categories:
- Words and phrases associated with candidates, parties, and political ideologies.
- Pictures of candidates
- Visual and auditory excerpts of campaign speeches
- Campaign advertisements
During each of these exposures the MRI machine attempts to measure changes in oxygenated blood flow to various areas of the brain. When it is done, you can look through the experiment and draw certain conclusions like: "flashing the word Republican on the screen causes increased activation in the amygdala."
Iacoboni's actual claims
Iacoboni takes things to the next level though and this is where the political neuroscience in its current form starts to breakdown. He extends his claims into absurd realms. For example, here are a few of the claims he makes:
- Voters sense both peril and promise in party brands (increased activation in amygdala and ventral striatum)
- Emotions about Hillary Clinton are mixed (increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex)
- The gender gap may be closing. (based on medial orbital prefrontal cortex activity)
- Barack Obama and John McCain have work to do (based on levels of overall activity)
Fundamental problems with current models
The biggest problem with the current model of political neuroscience is the way the dots are connected and leaping between levels of explanations. One major issue with fMRI is that it is temporally weak; the time it takes for oxygenated blood to reach places of high neuron activity is not insignificant. Fast moving stimuli are difficult to parse second by second, or even minute by minute. So figuring out the relationship between activation patterns and a thirty second political ad is nearly impossible.
The methodology is stronger when dealing with words and pictures as these are standard fMRI stimuli techniques. However, Iacoboni makes several major errors in his summary of the data. Complex human thoughts, emotions and responses are attributed to specific activation patterns. You can not drive such statements as "emotions about Hillary Clinton are mixed" or "voters sense both peril and promise" based on activation patterns. Even worse is when he attempts to make claims of general positive and negative response based on overall activation patterns of the brain as a whole. A general increase or decrease in overall activation does not correlate strongly with any internal state let alone feelings such as "positive" and "negative" this invalidates many of the points such as "Barack Obama and John McCain have work to do." This turned out to be clearly wrong, and the reason it was wrong is likely because the statement is a total non sequitur based on the data.
To highlight the nature of this fundamental error it is helpful to examine some of the specific claims. Looking at the first claim "voters sense both peril and promise in party brands," this was determined by looking at activation patterns in response to showing the words "Republican" and "Democrat" to the subjects. The data showed increased activation in two regions: the amygdala and the ventral striatum. Reams of research has shown that the amygdala is involved in the "fear" response and the "fight or flight" response. The problem lies in trying to extend this to a broad association of "peril" for a party identification. Why might the amygdala increase in activation? There are many possible answers, for example the amygdala responds just as readily to memories and associations as to anything in the "moment"; any memory or association a voter has for Republicans could invoke a response. Is the person showing a sense of "peril" or merely associating Republicans with the Iraq war? The point is who knows! You can not make these higher level claims based on the data. The striatum analysis is particularly idiotic. Since it is associated with "reward" this is attributed to a sense of "promise." In actuality the striatum signal is not really a reward signal, it is at best related to prediction error, and more likely related to salience and surprise. You get activation in this region during the administration of any stimuli, no matter the context. You certainly can not extend this to how someone feels about a political party.
Other fundamental problems for this research are the extremely small sample sizes that are used and the lack of significant peer review for the results. Political neuroscience is mostly a media driven phenomenon linked loosely to some legitimate neuroscience and tools, but mostly hyper inflated hypotheses based on shaky data.
Selling a window to the soul
While much of political neuroscience seems to be walking a fine line towards pseudoscience, it may pull itself out yet. But the commercial "applications" that are based on this questionable research have already passed the mark into full fledged crankdom. Various firms are marketing various imaging and psychometric equipment as being able to "lay bare" the true feelings of voters. The claim is that people lie on questionnaires and polls (or are maybe not consciously aware of their true feelings) but that the right brainwave pattern or fMRI signal can tell you what people are really thinking.
- The New Phrenology, PZ Myers
- Flacks and Hacks and Brain Scans, Language Log
- This is Your Brain on Hillary: Political Neuroscience Hits New Low in New York Times, Wired