Sunday, October 31, 2004

So what do you think?

Back on May 3 I posted about work being done by neuroscientists from UCLA to see if they could determine a difference in the way Republican and Democratic brains work by using MRI scans of brain activity. Now, thanks to a link at Cosmic Iguana, I can tell you something about their results.
Last month, Drs. Joshua Freedman and Marco Iacoboni of the University of California at Los Angeles finished scanning the brains of 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Each viewed images of President Bush, John Kerry and Ralph Nader.

When viewing their favorite candidate, all showed increased activity in the region implicated in empathy. And when viewing the opposition, all had increased blood flow in the region where humans consciously assert control over emotions - suggesting the volunteers were actively attempting to dislike the opposition.

Nonetheless, some differences appeared between the brain activity of Democrats and Republicans. Take empathy: One Democrat's brain lit up at an image of Kerry "with a profound sense of connection, like a beautiful sunset," Freedman said. Brain activity in a Republican shown an image of Bush was "more interpersonal, such as if you smiled at someone and they smiled back."

And when voters were shown a Bush ad that included images of the Sept. 11 attacks, the amygdala region of the brain - which lights up for most of us when we see snakes - illuminated more for Democrats than Republicans. The researchers' conclusion: At a subconscious level, Republicans were apparently not as bothered by what Democrats found alarming.
There are some interesting differences between these conclusions and the earlier ones made after examining 11 of the 20 subjects, even though the MRI results themselves don't sound particularly different.

For example, in the preliminary conclusions, they described the effect of looking at the opposition as "using their rational apparatus" as if they were trying "to argue against him." That's now become "actively attempting to dislike the opposition." Both conclusions, however, appear to be based on activity in the same part of the brain, that which indicates rational judgment. Why the change? What new data was revealed to cause the shift?

Another change was the interpretation of activity in the amygdala, which in involved with perceptions of danger. The preliminary results, the researchers said, indicated Democrats were more averse to the use of force than Republicans; now they conclude the same activity suggests Republicans are "not as bothered" by images such as of 9/11 than are Democrats. Considering the reactions to 9/11, I find that particular conclusion hard to accept and the preliminary one more persuasive. So again, what new data emerged to push the new understanding?

In neither case do I know, but there is one other change that I do find significant. Originally, the clear implication was that the research was purely academic, simply a way to better understand how our brains function. Now, however, it emerges that
Freedman came to political brain scanning through his brother Tom, who served as a consultant to President Clinton. Tom Freedman asked his neuroscientist brother if the technology could improve on how campaigns woo voters.

"No one had done fMRI with politics," Dr. Freedman said. "So we decided to see what we could find."

The UCLA researchers said they have not been contacted by any political consultants other than Freedman's brother and a collaborator, though they expect to change after the election.
Indeed, they predict that
brain scanning ... will be a campaign staple four years from now, despite ethical concerns about "neuromarketing." ...

"People make tons of decisions and often they don't know why," Iacoboni said. "A lot of decision-making is unconscious, and brain imaging will be used in the near future to perceive and decide about politicians."
That is, they envision this as an improved technique for the manipulation of voters. And there are some, fortunately, who object.
"This is a story of the corruption of medical research," warned Gary Ruskin, who runs a nonprofit organization called Commercial Alert in Portland, Oregon. "It's a technology that should be used to ease human suffering, not make political propaganda more effective."
When I posted about the preliminary results in May, I discussed some the issue of neuromarketing, the use of brain imaging to improve marketing techniques. I concluded by saying
[w]hether you can be effectively unconsciously manipulated to prefer Coke to Pepsi isn't really important; whether you can be so manipulated to prefer Candidate A to Candidate B, is.
Now more than ever.

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