Brain scans of swing voters end up on the opinion pages of the New York Times.

The state of the universe.
Nov. 14 2007 12:46 PM

Neuropundits Gone Wild!

Befuddling brain science on the opinion pages of the New York Times.

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A look back at the findings from 2004 casts doubt on their other conclusions as well. In 2007, activation of the superior temporal sulcus and the inferior frontal cortex was deemed a good sign for Fred Thompson—he was inspiring empathy from prospective voters. But in the previous study, activation of the same so-called "mirror neuron system" occurred only when voters viewed candidates of the opposing party, whom they despised. Likewise, when brain scans turned up relatively little activity in response to images of Barack Obama and John McCain, the authors concluded that these candidates "have work to do." But similar data from the 2004 experiment suggested just the opposite: Highly partisan voters showed much less brain activity when presented with the candidates they supported.

Across two analogous studies, the FKF team has interpreted the very same patterns of brain activity in very different ways—indeed, in opposite ways. When I posed this to lead author Josh Freedman, he explained that you have to tailor your interpretations to fit the context; i.e., the same brain scan might mean something different for a partisan than it does for a swing voter. But the only way to know if your subject is a partisan or a swing voter is to ask him before he goes in the scanner. And if you can get honest answers from your subject about his political beliefs, then why bother with the brain scans at all?

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So, the study's findings aren't believable on their own terms. Take a step back, and there may be more fundamental problems. At the Neuroethics and Law Blog, cognitive neuroscientist Martha Farah tweaks the FKF team for assuming that activity in a given brain region always reflects the same emotional state. When subjects looked at photos of Mitt Romney, they showed increased blood flow to the amygdala—which the researchers interpreted here and elsewhere as a sign of anxiety. That's not necessarily true: The amygdala can also light up during the experience of anger, happiness, or sexual arousal.

Why has the New York Times proved so willing to donate its column space to this private company and its sloppy experiments? Perhaps the paper'seditors have fallen prey to what psychologist Frank Keil calls the "illusion of explanatory depth." As Keil has shown in his own research, even gazing dumbly at a picture of the brain makes us feel as though we're deepening our understanding of the human mind. The fMRI scans published on Sunday, and the largely unsurprising findings they are meant to support, reveal the strength of this illusion.

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