Neuropunditry in the pages of the Atlantic. 

The state of the universe.
June 18 2008 4:48 PM

Jeffrey Goldberg, Neuropundit?

The Atlantic goes cuckoo for neuro-puffs.

Goldberg’s medial orbitofrontal cortex. Click image to expand.
Goldberg's medial orbitofrontal cortex

The neuropundits are back again, and this time they've scanned someone near and dear—esteemed Slate contributor and consumer advocate Jeffrey Goldberg. For a feature story in the Atlantic's new "Ideas Issue," Goldberg proposed to find out whether he's "neurologically wired for liberalism or conservatism." So, he got in touch with his friend Bill Knapp, a Democratic political consultant and co-owner of the brain-based marketing firm FKF Applied Research.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

If that name triggers some faint synaptic firings in your hippocampus, let me refresh your memory. Over the past few years, FKF Applied Research has managed to engineer widespread media coverage of its specious brain-imaging work on political partisanship and Super Bowl commercials. Last November, the company's founders scored yet another coup with an op-ed in the New York Times—in which they claimed to have used a scanner to read the minds of American swing voters. I did my best at the time to enumerate the study's many egregious flaws; the newspaper published a retort from a mob of angry cognitive neuroscientists who decried its "unfounded conclusions about topics as important as the presidential election."

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Now these guys have worked over the press yet again. Goldberg is too smart to be a shill for the neuromarketers—his tone is never more than half-serious, and he does pause at the outset to express some skepticism. (David Brooks provides him with a useful quote: "My fear is that [brain-imaging] is like flying over Los Angeles at night, looking at the lights in the houses and trying to guess what people are talking about at dinner.") But consider the transaction: FKF paid Goldberg's way for the Atlantic stunt * and now can add another glossy feature to its media list. It's not cheap to run a multimillion-dollar brain scanner, either; Marco Iacoboni, the UCLA professor who oversees the FKF studies, estimates the cost at $600 an hour, not including overhead and staff salaries.

Meanwhile, Goldberg playfully entertains the notion that brain-based market research can reveal hidden truths about his personal and political life. ("What if the MRI discovered that I have deep empathy for Pat Buchanan?" he wonders before sliding into the scanner. "What if it discovered a malignant tumor? What if it discovered a malignant tumor in the shape of Pat Buchanan?") Not likely. The neuropundits are more like tarot readers than scientists: They claim to read specific mental states from patterns of blood flow and brain activity, but the narratives they invent are arbitrary, equivocal, and inconsistent. And whenever the imaging data happen to contradict reality, they change their interpretation without a second thought.

The Atlantic experiment begins with a video clip of Jimmy Carter speaking about Hamas—a sequence guaranteed to provoke anxiety in a guy like Goldberg. Sure enough, the subject shows strong, bilateral activity in the amygdala, a structure associated with the panic response. "Jeff, do you fear this guy?" asks Iacoboni.

But studies have shown that the neurons of the amygdala can also fire off when someone experiences happiness, sexual arousal, or an intense aroma (among many other things). So, why do we think that Jimmy Carter makes Goldberg feel anxious instead of horny? Because we already know how he feels about Jimmy Carter.

This circular reasoning throws the whole endeavor into question. If you can't interpret the brain-imaging data without prior knowledge, then what good are the data? Why not just ask Goldberg what he thinks of Carter and skip the $600-an-hour brain scan?

A similar problem emerges when the FKF team presents Goldberg with film clips of Barack Obama. These provoked activity among his "mirror neurons," suggestive of empathy, and in the medial orbito-frontal cortex, here described as a "source of positive emotion." The interpretation: Goldberg—or Goldberg's brain—likes Obama.

But activation of the medial orbito-frontal cortex could mean something else entirely. This brain-imaging study from 2002 found a comparable signal whenever subjects gazed at an attractive, smiling face. If that's all the mOFC registers—a pretty face, as opposed to a deep connection—then an image of Obama would be just as likely to activate the brain of a stalwart Republican or a Clinton supporter. If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that the senator from Illinois is a good-looking guy.

Indeed, to interpret activity in the medial orbito-frontal cortex as a sign of political affiliation even goes against FKF's own past research. During the 2004 campaign, the same group of researchers scanned the brains of 20 highly partisan voters while showing them pictures of George W. Bush, John Kerry, and Ralph Nader. When these subjects looked at images of their favorite candidate, some of them showed signs of "positive emotion" in the mOFC. But others showed no activity at all.

Why weren't the brains of the party faithful lighting up? Marco Iacoboni addresses this question in his new book Mirroring People. (See Chapter 10, on "Neuropolitics.") The inconsistent results, he argues, must have reflected the cumulative effects of political smear campaigns. "In such a toxic climate, how could you possibly identify and empathize with your own candidate, even though he would still receive your vote? It was almost impossible." Thus Iacoboni concludes that "negative ads work" and that they "create a dangerous emotional disconnect between voters and the leaders who should represent them."

Ah, classic neuropunditry. Note the inversion: The fact that partisan voters don't show mOFC activity in response to their favorite candidate clearly goes against the experimental hypothesis—i.e., it suggests that a voter's political preferences cannot simply be read off an image of his brain. But rather than take these data at face value, the FKF team devises a brand-new interpretation and represents a failure as a new discovery. Thanks to political brain scanning, they argue, we now have neurological proof that negative campaigns are effective!

The researchers happily apply the same backward science to Goldberg's brain. Remember how Jimmy Carter's criticism of Israel sent the writer's amygdala into paroxysms of anxiety? Later on in the experiment, they show him an image of Mahmoud "wipe 'em off the map" Ahmadinejad. This time, his amygdala is out of the picture; the scanner reveals instead an increase in blood flow to the reward circuits of the ventral striatum. Reward? Ahmadinejad? Wha …?

As usual, the neuropundits have little trouble folding blatantly incongruous data into their narrative. "You seem to believe that the Jewish people endure, that people who try to hurt the Jewish people ultimately fail," explains FKF co-founder Josh Freedman. "Therefore, you derive pleasure from believing that Ahmadinejad will also eventually fail."

To see such shameless inanity in the pages of the Atlantic fills me with a deep, amygdalar rage. It's hard not to admire your brain, Jeff. (Who knew it was so sanguine on the Middle East?) But I'm less impressed with the people who profiled it.

Neuropunditry Watch:

Clarification, June 20, 2008: FKF Applied Research paid for Goldberg's time in the fMRI scanner in Los Angeles. The company did not cover his airfare from the East Coast. ( Return to the sentence.)

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