Sunday, November 11, 2007

Voodoo Video?

Today's Times (Nov. 11) ran This is your brain on politics , an interpretation by neuroscientists of swing voters' brain activity while they watched presidential candidates in action. The report raises more questions than it answers --

1. In the selection of the still and video shots of each candidate, was there a method for screening out researcher bias?

2. Was there a method for determining whether the stump speech video represents a candidate's average performance?

3. Are emotions and mental activities as firmly associated with discrete areas of the brain as the article implies? For example, would neuroscientists generally agree that the anterior cingulate cortex "is aroused when a person feels compelled to act in two different ways but must choose one"? Might that same region be stimulated by other kinds of mental/emotional activity?

Experiments on this frontier are fascinating. Sometimes, though, the reported results read a bit like a video version of phrenology, the nineteenth century pseudo-science that purported to determine personality by examining head shape.

On the other hand, research showing that people's political reactions grow more hard-line and punitive when they have just been made aware of death or the possibility of disaster seems to me truly compelling. The "before and after" comparison in that case is clean.

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