The Political Brain

Michael Schermer over at Scientific American has written an article that describes what happens to the brains of politicians when they talk. Here's an excerpt:

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men--half self-described as "strong" Republicans and half as "strong" Democrats--were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.The neuroimaging results, however, revealed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning--the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex--was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions; the anterior cingulate, which is associated with conflict resolution; the posterior cingulate, which is concerned with making judgments about moral accountability; and--once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable--the ventral striatum, which is related to reward and pleasure.

This is nice to know, and it makes me wonder what my friend, neuroscientist Dan Glaser, would have to say about it. The thing is, it isn't news; nor is it limited to politicians. It's basic human behaviour. Indeed, the article begins with a quotation from Sir Francis Bacon, the father of modern scientific reasoning, who said what the neuroscientists have observed almost 400 years ago. So I'm not sure what the point of the observation is, except to show that physical scientists have finally been able to see (and hence prove?) what students of humans (writers, theologians, philosophers, social scientists, parents, teachers, and servants) have known forever. Well, good for them.The study simply confirms, in living colour I imagine, that people don't reason when they don't have to. When they have made up their minds about things they then leave their minds open only to that information that fits their theories about the world. Scientists have been doing it for centuries. They call it the scientific method, and they throw out all received wisdom when they go about finding out about stuff. This isn't a bad thing, by the way; it allows scientists to explain how all sorts of things happen, and helps us do a number of interesting things to make our lives easier as a result; but it doesn't do very much to explain why. We know for sure, and can prove with diagrams and computers and other instruments how people conceive babies and what happens in the brain when people have strokes and how cholesterol clogs blood vessels and what they put in cigarettes, but we don't know a thing more about why. But that's another story.So what the neuroscientists have done is to show what parts of the brain become engaged when politicians talk. They can prove in living colour what Bacon and Shakespeare and Sophocles and Euripides and the writers of the Bible (and other holy writ for that matter) knew long before they died and turned to dust: that people like to shore up their opinions by noticing only the stuff that supports them. It's something you learn for sure when you go and teach College English courses at COB, by the way; students have to be taught to reason, taught to look for the information that's out there that says that their opinions are wrong.So. Scientists can say which parts of the brain light up when these guys and these guys pick only those bits of information that fit their theories about, when these guys and these women write their articles, and when I post new stuff on this page.All I can say is it's nice to have pictures.(Thanks, Books, Inq., for leading me to this article!)