Thursday, November 01, 2012

New research provides fresh evidence that bogus press releases may depend largely on our biological make-up







This Is Your Brain On Press Releases: Neuroscience Reveals Brain Differences Between Writers and Consumers

ScienceDally (Nov. 1, 2012) — New research from the University of South Carolina provides fresh evidence that writing bogus press releases days before the U.S. Presidential Election may depend largely on our biological make-up. That's because the brains of self-identified University Press Offices and the Discerning General Public are hard-wired differently and may be naturally inclined to hold varying, if not opposing, perceptions and values. This study showed a strong link with broad ideas of truth with Press Offices and a strong link with tight ideas of truth with the Discerning Public.












Democrat Brain, Republican Brain

It's no coincidence that the University of South Carolina chose to issue a news release on the purported "hard-wired" differences between the brains of Democrats and Republicans -- based on unpublished data -- a mere five days before the U.S. presidential election.

The parody lede above sticks closely to the simplistic story that American voters are "born that way" and have little choice over their hopelessly opposed views. Here's the original:

This Is Your Brain On Politics: Neuroscience Reveals Brain Differences Between Republicans and Democrats

ScienceDaily (Nov. 1, 2012) — New research from the University of South Carolina provides fresh evidence that choosing a candidate may depend largely on our biological make-up. That's because the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans are hard-wired differently and may be naturally inclined to hold varying, if not opposing, perceptions and values. This study showed a strong link with broad social connectedness with Democrats, and a strong link with tight social connectedness with Republicans.

With the U.S. presidential election just days away, new research from the University of South Carolina provides fresh evidence that choosing a candidate may depend more on our biological make-up than a careful analysis of issues.

That's because the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans are hard-wired differently and may be naturally inclined to hold varying, if not opposing, perceptions and values. The USC study, which analyzed MRI scans of 24 USC students, builds on existing research in the emerging field of political neuroscience. 

Next comes the confident (yet uninformative) obligatory quote from the expert:
"The differences are significant and real," said lead researcher Roger Newman-Norlund, an assistant professor of exercise science in the Arnold School of Public Health and the director of USC's new Brain Stimulation Laboratory.

What is the peer-reviewed source for this quote? There is none. Not even a conference presentation. Do we learn much about the experimental methods, questionnaires, or specific imaging results? No. All we get is a bunch of popular buzz words: Mirror neurons. "Resting state." Social connectedness.
The study focused on the mirror neuron1 system, a network linked to a host of social and emotional abilities. After declaring their political affiliations, the subjects were given questionnaires designed to gauge their attitudes on a range of select political issues. Next, they were given "resting state" MRIs which made it possible to analyze the strength of connections within the mirror neuron system in both the left and right hemispheres of their brains; specifically the inferior frontal gyrus, supramarginal gyrus and angular gyrus.
[NOTE: I inserted the links. Are those anatomical regions really going to mean something to the average reader? Would they even know that the latter two gyri are in the parietal lobe?]

The results found more neural activity in areas believed to be linked with broad social connectedness in Democrats (friends, the world at-large) and more activity in areas linked with tight social connectedness in the Republicans (family, country). In some ways the study confirms a stereotype about members of the two parties -- Democrats tend to be more global and Republicans more America-centric -- but it actually runs counter to other recent research indicating Democrats enjoyed a virtual biological lock on caring for others.

You mean, there are well-established and specific brain regions linked to the possession of broad (or tight) social connections? What do these terms actually mean, beyond friends/world vs.family/country? And please, point us to the actual research showing that Republicans are biologically incapable of caring for others... [The Republican Brain?].

Next we have the obligatory overblown implications:
While political neuroscience and study is still largely in its infancy, the implications for future races could be big as politicians and campaign strategists learn how to exploit brain differences to make more effective, biologically targeted appeals to voters.

We've seen this before. The Political Brain. This is Your Brain on Politics (we all know how that one turned out -- Politics and the Brain). How Neuromarketers Tapped the Vote Button in Your Brain to Help the GOP Win the House.


Then what little information we have about the actual scientific results (different functional connectivity patterns in resting state fMRI in Republicans and Democrats??) appears to be overinterpreted (and attributed to mirror neurons, of course):
The research also suggests that maintaining an open mind about political issues may be easier said than done. In fact, bridging partisan divides and acting contrary to ideological preferences likely requires going against deeply ingrained biological tendencies. And while there is evidence that mirror neuron connections can change over time, it's not something that happens overnight, Newman-Norlund said.

"The (brain) differences could be a result of genetics, experiences, or a combination of both," he said. "It takes a lot of effort to see the other side and we're not going to wake up one day and all start getting along."

It could be that Professor Newman-Norlund actually holds a more nuanced view than is depicted here.2 How does this press release (and its opportunistic timing) benefit him or serve as a credit to the University of South Carolina?  In the end, you might ask, "hey Neurocritic, why have you devoted so many pixels to this one simplistic and misleading news blurb, out of thousands?" 3 It's because the science promotion industry hasn't learned anything. I feel like I'm writing on the same themes as four (and five) years ago...


Footnotes

1 First observed in the ventral premotor area F5 of macaque monkeys, mirror neurons increase their rate of firing when the animal performs an action, and when the animal watches someone else perform the action (Rizzolati et al, 1996). They've also been observed in the inferior parietal lobe (and even in the primary motor cortex of monkeys. There's little convincing evidence of their existence in humans (from intracranial neuronal recordings), and that evidence implicates hippocampal neurons, which is problematic for the whole concept. Instead, a range of brain areas show "mirror neuron-like" responses in fMRI studies, hence the name "mirror neuron system." Greg Hickok has been a leading critic of the mirror neuron theory of action understanding.

2 For a good example of this, see Biology and ideology: The anatomy of politics.

3 Instead of writing about, let's say, Day of the Dead or the mistaken personality attributes of black cats?

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1 Comments:

At November 02, 2012 6:55 AM, Anonymous Lisa said...

I love this. I read that Science Daily post, smirked and moved on. You have eloquently discussed the shortfalls and pointed out the flaws. Well done. Fabulous work. Really.

 

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