Sunday, November 11, 2007

This Is Your Brain on Bad fMRI Studies

Or at least, this will be my brain on bad fMRI studies, if you put me in the scanner while I'm reading the NYT article below, and that's what you'll see.

What happens when you publish your research findings as a New York Times Op-Ed piece before vetting by peer review? Brought to you by some of the same authors of the infamous[ly bad] "Super Bowl Brain Scans" (that stunt was apparently repeated in 2007).
Op-Ed Contributors
This Is Your Brain on Politics

Published: November 11, 2007

This article was written by Marco Iacoboni, Joshua Freedman and Jonas Kaplan of the University of California, Los Angeles, Semel Institute for Neuroscience; Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania; and Tom Freedman, Bill Knapp and Kathryn Fitzgerald of FKF Applied Research.

IN anticipation of the 2008 presidential election, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to watch the brains of a group of swing voters as they responded to the leading presidential candidates. Our results reveal some voter impressions on which this election may well turn.

Our 20 subjects — registered voters who stated that they were open to choosing a candidate from either party next November — included 10 men and 10 women. In late summer, we asked them to answer a list of questions about their political preferences, then observed their brain activity...
The participants viewed photographs of the candidates and video clips of speeches. They also filled out questionnaires before and after the scans to rate their impressions of the candidates. What were the results?
1. Voters sense both peril and promise in party brands. When we showed subjects the words “Democrat,” “Republican” and “independent,” they exhibited high levels of activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala, indicating anxiety. The two areas in the brain associated with anxiety and disgust — the amygdala and the insula — were especially active when men viewed “Republican.” But all three labels also elicited some activity in the brain area associated with reward, the ventral striatum, as well as other regions related to desire and feeling connected. There was only one exception: men showed little response, positive or negative, when viewing “independent.”
So there we have it: anxiety, disgust, reward, desire, and connectedness, all at the same time! What else?
2. Emotions about Hillary Clinton are mixed. [NOTE: really? you don't say]. Voters who rated Mrs. Clinton unfavorably on their questionnaire appeared not entirely comfortable with their assessment. When viewing images of her, these voters exhibited significant activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an emotional center of the brain that is aroused when a person feels compelled to act in two different ways but must choose one. It looked as if they were battling unacknowledged impulses to like Mrs. Clinton. [NOTE: um, this sounds a little like palm reading to we actually know what the subjects were thinking while they looked at her photo?]

Subjects who rated her more favorably, in contrast, showed very little activity in this brain area when they viewed pictures of her.

This phenomenon, not found for any other candidate, suggests that Mrs. Clinton may be able to gather support from some swing voters who oppose her if she manages to soften their negative responses to her. But she may be vulnerable to attacks that seek to reinforce those negative associations.

Did we really need fMRI to tell us that Mrs. Clinton should try to soften the negative responses of swing voters?

Read more, if you dare (also see Kaplan et al., 2007 for a published fMRI study on viewing pictures of the 2004 presidential candidates).


Kaplan JT, Freedman J, Iacoboni M. (2007). Us versus them: Political attitudes and party affiliation influence neural response to faces of presidential candidates. Neuropsychologia 45:55-64.

We investigated how political party affiliation and political attitudes modulate neural activity while viewing faces of presidential candidates. Ten registered Democrats and 10 registered Republicans were scanned in an event-related functional MRI paradigm while viewing pictures of the faces of George Bush, John Kerry, and Ralph Nader during the 2004 United States presidential campaign. We found that compared with viewing one's own candidate, viewing the candidate from the opposing political party produced signal changes in cognitive control circuitry in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate, as well as in emotional regions such as the insula and anterior temporal poles. BOLD signal in these regions correlated with subjects' self-reported ratings of how they felt emotionally about the candidates. These data suggest that brain activity when viewing a politician's face is affected by the political allegiance of the viewer and that people regulate their emotional reactions to opposing candidates by activating cognitive control networks.

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At November 13, 2007 9:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How unfortunate. Iacoboni used to do some decent work. I particularly remember his Science paper on mirror areas, not because I am in love with the concept, but because it was a clearly thought out approach to finding them. This, on the other hand, looks like crap.

At November 13, 2007 10:22 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

I haven't read his 1999 Science paper, but you're right, most of his work seems respectable. When hunting around for any trace of an abstract or submitted paper on the NYT dreck, I noticed there was no mention of neuromarketing stuff on his UCLA website.

At November 14, 2007 11:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this letter to the editor
which debunks the claims in the op-ed piece.

At November 14, 2007 11:48 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for mentioning this, Anonymous. I've been wanting to post a follow-up, and this letter will certainly be cited.

At December 09, 2008 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I understand marketers selling an 'Easy Button' but what amazes is Academics jumping on board. How would semgmenting the cranium help especially when market segment models, well, don't work? And how many different ways can you light up the brain?

Luca Turin's work was described in the "Emperor of Scent" where two different chemical molecules would smell the same even though one was toxic. Could this happen with the brain? Bet on it.

When American interregators would rather talk to terrorists instead of supporting the Bush torture approach, why would Marketers and Academics launch an invasive and all out assault on the cranium? To quote Wallace of Wallace & Grommit fame--...mental!

Some background on stories at and commercial application at

I hope that this provides a little balance in a nutty trend.


Stories can do the same, ask the interregators.

At August 31, 2012 4:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm familiar with similar studies and the study you are citing does not fall in line with any of the almost 2 dozen studies I've read. In fact, I see no logic in this 2 experiments to begin with. The other studies regarding amygdala/smaller amygdala had a point to the study that was consistent, done in more than one facility and by different researchers-meeting the minimum requirements for a proper study to be given considerations. It's almost as if the studies you listed were made up by someone with an enlarged amygdala. It makes no sense..ergo the caveman amygdala stigma.

The studies I've read coincide with anecdotal evidence and so with this additional confirmation, I give them some validity. Why did the initial study use independents? According to what we know, those with enlarged amygdala don't have much control over critical thinking. Therefore, an independent, sans some bizarre situation would be likely to be missing access to critical thinking also. That would make independents not a good subject to observe anything to do with the amygdala or anterior cingulate cortex.

Have to agree with commenter number one: This is crap.

If anyone is interested in some well done studies, google: "Political leanings and fMRI studies" You'll find marvelous studies regarding the origins even of the enlarged amygdala. It's as if one put a strain of cavemen in modern times. Explains quite a bit of behavior.


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