pseudo-science watch: MRI politics

Disclosure: I'm working towards my Ph.D in Magnetic Resonance Imaging Physics. So my interest in today's NYT article on using MRI to gauge responses to political ads set off all sorts of alarm bells in my head.

What the research at UCLA attempts to find is differences between Democrats and Republicans in brain functional response to political ads. They did indeed find "differences" - but the article is short on technical details and long on speculation:

In the experiment with Mr. Graham, researchers exposed him to photographs of the presidential candidates, commercials for President Bush and John Kerry, and other video images, including the "Daisy" commercial from 1964. In that advertisement, promoting Lyndon B. Johnson against Barry Goldwater, images of a girl picking petals from a daisy were replaced by images of a nuclear explosion.
The researchers had already zeroed in on those images and their effect among Democrats on the part of the brain that responds to threats and danger, the amygdala. Mr. Graham, like other Democrats tested so far, reacted to the Sept. 11 images with noticeably more activity in the amygdala than did the Republicans, said the lead researcher, Marco Iacoboni, an associate professor at the U.C.L.A. Neuropsychiatric Institute who directs a laboratory at the Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Center there.

"The first interpretation that occurred to me," Professor Iacoboni said, "is that the Democrats see the 9/11 issue as a good way for Bush to get re-elected, and they experience that as a threat."

But then the researchers noted that same spike in amygdala activity when the Democrats watched the nuclear explosion in the "Daisy" spot, which promoted a Democrat.

Mr. Freedman suggested another interpretation based on his political experience: the theory that Democrats are generally more alarmed by any use of force than Republicans are. For now, Professor Iacoboni leans toward this second interpretation, though he is withholding judgment until the experiment is over.

The interpretations here are absolute nonsense. The attribution of the threat-response is likely due to the fact that the images of 9-11 and the Daisy ad are threatening images of terrible events. The individual variation alone makes the data meaningless in a political context.

There is a tendency, especially among psychiatry professionals, to see functional MRI as a kind of magic bullet to understanding thought. However, what fMRI is really measuring is a physiological response - and one that trails the actual electrical stimulation of the brain by a few seconds (an eternity when it comes to thought timescales). Just as Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are mis-used for philosophic conclusions, so too is fMRI being abused as a short-cut towards reading minds.

I'm going to keep an eye out when I get to Kyoto for any papers or abstracts from this research group.

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