Political science: voting by neurons

Casting your ballot comes down to your brain going ‘ding, ding, ding - this person is just like me’, according to junk science.
Denyse O'Leary | Oct 29 2008 | comment  



Mirror neurons iStockphoto/Isabel MassNeuroscience has only recently dragged itself from the Miasma of Freud. As Tom Wolfe put it in a recent interview,

Brain physiology, the overwhelmingly complicated business of figuring out how the brain works at the physical, neuronal, level had come to an all but dead stop thanks to the success of Freud. If you could go straight to the bottom line with Freud's approach, then why waste a career studying all the tedious mechanics involved?

Wolfe, who has recently backed away from the sympathy for hard materialism he displayed in Sorry, but your soul just died (1996), would doubtless be unhappy to learn that the neuroscience that so fascinates him has been recruited for the junk science circus around voting in the American election.

In Political Science: What Being Neat or Messy Says about Political Leanings (Scientific American, October 13, 2008) Jordan Lite chronicles neuroscience-based explanations for voting behaviour that are - justifiably - controversial. Here's an attempted explanation of a surge of sympathy for the Republican VP candidate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin:

"Circuits of cells called mirror neurons that fire or send out signals when we see someone act in a way that's familiar may have played a role in a 20-point, post–Republican Convention swing in allegiances among white, female Obama supporters to the GOP ticket, says Marco Iacoboni, author of the book Mirroring People: The Science of How We Connect with Others. Pundits credited John McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate for the shift, but Iacoboni says there's reason to believe biology played a role.

"At the most basic level, mirror neurons—in the form of empathy with Palin—may have temporarily dazzled swing female voters, says neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, author of the 2006 book The Female Brain, which explores hormonal and other influences on the brains of women and girls.

"'The mirror neurons in your brain are going, 'ding, ding, ding—this person is just like me,' Brizendine says. Those mirror neurons are working with the insula, a section of the limbic system involved with emotions and gut feelings, she says. Both operate at a subcortical, or nonthinking, level dubbed the 'sub-Blink level' after New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling 2005 book Blink about gut instincts.

These comments handily illustrate a common factor in junk neuroscience: The attempt to find occult explanations for behaviour. By "occult" explanations, I mean explanations that are not needed if we assume that the voter is behaving consciously and (in her own terms) rationally.

The text of the proposed explanations addresses mechanisms in the brain, but the subtext is that no one could simply conclude on rational grounds that sitting governor Palin might make a better vice president than career senator Biden. So we are directed to look to mirror neurons or hormones or the "nonthinking" "sub-Blink" level for an explanation instead.

Lite quotes neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps' caution that "neuropolitics" is "too nascent" a discipline to justify such strong conclusions. Actually, neuropolitics is a bogus discipline whose purpose is to flag the political beliefs of academics as more scientific than those of the average voter.

But if not neurons, what about genes? As Lite notes, a number of researchers have also tried, without much success, to demonstrate that your genes decide who you will vote for. A gene for politics supposedly directs the neuron to guide the hand to vote for the Democrat or the Republican. The problem is that, as noted in my previous article, political leanings are illuminated far better by economics and sociology than by genetics and neuroscience.

This "politics gene" research recalls the largely wasted effort to demonstrate the existence of a God gene - a gene for religious belief - which neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I discuss in Chapter 2 of The Spiritual Brain (2007). Essentially, to the extent that genes influence moods, they probably help determine the type of spirituality people are attracted to. For example, an introvert might write a book about spiritual struggles, but an extrovert would more likely organize a big revival meeting. However, psychologist William James noted this distinction between personality types a century ago, well before anyone talked much about genes.

So if genes influence politics at all, they help determine a voter's overall view of the difference voting makes. An introvert might read Augustine's City of God (politics won't help); an extrovert might read John Paul II's Centesimus Annus (politics might help). But that doesn't tell you who the voter will elect. Not a promising scenario for the materialism and determinism that underlies this type of research.

Denyse O'Leary is a Toronto-based author, journalist, and blogger. She is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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