Red Brain, Blue Brain

by Erik Voeten on May 24, 2011 · 1 comment

in Blogs

The image is from a paper (ungated) by UCSD (political) scientists Darren Schreiber, Alan Simmons, Christopher Dawes, Taru Flagan, James Fowler, and Martin Paulus. Below is the abstract:

We matched public voter records to 54 subjects who performed a risk-taking task during functional imaging. We find that Democrats and Republicans had significantly different patterns of brain activation during processing of risky decisions. Amygdala activations, associated with externally directed reactions to risk, are stronger in Republicans, while insula activations, associated with internally directed reactions to affective perceptions, are stronger in Democrats. These results suggest an internal vs. external difference in evaluative process that illuminates and resolves a discrepancy in the existing literature. This process-based approach to political partisanship is distinct from the policy-based approach that has dominated research for at least the past half century. In fact, a two parameter model of partisanship based on amygdala and insula activations achieves better accuracy in predicting whether someone is a Democrat or a Republican than a well established model in political science based on parental socialization of party identification.

We reported earlier on a different paper that suggests Republicans have a thing with their Amygdala although that study saw an increased size of the anterior cingulate cortex among Democrats. Here is Andy Gelman’s take.

{ 1 comment }

Jim Johnson May 24, 2011 at 9:17 pm

First of all the Party ID “model” is pretty low hanging fruit. Why? Because there is not model, really. On that see a paper by Chris Achen from a while back in Political Behavior. So that we can jig up a tale that out performs the ‘I got my politics with my potty training’ view is not terribly impressive.

Second, this paper is another instance of ‘political scientists like pretty pictures and they think they tell us something.’ But the supposition arguably is bogus when it comes to virtually anything we political scientists might want to know. On this I recommend a recent book by Alva Noe (Philosophy/Neuroscience at Berkeley) called Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (Hill & Wang 2010). He pretty thoroughly (and succinctly) deflates the idea that fMRI pics are snapshots of how our brains work. (He suggests a more appropriate analogy: composite sketches done in police stations after a mugging.) SO the question is whether the images can actually be considered evidence of anything.

Unfortunately political scientists have drunk the kool-aid. All of this fancy new equipment is available – obviously we need to do SOMETHING with it! Unfortunately the list of smart people across various disciplines who deny that we think in our heads or that consciousness (in any of its various dimensions) can be reduced to brain activity is pretty impressive: think, John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Clifford Geertz, Jerome Bruner – yes THAT Jerome Bruner – Edwin Hutchins, Andy Clark, Hilary Putnam . . . to name the most obvious.

I’d like an actual argument from the fMRI crowd in political science about why we should be taking them seriously at all. This is science fetishism at its least attractive.

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