"What would happen in this country if corporate marketers and political consultants could literally peer inside our brains, and chart the neural activity that leads to our selections in the supermarket and the voting booth?" asked Gary Ruskin, the group's executive director, in a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
"What if they then could trigger this neural activity by various means, so as to modify our behavior to serve their own ends?"
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Brain research -- An article on brain-scanning research in Sunday's Section A said Caltech researcher Anette Asp majored in industrial design. Asp studied aspects of industrial design for her graduate thesis, but her master's degree from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden was in political science.
Already, some researchers have experimented with brain scanning as a way to probe how the brain responds to political advertising.
At the level of brain cells, sophisticated political arguments and party loyalties are reduced, like product preferences, to the activity of neural circuits honed by eons of evolution.
Research suggests that political beliefs appear to trigger the same malleable circuits of reward, identity, desire and threat.
In a series of unpublished experiments conducted during the recent presidential campaign, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni detected intriguing differences in how political brains react. It was the first time brain scanning had been used to study a political question, several experts said.
To 13 volunteers screened for political expertise and party loyalty, Iacoboni showed pictures of Sen. John F. Kerry, President Bush and Ralph Nader while recording their neural activity. He then screened footage for them from Republican and Democratic campaign ads.
Afterward, he recorded how their neural responses changed when they were shown the same faces a second time.
Not surprisingly, Iacoboni found that people watching their favored candidate responded with a surge of activity in the reward circuits of the brain.
Republican die-hards, however, seemed to have a strong positive emotional response to any prominent leader.
But those Republican brain patterns changed when exposed to Bush campaign ads, which stimulated activity in areas involved in more rational deliberation, Iacoboni said.
Shown campaign advertising that touched on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Republicans and Democrats again had different responses.
"The Democrats had a big response in the amygdala -- the anxiety threat detector and bell-ringer in the brain," said UCLA psychiatrist Joshua Freedman, who helped organize the experiment. "Republicans did not have a statistically significant response to that, for whatever reason."
The findings suggest that brain scanners, like focus groups and polling, could someday be a potent tool in probing voter preferences and the effects of campaign ads.
"When we start asking questions about somebody's political disposition and their brain responses, then we start making interpretations about what defines us as people," said Judy Illes, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. "That might have some potentially scary possibilities for misuse."
The research undercuts traditional beliefs about the relationship between the brain and the mind, between the body and its intangible well of being, Illes said. In the process, personality becomes little more than an accidental byproduct of biology, a pattern of spots on a brain image.
"We are starting to probe neural signatures of preference ... one of those things that make us uniquely individual. We have to be careful," Illes said. "We are far more than the sum of our spots."
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How does the brain make up its mind?
Cool or uncool
A team at Caltech investigated how the brain responded to designer products and celebrity faces. Study participants were shown photographs and asked to rate their "coolness." Their brains were scanned as they viewed the images. These illustrations show active brain areas.*
Images deemed "cool" activated a brain area known as Brodmann's area 10, associated with identity and social image.
These participants could be impulsive shoppers. Thinking about an object in terms of social identity may produce a powerful reward signal.
Images judged "uncool" provoked activity nearer the center of the brain in an area involved in monitoring conflict.
Uncool at any price
These participants may be experiencing distress as they envision themselves with the "uncool" object.
* Although brain activity occurs on both sides of the brain, for simplicity only the left side is shown.
UCLA researchers tested how Democrats and Republicans responded to the faces of presidential candidates. The brains of Republicans and Democrats responded similarly in this part of the experiment. The illustrations show the typical Republican response.
Republicans viewing their own candidate
Images of President Bush provoked activity in the middle of the front brain, an area that responds to reward.
The participants' reactions may indicate a neutral bonding with their preferred candidate.
Republicans viewing the opposing candidate
Images of the Democratic candidate provoked activity in the brain area associated with reasoning and emotional control.
The participants' reactions may indicate negative emotions or a suppression of emotion.
Source: Caltech, UCLA. Graphics reporting by Robert Lee Hotz.