Brain scan images courtesy of Marco Iacoboni
Last year, at my family’s Passover seder, I heard myself issuing a series of ideologically contradictory, Manischewitz-fueled political pronouncements. If I remember correctly, I called for the immediate invasion of Yemen (or possibly Oman); the outlawing of Wal-Mart; and the mandatory arming of college professors. I believe I may also have endorsed Russ Feingold for president.
My friend Bill Knapp, who is a Democratic political consultant and, as such, a man whose devotion to a coherent set of liberal-centrist policy ideas does not waver, at least in public, suggested that I have my head examined, in order to determine whether I was neurologically wired for liberalism or conservatism. My wife asked, with a disconcerting level of enthusiasm, whether this was actually possible.
“Not only is it possible, but I have the perfect person to do it,” Bill said (I’m permitted to quote him because the Goldberg seder is on the record). He told us that a neuroscientist named Marco Iacoboni, who directs UCLA’s Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Laboratory (it sounds even better in the original German), could scan my brain while showing me images of famous politicians. My brain’s response to these pictures, as recorded by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, would uncover my actual inclinations and predispositions by sidestepping the usual inhibition controls that can make focus-group testing unreliable.
I was hesitant, for two reasons. First, I believed that I already possessed a superior grasp of my brain’s division of labor: 30 percent of my brain is obsessed with the Holocaust; an additional 30 percent worries about my children; 10 percent is reserved for status anxiety; 7 percent, The Sopranos; 4 percent, Kurds; 2 percent, Chinese food; and so on. I reserve approximately 6 percent, on good days, for The Atlantic.
In addition, I think about sex, and the New York Yankees.
My hesitation also grew from inexperience: I’d never been subjected to a brain scan. What if the MRI discovered that I have a deep empathy for Pat Buchanan? What if it discovered a malignant tumor? What if it discovered a malignant tumor in the shape of Pat Buchanan?
But the science seemed almost irresistibly interesting. Also, of sufficient danger to humanity to warrant at least the formation of a strong opinion on my part.
Bill and his partners in FKF Applied Research—the two F’s are Tom Freedman, a former Clinton administration official, and his brother Joshua, a psychiatrist and UCLA neuroscientist—are pioneers in the field of neuromarketing. They argue that fMRI technology provides fail-safe insights into consumer behavior. Unlike traditional methods of measuring the effectiveness of advertisements, fMRI defeats the curse of standard market-testing: the bias in self-reporting. In other words, if the ventral striatum lights up when I drink Pepsi, this means—according to FKF, at any rate—that I find Pepsi greatly pleasurable, even if I report no particular experience of pleasure in a taste test. For those of us who would prefer to deny Pepsi and Taco Bell and Nike access to our skulls—and who, God knows, don’t want Karl Rove and Mark Penn spelunking down our brain stems—advances in neuromarketing provoke a good measure of apprehension.
Bill Knapp tried to allay my fears. “You have too much amygdala about people looking at your amygdala,” he said, referring to a part of the brain that experiences fear and loathing. In his view, knowledge gained from fMRI technology will benefit not only marketers but consumers. “Insights into the human mind are empowering for you. Both sides in the marketing equation are getting more information. You can use this to figure out why someone won’t buy a Jaguar, and also why some people don’t take global warming seriously.”
Still, I wondered to what degree this was truly scientific and to what degree it was 21st-century phrenology. The columnist David Brooks, who is writing a book about the brain, encouraged my skepticism when I talked to him about this. “My fear is that this is like flying over Los Angeles at night, looking at the lights in the houses and trying to guess what people are talking about at dinner,” he said.
I mentioned Brooks’s doubts to the neuroscientist Iacoboni, who dismissed them, but with a caveat. “This is not one-to-one mapping,” he said. “You have to interpret the data within the context of the brain activation. It’s not mathematical, but it can give you an amazing understanding of what lights up different parts of the brain.” Iacoboni, a world leader in the study of mirror neurons—cells in the brain that help us process the emotions and actions of other people (his new book, Mirroring People, has much to say about the connection between autism and “broken” mirror neurons)—told me that in order for his team to sift my brain comprehensively, I would have to spend a full week undergoing fMRI screening. But even an hour inside the machine would yield a baseline understanding of my neurological predispositions.
And so one day a few weeks ago, I found myself being slid inside an MRI at UCLA, with headphones over my ears and video goggles over my eyes. I quickly realized that Joshua Freedman and his team had chosen stimuli that matched my preoccupations. One of the first video images they showed me was Jimmy Carter speaking in defense of his decision to meet with Hamas leaders. Then there was President Bush talking about oil, and Hillary Clinton talking about health care, which caused me to realize that if you haven’t lain supine in a claustrophobia-inducing magnetized tunnel while watching Hillary Clinton talk about health care one inch from your eyeballs, well, you just haven’t lived. The Clinton video was followed by scenes from The Wire and The Sopranos. Kind of like a palate cleanser.
Then came a series of photographs: John McCain, Edie Falco, Golda Meir, Barack Obama, and David Ben-Gurion. One sequence consisted of Osama bin Laden, Daniel Pearl, my 7-year-old son, and my wife. Then another sequence: Obama, Hillary, Yasir Arafat, Bruce Springsteen, a poster for Fiddler on the Roof, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, George W. Bush, Bob Dylan, me, David Bradley (the man who owns this magazine), and Ronald Reagan.
I spent an hour inside the MRI and emerged irritated, with a clanging headache. “You have a good-looking brain!” Iacoboni said, smiling.
For some reason, the news that my brain did not contain any tumors, Pat Buchanan–shaped or otherwise, failed to improve my mood. I was worried, of course, about my reactions to several of the stimuli. I asked Freedman what would happen if the photograph of David Bradley activated my insula, the region of the brain associated with revulsion. “We’ll reinterpret the findings,” he said.
OK, but what if the sight of Golda Meir provoked feelings of sexual arousal? What if the sight of David Ben-Gurion provoked feelings of sexual arousal? What if it turned out that I actually feel disgust at the sight of Bruce Springsteen? To think of all the money I’ve wasted on concert tickets and T-shirts. Most worrisome, of course, was the matter of my wife. Inappropriate activations could have lasting consequences.
The preliminary findings began to arrive a few days later, in a series of e-mails from Iacoboni. “Carter: big amygdala response on both sides! Jeff, do you fear this guy?”
The Sopranos video sequence, he said, activated a “nice response in the fusiform face area, a visual area processing faces, but an especially big ventral striatum response, which is a brain area that gets active for rewarding stimuli. We now know you really like The Sopranos.” I didn’t need a million-dollar machine to tell me that.
But it turns out that my ventral striatum likes The Wire even more. Iacoboni and Freedman saw intense movement in my extrastriate visual areas and among my mirror neurons. When we spoke later, Iacoboni explained that the mirror-neuron activity suggests that I “identify with the characters to such a degree” that I’m “almost pretending to do the things they’re doing on the screen, being a homicide detective. When people watch a movie they love, they’re truly living the things taking place on the screen through their mirror neurons.”
Then it was on to the question about my political leanings. Film of Obama, Iacoboni said, showed some mirroring, which suggests empathy, and a small amount of activity in the medial orbito-frontal cortex, which is a source of positive emotion. My brain likes Obama, apparently.
My reaction to Bush could not be measured, because I fidgeted each time he appeared on screen. “You can’t lie still when you see Bush,” Iacoboni said. I stayed still for McCain, who stimulated “big mirroring,” indicating empathy, and some amount of ventral-striatum activity, an overall positive response. Images of Hillary stimulated activity in the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, which is a region of the brain involved in cognitive control. “You may be trying to suppress unwanted emotions,” he said. What those emotions are, he couldn’t say. “There’s a lot of conflict in your mind about Hillary.”
And my reaction to David Bradley, the man who signs my paychecks? “You activated a fronto-parietal network in the right cerebral hemisphere that has been implicated in self-recognition in many experiments,” Iacoboni said.
Does this mean that I think I’m David Bradley? I asked. There are aspects of David Bradley’s lifestyle I’d like to adopt as my own, of course, but there are also aspects of Jay-Z’s lifestyle I’d like to adopt as my own, and I’m under no illusion that I’m Jay-Z.
Freedman said that my reaction to Bradley’s face was similar to what it would be if I’d been looking in a mirror: “You’re seeing approval of yourself when the image appears.” In other words, I’m a narcissist. “From a boss’s perspective, I would be worried if there had been dorso-lateral prefrontal-cortex activity, because that means you would be trying to inhibit your automatic responses.”
Which is what happened when I saw a picture of my wife. This had me concerned, but Iacoboni explained: “The dorso-lateral prefrontal-cortex activity means you’re trying to exercise cognitive control, that you’re trying to protect the privacy of your relationship with your wife. I interpret this positively because there’s also medial orbito-frontal cortex activity, which is a region associated with positive emotion.” Iacoboni could not explain one other response to my wife’s photograph: “You have weird auditory-cortex activity, almost like you’re hearing her voice, even though we just showed you her picture without sound.” When I told my wife about this, she asked me how it could be that I hear her when she’s not speaking, but don’t hear her when she is speaking. I said that this was a question well beyond the capacity of neuroscience to answer.
Iacoboni told me that there was one other troubling finding, the one concerning Edie Falco. “Your medial orbito-frontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and ventral striatum are all activated. Wow! What will your wife say?”
Apparently my brain—or the part of it I now refer to as my prefrontal Spitzer lobe—finds the sight of Edie Falco somewhat exciting. “Both the medial orbito-frontal cortex and the ventral striatum process reward—sex is, with food, the primary reward—and the anterior cingulate cortex often activates for internal conflict.” He went on, “People watching erotic pictures—and you watching Falco—are aroused but kind of feel guilty for being aroused, or simply feel guilty by being aroused in a brain scanner, with other people looking at their brain responses.”
Could it just mean that I think Edie Falco is a great actress?
“Yes, sure,” he said, tentatively. “You could say that.”
“The good news for your marriage,” Freedman said, “is that you had a much stronger, more positive overall response to your wife than to Edie Falco. This is just a primitive response. Edie Falco is not who you are.”
But I’d certainly pay money to see her in a movie. The commercial implications of this nascent science became quite obvious to me at a certain point in my debriefing. FKF already has a list of corporate clients, Bill Knapp told me. He would not name the companies, but he said they are all interested in measuring the “strength of their brand iconography, where it lives in the brain, what is attracting people to the brand, and what is pushing them away.” So far, 155 volunteers have been tested at UCLA as part of FKF’s work. Knapp said that although both he and Tom Freedman come from the political world, they are not selling their services to campaigns. “The political world would not find this acceptable yet. Ten years from now, it will be as widely used as focus groups and polling.”
I tend to think, after my own experience, that there’s a great future for vanity scanning as well—particularly in West L.A. Who wouldn’t want to learn how best to light up their own ventral striatum?
Of course, I’ve been left with a series of bothersome questions (not to mention a wife who will no longer watch Sopranos reruns with me). I’m not so much troubled by the question of why Ahmadinejad provoked a positive response in me—I know what I know, despite what my brain says. But what do I do with my Dylan albums? Who should I vote for? And if Edie Falco blurbs Jimmy Carter’s next book, will I have a stroke? What would my brain do if, more plausibly, I were to run into her someday at a movie screening? I posed this last question to Joshua Freedman.
“Your amygdala would light up,” as the fight-or-flight reaction was triggered. “But then your dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex would probably come in and say, ‘I don’t want her, I like what I have.’”