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.”