Re-Thinking Jeffrey Goldberg

Intrigued (and alarmed) by the new science of “neuromarketing,” our correspondent peers into his own brain via an MRI machine and learns what he really thinks about Jimmy Carter, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bruce Springsteen, and Edie Falco.

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.’”

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg, an Atlantic national correspondent and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror (2007), blogs at More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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