Voting, Testosterone, and Your Brain

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A new study from Duke and the University of Michigan shows that McCain voters experienced an immediate drop in testosterone levels in the hour after his '08 loss to Obama, while testosterone levels in Obama voters stayed steady.

duketestosteronegraph.jpg

Makes for a nice news blip and some cute headlines. But what does it actually mean?

One very basic lesson is how all sorts of events in our lives--big and small, far and near, personal and political--affect our biochemistry. And even though effects like this will only last a number of hours ("probably up to the following day," says Duke researcher Kevin Labar, "whereupon more changes in testosterone levels will occur"), these transient biochemical events can have immediate and important impacts on our lives and development. LaBar explains: 

Testosterone is a steroid hormone, and steroid hormones can easily pass through cell membranes, including in the brain. Thus, when testosterone is rapidly released, it travels through the bloodstream to cells in both the brain and body through which both behavior and other aspects of peripheral physiology (e.g. muscle fiber growth) are affected ... steroid hormones can act on the nuclei of cells by regulating gene expression...it is known that stress hormones affect synaptic plasticity that underlies memory formation (although these effects are linked more to cortisol than testosterone).

I want to be careful not to overstate this or let it be misinterpreted. No one is saying that McCain's loss damaged Republican brains, or anything silly like that. This is just yet another piece of evidence that our lives, our abilities, our intelligence, etc., are all shaped from moment to moment by an innumerable number of events. These events not only affect our moods and our energy levels, but also directly impact the formation of new memories and thoughts, and even how our genes express themselves. Human development is a spectacular and extraordinarily nuanced phenomenon. Nothing is static.

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David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

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