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.