I'm lying in the metal coffin of an MRI machine, listening to what sounds like jackhammers and smelling my own breath go stale. My head is secured in place. I have a panic button. I won't press it, but I do grip it tightly. Above me, faces flash on a screen.
Some are human, others are dolls, and some are digitally blended to be something in between. It's my job to figure out which are which. And as I do, researchers at New York University's brain-imaging center are tracking what goes on in my head.
I'm not sick, and we're not here to test my calm in the face of claustrophobia. Instead, I'm a subject for research on a bigger question: Is the human political brain broken?
The NYU team is trying to show that our brains are hardwired for partisanship and how that skews our perceptions in public life. Research at NYU and elsewhere is underscoring just how blind the "us-versus-them" mind-set can make people when they try to process new political information. Once this partisanship mentality kicks in, the brain almost automatically pre-filters facts—even noncontroversial ones—that offend our political sensibilities.
"Once you trip this wire, this trigger, this cue, that you are a part of 'us-versus-them,' it's almost like the whole brain becomes re-coordinated in how it views people," says Jay Van Bavel, the leader of NYU's Social Perception and Evaluation Lab.
Our tendency toward partisanship is likely the result of evolution—forming groups is how prehistoric humans survived. That's helpful when trying to master an unforgiving environment with Stone Age technology. It's less so when trying to foster a functional democracy.