With the upcoming elections in the Netherlands, our craving for polls is on the rise again. As Dutch people very well know, we can be very good with polls although the final outcome is usually completely unrelated to the outcomes of the polls. What's more, even if the polls manage to get it right, it doesn't tell us much about who's actually going to lead our country, as the political structure in The Netherlands is such that winning doesn't automatically mean you're in.
As a Dutch voter who lives abroad, I am one of the lucky few who already got to vote before all the debates even got started. This doesn't matter, since the debates don't really add to my knowledge or help in my decision making process anyway. Politicians often go after the easy catch, and put up a great act of being indignant of their opponents choices and ideas, when they might in fact have acted on those very same ideas when they were in charge of our country. That aside, being able to vote for the political party of my choice is a precious right, which I will exercise even if it means having to look my kids' red pencil for half an hour, or trying to figure out how to refold the paper in such a way that my choice doesn't show. Because an absence of red markings or a wrong fold means your vote is out.
But to the point now. While browsing for information on an upcoming column about the advances in Neuroscience as related to psychiatric diagnoses, I found an interesting article related to voting. The research used fMRI to reveal specific brain activity in swing voters upon showing images and video clips of possible presidential candidates for the US elections of 2008. A short recap of some of their noteworthy conclusions:
Hillary Clinton produced mixed emotions in voters who didn't really take a liking to her. Apparently, although they stated they didn't like her, their brain activity showed they had some difficulty making up their mind (or brain in this case). For Mitt Romney, the initial results were more clear cut. Upon being showed a picture of Mitt, subjects showed high levels of activity in the amygdala, a brain structure related to anxiety (as stated in the article). However, after watching a snippet on him performing in public, the activity in the amygdala died out. Apparently, the subjects found Mitt to be harmless after all. As for Barack Obama, he just didn't sparkle much of anything in the subjects' brain...
Knowing the outcome of the 2008 elections, it doesn't take a brainiac to figure out that the described research, although highly entertaining, doesn't really add up. That is because, next to design issues such as sample size and background factors of the subjects, some alternative explanations weren't explored.
For instance, it might have been that people watching Hillary Clinton were simply contemplating the difficult decision between their desire to want to punch the dear woman in the face, or yell profanities. Or, a slightly more feasible hypothesis, that they simply didn't know whether they should cut her some slack because of her husband's little slip-up (remember Monica) or judge her solely on the basis of her political ideas. Concerning the results of Mitt Romney, the researchers kind of left out some of the other functions of the amygdala. Because although involved in anxiety (and anger), the amygdala is also related to, yes, pleasure. Whether it be the consequence of him having five children or simply his good looks, it could be that the subjects actually took a fancy to dear ol'Mitt. The subsequent decline in activity might then be explained as the result of him found lacking when seen in action. And do I even need to go into the results of Barack Obama, who might not have been the cause of any peaks in the brain but who did manage to peak in the election?
So, what can we learn from all this? We simply do not know enough of our brains yet to come to any definite conclusions between specific brain activity and behavior. Neuroscience is interesting and definitely deserves our further attention as a way of understanding our behavior (and behavior problems), however, we do need to be careful as to the conclusions we draw based on fMRI research. After all, if it shows that even dead salmons contemplate the emotions of people..