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Posted on November 12, 2007 at 11:59 AM

Maybe you saw that piece in the New York Times this past weekend about using fMRI to gain insight into the minds of swing voters. (Mitt Romney stimulates amygdalas!) And maybe, after reading that piece, you were thinking, “Really?” Well, you’re not alone. Over at Adam Kolber’s great Neuroethics and Law Blog Martha Farrah has some great analysis. Here’s a snip:

So why do I doubt the conclusions reported in todays Op Ed piece? The problems I see have less to do with brain imaging per se than with the human tendency to make up just so stories and then believe them. The scattered spots of activation in a brain image can be like tea leaves in the bottom of a cup ambiguous and accommodating of a large number of possible interpretations. The Edwards insula activation might indicate disgust, but it might also indicate thoughts of pain or other bodily sensations or a sense of unfairness, to mention just a few of the mental states associated with insula activation. And of course the possibility remains that the insula activation engendered by Edwards represents other feeling altogether, yet to be associated with the insula. The Romney amygdala activation might indicate anxiety, or any of a number of other feelings that are associated with the amygdala anger, happiness, even sexual excitement.

Some of the interpretations offered in the Op Ed piece concern the brain states of subsets of the subjects, for example just the men or just the most negative voters. Some concern the brain states of the subjects early on in the scan compared with later in the scan. Some concern responses to still photos or to videos specifically. With this many ways of splitting and regrouping the data, it is hard not to come upon some interpretable patterns. Swish those tea leaves around often enough and you will get some nice recognizable pictures of ocean liners and tall handsome strangers appearing in your cup!

The whole post is well worth reading.

-Greg Dahlmann

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